Here are some classic ways humans can get some kind of social credit with other humans:

  1. Do something for them such that they will consider themselves to ‘owe you’ and do something for you in future
  2. Be consistent and nice, so that they will consider you ‘trustworthy’ and do cooperative activities with you that would be bad for them if you might defect
  3. Be impressive, so that they will accord you ‘status’ and give you power in group social interactions
  4. Do things they like or approve of, so that they ‘like you’ and act in your favor
  5. Negotiate to form a social relationship such as ‘friendship’, or ‘marriage’, where you will both have ‘responsibilities’, e.g. to generally act cooperatively and favor one another over others, and to fulfill specific roles. This can include joining a group in which members have responsibilities to treat other members in certain ways, implicitly or explicitly.

Presumably in early human times these were all fairly vague. If you held an apple out to a fellow tribeswoman, there was no definite answer as to what she might owe you, or how much it was ‘worth’, or even whether this was an owing type situation or a friendship type situation or a trying to impress her type situation.

We have turned the ‘owe you’ class into an explicit quantitative system with such thorough accounting, fine grained resolution and global buy-in that a person can live in prosperity by arranging to owe and to be owed the same sliver of an overseas business at slightly different evaluations, repeatedly, from their bed.

My guess is that this formalization causes a lot more activity to happen in the world, in this sphere, to access the vast value that can be created with the help of an elaborate rearrangement of owings.

People buy property and trucks and licenses to dig up rocks so that they can be owed nonspecific future goods thanks to some unknown strangers who they expect will want gravel someday, statistically. It’s harder to imagine this scale of industry in pursuit entirely of social status say, where such trust and respect would not soon cash out in money (e.g. via sales). For instance, if someone told you about their new gravel mine venture, which was making no money, but they expected it to grant oodles of respect, and therefore for people all around to grant everyone involved better treatment in conversations and negotiations, that would be pretty strange. (Or maybe I’m just imagining wrong, and people do this for different kinds of activities? e.g. they do try to get elected. Though perhaps that is support for my claim, because being elected is another limited area where social credit is reasonably formalized.)

There are other forms of social credit that are somewhat formalized, at least in patches. ‘Likes’ and ‘follows’ on social media, reviews for services, trustworthiness scores for websites, rankings of status in limited domains such as movie acting. And my vague sense is that these realms are more likely to see professional levels of activity - a campaign to get Twitter followers is more likely than a campaign to be respected per se. But I’m not sure, and perhaps this is just because they more directly lead to dollars, due to marketing of salable items.

The legal system is in a sense a pretty formalized type of club membership, in that it is an elaborate artificial system. Companies also seem to have relatively formalized structures and norms of behavior often. But both feel janky - e.g. I don’t know what the laws are; I don’t know where you go to look up the laws; people–including police officers–seem to treat some laws as fine to habitually break; everyone expects politics and social factors to affect how the rules are applied; if there is a conflict it is resolved by people arguing; the general activities of the system are slow and unresponsive.

I don’t know if there is another place where social credit is as formalized and quantified as in the financial system.

Will we one day formalize these other kinds of social credit as much as we have for owing? If we do, will they also catalyze oceans of value-creating activity?