Myth 6: Technology counteracts “rich getting richer.”

Just in time for Myth 6, Nicholas Kristof, the patron journalist of international development wrote an article about inequality in America. As we all know, inequality is increasing. Kristof does a slick lead in, in which a statistic that sounds remarkably like that of many developing countries turns out to be one for the United States: The richest 1% of Americans make nearly a quarter of the country’s income (while 10% of the  country is unemployed and 14% is in poverty).

Striking, but what does this have to do with the Jester? Well, as he already illustrated in a previous post, the growing inequality in America is co-occuring with its golden age of innovation and technology. As Kristof notes, 80% of the gains in wealth between 1980 and 2005 went to the richest 1%, and that was the same period of time when the Internet, Windows, cell phones, Google, and iPods all went mainstream. Is this what techno-utopians mean when they say that ICT democratizes and that it levels the playing field?

As the Jester is fond (too fond?) of saying, technology is a magnifier of human intent and capacity. And, in America, there is little or no intent to address inequality , and there is a woefully uneven distribution of capacity. That means there’s an uneven distribution of nutrition, education, capital, social capital, etc. If you then sprinkle an even layer of technology on top, it magnifies the unevenness, and voila! The rich get richer; the powerful, more powerful.

Of course, the sprinkling isn’t even — rich people have more technology, which only worsens the effect. This latter problem is what’s called the “digital divide” and people are always trying to bridge it or close it. In ICT4D, there are constant calls for access: Bytes for all! The Internet for everyone! Cheap SMS for billions! But, leveling the playing field doesn’t solve the underlying problem: There are vast differences between the players. You can level the playing field all you want, but Babe Ruth is still going to hit more homers than the Jester.

Try the following thought experiment: You and an involuntarily poor farmer from the remote village of your choice are both asked to raise as much money as possible for whatever charitable cause you wish. To accomplish, this, you are given free, unfettered access to an e-mail account and an Internet-connected PC (or, if either of you prefer, a mobile phone with a data plan), and only that. Given a fixed amount of time, say, one week, who would be able to raise more money? [The Jester interrupts this program to give you time to think, and to link to a TV sitcom he’s become enamored of: Outsourced, about an American manager who runs a call center in India. And, now, back to our scheduled programming…] Clearly, you would. And why? You’re literate, accustomed to e-mail, able to write convincing messages, embedded in a wealthy social network, capable of organizing people, etc. In short, you have far greater capacity. Since the technology is exactly the same, the cause for the different outcomes lies not in the technology, but in the people. (Incidentally, sociologist Richard Florida does a brisk analysis of how social media is primarily augmenting the rich and educated in America.)

There are only two ways to handle this situation. The first is to apply technology progressively. If you could somehow provide the technology only to the poor and leave the rich without, then conceivably over time, the gap would close. There are problems with this approach, however. Philosophically, we’d then have to restrict the freedom of wealthy people, which the Jester finds difficult to advocate for. In practice, this is impossible — you can’t exactly keep the Internet and mobile phones out of the hands of the wealthy. And, finally, it’s not at all clear that even this would really change things. Imagine if the thought experiment above were conducted with the farmer having e-mail, and your having access only to paper, pen, and the postal service. The Jester still wagers that you’d raise more money.

The second way is to invest dramatically in the capabilities of the poor farmer. Education, “soft skills,” organizational skills, interaction with other social circles, etc. And, if that seems futile because adults don’t learn quickly, then invest in the farmer’s children for the next generation. The point is to direct attention to increasing the capacity of the less capable. The Jester agrees with Amartya Sen’s capability approach. Unfortunately for ICT4D-ers, this way doesn’t really require technology. There are plenty of very cheap things the world can do to improve the state of education, such as deworming. (For those who argue we should then use more technology in education, the Jester would like nothing more than to slap you awake into the real world, but instead recommends tuning in when he confronts the Grand Poobah of that view on a panel. The short response is that good schools can sometimes make positive use of technology, but bad schools inevitably do not. You can’t fix a bad educational system with technology, any more than you can fix a failing business with more PCs!)

Going back to St. Nicholas, the Jester isn’t saying that technology is the primary reason why inequality is increasing in America. It’s unlikely. There are plenty of other mechanisms by which the rich get richer: an accelerating meritocracy, an increasingly efficient capitalism, and better schools for the children of the educated. But wait, those things don’t seem like bad things! That’s, however, only because we include in our idea of “merit” qualities that we really shouldn’t ascribe credit for — a good education, a solid work ethic, healthy ambition. If you went to a bad school in a poor neighborhood, the odds are against you that you’d have emerged with those characteristics. The only way to counteract rich-getting-richer phenomenon is progressive policy. And, that is a problem not of technology, but of political will, i.e., human intent.

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