Inequality: is there an app for that?

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Originally published by Contributoria January 2015.

While our technology keeps driving forward to new frontiers, in terms of social relations we seem to be regressing; the advances we make technologically are being encumbered by the negative effects of inequality.

Since its inception, humanity has used technology to overcome the practical problems of life: from the first rudimentary stone tools to the satellites orbiting Earth that help us find our way when we’re lost. Technology, much like language, art and different forms of consciousness, sets us apart as a species, and arguably has enabled us to prosper to planetary supremacy more than any of the latter three.

In the Western world, post-Enlightenment, as religion has faded significantly, science and technology have taken on an even greater venerated status as the more likely saviours of humankind. We seem to have become a society of technophiles, eagerly awaiting the next gadget, safe in the knowledge that ever-more sophisticated technology can solve all of life’s problems, big and small. Nowadays, you can get your fridge to send you text reminders when food is low and there’s even an app that helps combat obesity. This is no bad thing. But the blind faith in technology – ironically similar to that of the religion it has to an extent superseded – distorts the reality of the situation. We do have the technology to solve many of the biggest global problems: hunger, climate change, sustainability. And yet, we don’t always use it to its potential.

A certain German scholar understood well the potential of technology to emancipate humankind from the vagaries of material existence. He also undertook arguably the most in-depth study of technology’s role in historical development, concluding that while it was hugely important, technology was a product of human needs and determined by social relations, and that the interrelation between the three drove, and was concurrently driven by, historical change. Love him or hate him, Marx’s analysis of technology’s role in historical development is so elegant that it still helps us explain certain contradictions today.

For instance, a basic human need like hunger has several solutions, and in the modern day there are some particularly advanced forms of biotechnology that could no doubt eliminate it, but thanks to certain social relations (unequal distribution of wealth) it is not dispersed in a way that actually solves the need.

Climate change and sustainability are other examples where the technology exists to satisfy the need but the social relations that are geared towards profits for a minority are antagonistic to something like clean, cheap and abundant energy. Technology can solve many problems – including alleviating the worst effects of poverty – but there’s one major problem it can’t solve. Inequality. There’s no app for that.

Pernicious impact of inequality

Is equality even a desirable aim? We may find Marx’s analysis of certain things insightful without agreeing with his dream of a utopian, classless – and therefore more materially equal – society. Realistically, true equality seems unachievable any time soon. But we need not subscribe to the ideal of equality in order to understand the ill-effects of gross inequality and wish for its pernicious impact to be ameliorated.

Research carried out by the Equality Trust has shown that the more unequal a country: life expectancy is worse; infant mortality rates are higher; obesity is worse; there is a higher incidence of mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction; literacy and numeracy rates are lower; there are more murders; trust in others is lower; and, unsurprisingly, social mobility is lower. In short, the more unequal a society, almost all health and social indicators seem to suffer.

The truly striking thing is, this isn’t about material prosperity. In fact, those with a lower income in relatively more equal societies will often have more positive health and social outcomes than those with higher incomes in relatively unequal societies. This demonstrates it’s the so-called “status anxiety” associated with being relatively poorer than others and the subsequent stress that induces which drives this correlation between inequality and negative health and social outcomes.

This is worrying given that, globally, inequality is rapidly on the rise. The biggest technological explosion in modern history, the industrial revolution, heralded a spate of innovations that improved living standards drastically (though unevenly). But there is a shocking side effect. Although inequality within nations generally decreased from 1820 to 1980, globally, the Gini coefficient (a method of measuring inequality with 1 being perfectly equal and 100 being one person owning everything) actually rose significantly from 49 to 66 in the same period. This means the world is a more unequal place than it was before the industrial revolution.

From 1980 onwards inequality within nations, which had been steadily decreasing, has seen an astronomical rise, and is now back to 1820 levels. This has been initiated by trade liberalisation, a weakening of labour power and more mobile currency. In a word, neoliberalism. It also seems to dovetail ominously with the onset of the next great technological revolution, namely that of information technology.

Trickle down doesn’t work

The concentration of wealth today is truly astonishing: the top 1% own 48%; the top 10% own 87%; and the bottom 50% own less than 1%. Put another way, the richest 85 people in the world own more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion. These are giddying levels of inequality.

“Trickle down theory”, a central premise of neoliberalism, is often used to defend this: the argument being that the more wealth that is created, the more that will filter down from the top throughout the economy, improving the lot of even those at the bottom. This is supposed to offset the negatives of huge disparity. The problem is, not only does this not seem to actually happen, even more damningly, recent research carried out by the OECD has found that inequality is actually detrimental to economic growth. For decades the opposite has been argued to justify it. The OECD found that Britain’s economy would have been 20% bigger had the gap between rich and poor not widened since 1980.

The role of technology in this trend is that big leaps in technological advancement tend to create both surpluses and new “needs” (e.g. the latest consumer goods), which in turn translates into greater profits for a select few. In the last few decades, while our technology keeps driving forward to new frontiers, in terms of social relations, we seem to be regressing; the advances we make technologically are being encumbered by the negative effects of inequality.

No silver bullet

Clearly, there is no silver bullet, no single technological invention that could eradicate inequality. But there are a number of developments either already available or on the horizon that could, if distributed more evenly, seriously reduce it in key areas. Take 3D printing, for instance; New Scientist has claimed it will signal a “second industrial revolution”. It has the potential to enable even the relatively poor to print almost anything very cheaply from tools to even houses, drastically improving living standards. But if it’s monopolised and concentrated in the hands of the few, it could perceivably drive more inequality, like the last industrial revolution.

Our relationship towards both technology and each other needs to fundamentally change. The extraction of vast profits from technology such as consumer electronics seems relatively unproblematic, but can the same be said for life-saving drugs, or biotechnology that could put an end to world hunger? When profit takes precedence poor people are excluded, but for things like the basics needed for human survival this surely should not be the case.

Perhaps we should socialise the cost of developing technology that addresses fundamental human needs from a global pot. It’s perceivably possible with the technology available to us to provide everyone on the planet with clean, sustainable and affordable energy; to feed everyone on the planet enough food to live comfortably on; to produce quality housing (perhaps using 3D printing) for everyone to live comfortably in; to provide the healthcare and drugs that could ensure decent life expectancy. The culture towards technology that can help achieve these goals needs to be one of openness and cooperation – like that enshrined by the Creative Commons movement – not one of competition, patents and litigation that currently characterises the consumer electronics industry.

We may never have total equality, but if we reconfigure our relationship with certain technologies, we can certainly curb the extremes of obscene inequality. We don’t need an app for that.

Image: A design by the Venus Project for a potential sustainable city of the future. Used under Creative Commons Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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