Credit: Kevin Hong

1. A fascinating parable appeared on NPR this week, a 5-minute radio story about China’s “social credit system.” Apparently, this system of credit scoring functions like the US’s in that your financial history affects your financial future: it differs, though, in that “China’s system also considers information like what you buy and how you treat your neighbors. If you fail to pay your debts, you might find yourself on a sort of blacklist.” You might be labeled as “an untrustworthy,” the judgment being not only financial but moral.

Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia, hosts of The Indicator podcast, tell the story of Lao Duan who, having heavily invested in the now-collapsed coal industry, was socially blacklisted. Owing significant debt, Duan was restricted from “high-end consumption,” and his picture—along with his name and ID card number—were plastered on a massive roadside billboard. The hosts explain:

China started the blacklist about five years ago as a way to infuse more trust into its banking and financial system. And part of this has involved cracking down on debtors — creating consequences for people who did not pay back their loans. […]

Lao Duan started to notice a bunch of his former colleagues from the coal industry were also on the blacklist… He started calling them, saying, hey, I’m on the list, too. He started getting people together, meeting up for dinner. He says these are the only people that he can really be relaxed around.

LAO: (Through interpreter) Because actually in the society, the widespread attitude towards us is very resistant. People will think, why are you here being happy? Why do you still have time to be happy? Why do you not go out and make money to pay back your loan?

GARCIA: So far, Lao Duan says he has paid back about $300,000 of the $1 1/2 million that he originally owed — so still about $1.2 million to go… We talked to lawyers in China who deal with this, and by all accounts, getting off the blacklist even if you’ve paid your debts – well, it’s technically possible, but it just never seems to happen.

I think about how bizarre this seems, and also how frequently ‘social credit systems’ show up in everyday life. At base, they are systems of virtue- (and unvirtue-) signaling, and are as prevalent in America as in China and, probably, anywhere. A few examples come easily to mind: how, in churches/religions, people are often peer-reviewed by how frequently they do x, y, and z; in politics where non-voters are stigmatized; and on social media, certainly, where specific posts/forms of expression seem to illuminate one’s morality. Granted, the details of these social credit systems vary, but at least one common denominator remains: longterm, they don’t effect any meaningful change. Like with Lao Duan, transgressors end up isolated and enjoying dinner with other transgressors.

2. Which lands us smoothly at this next link, an op-ed by behavior specialist Alfie Kohn, who describes the difference between doing something because you want to do it and doing something “in order to snag a goody.” It comes down to a divergence of intention, “intrinsic motivation” versus “extrinsic”:

The first [intrinsic motivation] is the best predictor of high-quality achievement, and it can actually be undermined by the second. Moreover, when you promise people a reward, they often perform more poorly as a result…

Not only are rewards ineffective but also often destructive, kindling heightened expectations and resentments when rewards don’t keep coming, or disinterest in the task at hand even if they do. Kohn rattles off a series of cases in which rewards effected no longterm impact on a person’s intrinsic motivations and thus effected no longterm impact, ultimately, on their actions:

A number of studies, for example, have shown that children are apt to become less concerned about others’ well-being if they were rewarded earlier for helping or sharing. Students, meanwhile, become less excited about learning once they’ve been given a grade (or some other artificial inducement) for doing so. […]

(If there’s one thing this field has taught me, it’s that rewards, like punishments, are ultimately about power.)

A dog will usually go to its crate if you train it well enough or yell at it loud enough, unless there’s something wrong with it, in which case the dog may need a little tenderness. People are more like the dog with-something-wrong-with-it and don’t respond well to power-plays.

What’s even more striking than studies that challenge popular assumptions about human behavior are studies whose results surprise the researchers themselves. (Hint: Watch for the phrase “contrary to hypothesis.”) […]

The problem is the outdated theory of motivation underlying the whole idea of treating people like pets — that is, saying: Do this, and you’ll get that.

The ‘real world’ is hopelessly this-for-that. Job for money, money for food. Jesus does something radical in pointing beyond all of this, at more subtle intrinsic motivations. He condemns the religious elite as “whitewashed tombs” who appear externally righteous but remain internally corrupt.

Kohn concludes that to affect anyone’s intrinsic motivations takes more effort and time and is a process far less methodical but far more meaningful: “Working with people to help them do a job better, learn more effectively, or acquire good values takes time, thought, effort and courage” — “with” being, truly, the operative word.

3. This one’s a biggie: we’ve heard murmurs of it before, in 2017, when former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya said the social media platform was “ripping apart society.” Now there seems to be what writer Nellie Bowles calls “a dark consensus” among Silicon Valley technologists, many of whom are now speaking out against social media and ‘screen time’. In her feature for the New York Times, Bowles interviews a number of technologists who agree:

The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high… Ms. Stecher [a former social computing researcher], 37, and her husband, Rushabh Doshi [a Facebook engineer], researched screen time and came to a simple conclusion: they wanted almost none of it in their house. Their daughters, ages 5 and 3, have no screen time “budget,” no regular hours they are allowed to be on screens…

Athena Chavarria, who worked as an executive assistant at Facebook and is now at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic arm, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”

The religious language here seems appropriate but also, maybe, a little underdeveloped. Maybe the devil does indeed live in our phones; but maybe, also, humans are just more susceptible to devilish impulses than we’ve wanted to believe. We are, particularly in America, stubborn in our faith in self-control, and social media has proven a powerful, if frightening, reality check:

“We thought we could control it,” [Chris] Anderson said [drones engineer and former WIRED editor]. “And this is beyond our power to control. This [social media] is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.” […]

John Lilly, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist with Greylock Partners and the former C.E.O. of Mozilla, said he tries to help his 13-year-old son understand that he is being manipulated by those who built the technology.

