Rating People: The good, the bad and the scary

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Contributor to The Feed, Jessica Tuckwell, ponders whether online rating systems condition us to act with civility. And, if they can, is this in our best interest; the best interests of the greater good; or corporate interests?

The day I discovered I could check my Uber rating was the day I discovered I was a five-star person. I promptly commenced bragging.  

Having used Airbnb since 2012, and eBay before that, I was familiar with peer rating systems. And having had countless experiences in cabs ranging from annoying (a driver who lurched on the accelerator intermittently), to full-blown creepy (a driver with an erection who grabbed my bare thigh and wouldn’t let go until I agreed to look him in the eye and say he was “my favourite driver”), the trust element of Uber was a huge drawcard: drivers can’t be shady, and passengers can’t be rude.

We're unlocking the gate into Orwellian territory, or at least S03E01 of Black Mirror.

Even more counterintuitive to me than getting into a stranger's car in the first place, is being chatty with them. But I soon learned that good chats get good ratings.  

One night, I got in a taxi – not an Uber. By this point I was well-versed in the art of the ‘good chat’ so by force of habit I found myself laughing, asking the driver questions and listening to his answers – I had forgotten that I didn’t have a quantifiable incentive to do so. Had my ride-sharing experience accidentally made me an authentically Good Person?

China is testing a social credit system of its own. Using data such as financial credit, shopping and TV habits and even the ratings of friends, the system publically rates citizens. High ratings, or “trustworthiness”, afford people certain privileges like: mortgage eligibility; better schooling options and greater employment prospects. Socially, the rating can be used to measure desirability as a partner. Conforming to “trustworthy” behaviours is therefore of life-changing significance, providing a comprehensive mechanism for civic governance.

This kind of state surveillance by China’s Central Communist Party may seem far-fetched in a democratic context like Australia. But where the people can hold the government at bay, capitalism will pounce. What we have learned about ‘surveillance capitalism’ in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal should give us pause for thought. When we allow our data to be harvested by corporate interests, we should hope for the best and assume the worst: we're unlocking the gate into Orwellian territory, or at least S03E01 of Black Mirror.

On one hand, I hold hope in a potential ripple effect of human decency that a trust-based platform could kick-off – we could all do with a reminder to treat others with courtesy and respect. On the other hand, the day I found out my Uber rating was the day I outsourced my moral compass to an app. I may have internalised a knack for chat, but it came with a much broader concern: that the output of any system that quantifies human behaviour, be that a single-use app, or a complete social credit system, should be met with scepticism rather than pride.

Jessica Tuckwell is a playwright, comedian and freelance writer.