The great unequalizer?

This post is sloppily going to try to tie together two threads that have been in my newsfeed for years.

The first thread is about rising inequality. It is the notion, as Thomas Piketty puts it that r > g, or returns to capital are greater than the growth rate of the economy, so that ultimately wealth concentrates. I think there is some good evidence that wealth is concentrating now (stagnating middle class wages for decades) but I am certainly not economist enough to judge. So let’s just take this as a supposition for the moment. (NB: Also, haven’t read the book.)

There are many proposed mechanisms for this concentration, but one of them is that the wealthy, with both more at stake and more resources to wield, access power more successfully than most people. That is, they adjust the rules of the game constantly in their favor. (Here’s a four year old study that showed that in the Chicago area, more than 1/2 of those with wealth over $7.5M had personally contacted their congressional representatives. Have you ever gotten your Senator on the line?)

The second thread is about what technology does or does not accomplish. Is tech the great equalizer, bringing increased utility to everyone by lowering the cost of everything? Or is its role more complex?

The other day in the comments of Mark Thoma’s blog, I came across an old monograph by EW Dijkstra that described some of the belief of early computer scientists:

I have fond memories of a project of the early 70’s that postulated that we did not need programs at all! All we needed was “intelligence amplification”. If they have been able to design something that could “amplify” at all, they have probably discovered it would amplify stupidity as well…

If you think of tech as an amplifier of sorts, then one can see that there is little reason to think that it always makes life better. An amplifier can amplify intelligence as well as stupidity, but it can also amplify greed and avarice, could it not?

Combining these threads we get to my thesis, that technology, rather than lifting all boats and making us richer, can be exploited by those who own it and control its development and deployment can use it disproportionally to their benefit, resulting in a permanent wealthy class. That is, though many techno-utopians see computers as a means to allow everyone a leisure-filled life, a la Star Trek, the reality is that there is no particular reason to think that that benefits of technology and computers will accrue to the population at large. Perhaps there are good reasons to think they won’t.

In short, if the wealthy can wield government to their benefit, won’t they similarly do so with tech?

There is plenty of evidence contrary to this thesis. Tech has given us many things we could never have afforded before, like near-infinite music collections, step-by-step vehicle navigation, and near-free and instant communications (including transmission of cat pictures). In that sense, we are indeed all much richer for it. And in the past, to the degree that tech eliminated jobs, it always seemed that new demand arose as a result, creating even more work. Steam engine, electrification, etc.

But recent decades do seem a different pattern, and I can’t help but see a lot of tech’s gifts as bric-a-brac, trivial as compared to the basics of education and economic security, where it seems that so far, tech has contributed surprisingly little. Or, maybe that should not be surprising?


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