“I try to tell him somebody wrote code to make you feel this way — I’m trying to help him understand how things are made, the values that are going into things and what people are doing to create that feeling,” Mr. Lilly said. “And he’s like, ‘I just want to spend my 20 bucks to get my Fortnite skins.’”

At the risk of our passing out from pure fear, I should mention the (outlying) dissenting opinions among certain technologists. For example: “People are just scared of the unknown,” says Google employee Jason Toff.

And certainly you wonder: what are the limitations of external prohibitions when your kid just wants his Fortnite skins? (See links 1 & 2.) At the same time, it seems a bit delusional to continue insisting human beings have the capacity to manage the technology in which we’ve become immersed. I suspect many if not all of us have by now heard, or said, something like, “I am quitting Facebook/Twitter/whatever”…with no actual follow-up. The grip is frighteningly tight. A Christian response to all of this, to my mind, does not necessarily involve asking what is holy in the Lord’s eyes so much as just taking seriously the frailty we share. (I’ve been wanting to post about American Vandal season 2 for a while now…but Peter Maldonado’s concluding remarks are incisive in this regard!)

4. But!—before you quit the Web forever—allow yourself to be reeled back by some much-needed humor. This is just brilliant: a headline from The Babylon Bee: “Local Woman Hopes Husband Listened Closely To Pastor’s Sermon On Self-Righteousness”:

The sermon, taken from Matthew 7, centered around Jesus’ famous exhortation to remove the log from one’s own eye before pointing out the speck in someone else’s. As soon as the pastor began preaching, Lisa knew the message was perfectly suited for her husband, sources confirmed.

And similar, from The Onion“Political Scientists Trace American Democracy’s Severe Polarization To F*!@ing Idiots On Other Side Of Aisle”: “‘The analysis we conducted indicates the growing divide in political attitudes has been entirely caused by those dipshits in the other party,’ said Dr. Stanley Pomeroy.”

And one more! This, from The Hard Times: “Man’s Negative Self-Talk Been Pretty Spot-On Lately”: “Local man Myron Brewer’s usual self-deprecating remarks are increasingly becoming uncomfortably accurate, visibly uneasy friends report…”

5. Next up, a great, down-to-earth conversation with Jerry Seinfeld about the eternal anxieties of stand-up—and the particular anxieties of stand-up in 2018. A lot of thoughtful remarks throughout, but this one, I thought, was particularly share-worthy, if only for its implicit humility:

I hate the presumption of importance. I don’t like when comedians think what they’re doing is important. That’s not a comedic perspective, for me. I was watching some W.C. Fields with a friend the other day. We could not believe the timing, the material, the performances. Perfect. We wouldn’t change a thing. That’s how eternal comedy is. What political material from 15, 20 years ago do you want to hear? None of it, really. The content of it isn’t, largely, comedic. It’s rhetoric.

6. John Gray’s latest book Seven Types of Atheism (referenced also in last week’s “Another Week Ends“) seems to be re-sparking, on some level, an interest in apologetics, as, in the book, he takes aim at the beliefs of just about everyone. Enter: Alan Jacobs, with a blogpost titled, “How Could We Be Convinced?” He quotes Paradise Lost, a passage which I couldn’t help but re-post here, where Satan essentially says: “I didn’t see myself created, didn’t observe that—therefore I answer only to myself.”

…who saw
When this creation was? rememberst thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d
By our own quick’ning power…
…our own right hand
Shall teach us highest deeds

Milton’s Satan is famously silver-tongued and, here, even proffers predominant contemporary thought on creation/religion. Jacobs next cites David Bentley Hart, who widens the scope, reframing the question away from what can be observed to what can be understood:

All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension; hence, much of the language used of him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence. All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known: that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with a fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.

Reasoning that God would achieve nothing ultimate via magic tricks in the sky, Jacobs concludes:

How might that God impress Himself upon our understanding in unmissable, unambiguous, indisputable ways? I confess that I can think of no way except to write a conviction of His existence on every human heart. And whether that has been done, who can know? It’s not the kind of point on which it would be safe to take anyone’s word for Yes or No.

7. Last but far from least is this lovely, reflective piece from Wesley Hill at Commonweal about Christianity and its complicity in present-day violence. Hill considers the role of the New Testament in anti-Semitism, noting a particularly dubious verse from John in which Jesus denounces his audience, presumably Jews, as children of the devil. Hill writes:

Regardless of whether one thinks (as I do) that the fourth gospel is capable of being interpreted in ways that do not give aid and quarter to anti-Semitism, it remains a stubborn fact of history—indeed, of last week’s history in my home city—that even the words of Jesus can be used by sinners as fuel for murderous fire, and if we Christians are going to stand by the words of our Lord, we must do so with open-eyed awareness of how prone some of them are to destructive interpretation.

It seems that that’s the nature of the Word becoming flesh. The Word offers Itself as a thing in the world, to be used and consumed by humanity — a position not only of vulnerability but, ultimately, of guaranteed destruction; or, crucifixion. Hill continues:

Were the young Abraham Heschel to have stepped inside the cathedral in Warsaw and looked toward the altar, he might have been chilled by the sight of robed priests who wielded power to the detriment of his family. But he might also have glimpsed a statue hoisted on a pole: a portrayal of a crucified Jew, arms outstretched, clothing absent, face disfigured in self-giving sorrow…


That’s all for now—happy weekend, everyone!