In novel Lauren McLaughlin’s new novel Scored, young people are burdened by a ubiquitous, real-time system that grades them based on criteria known only to its administrators. Young people with good scores have more opportunities open to them – college, better jobs – while those with low scores have a hard time getting by. Main character Imani LeMonde has a high score; at least until her refusal to abandon a low-scoring friend leads to her associating with “unscored” kids, children who are not part of the assessment system. As Imani’s score drops, she’s forced to consider weigh her loyalty to her friends against her future.
How likely is this kind of system to evolve in our own society? We’ve got the makings of a surveillance society already in place. A recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that a combination of technological innovations, cheaper technology and the erosion of privacy laws after 9/11 have combined to create a nation where true privacy is an increasingly rare prospect. The security industry has actually been one of few areas of great growth in our down economy. According to one estimate, the industry is expected to grow 13 percent annually every year through 2013. Security cameras with facial recognition software have started popping up in airports and public areas like parks and monuments. Ubiquitous internet access makes it easy to tag and monitor individuals as they shop, check in at different locations and travel from state to state. Here’s one chilling line from the report: “It will soon be possible to recreate an individual’s activities with such detail that it becomes no different from being followed around with a video camera.”
What about the “score” system in the novel? It’s not as unlikely as you think. Already the first steps are being taken toward a reputation-based economy. While you can’t eat “reputation” or spend it on clothes, online activities – and living in a “meatspace” augmented by internet access – are regularly monitored and more than likely accessible to any employer or college administrator. A study from Harris Interactive reported that more than 45 percent of employers admitted to using social media like Facebook and Twitter to screen potential applicants, with evidence of drinking and drug use being one of many “red flags” for possible hires. A study from Kaplan Test Pro found that more than a quarter of colleges admitted that they screened students’ social media accounts to determine whether they were desirable prospects.
Social media influence works the other way, too. Companies like Klout.com assign scores to Twitter and Facebook users who opt into their system. These scores determine how influential these users are in various topics, and third party companies looking for coverage in these areas offer freebies (“Perks”) to the most influential users.
How long will it take before these two things – surveillance and real-time reputation scoring – come together? It’s anybody’s guess, but science fiction writers like McLaughlin are a canary in the coal mine, warning us all of the potential danger of such a collaboration.