Technology is making the world more unequal. Only technology can fix this
The inequality of badly-run or corrupt states is boosted by the power of technology – but it’s also easier than ever to destabilise these states, thanks to technology. The question is: which future will prevail?
By Cory Doctorow
May 31 2017
Here’s the bad news: technology – specifically, surveillance technology – makes it easier to police disaffected populations, and that gives badly run, corrupt states enough stability to get themselves into real trouble.
Here’s the good news: technology – specifically, networked technology – makes it easier for opposition movements to form and mobilise, even under conditions of surveillance, and to topple badly run, corrupt states.
Inequality creates instability, and not just because of the resentments the increasingly poor majority harbours against the increasingly rich minority. Everyone has a mix of good ideas and terrible ones, but for most of us, the harm from our terrible ideas is capped by our lack of political power and the checks that others – including the state – impose on us.
As rich people get richer, however, their wealth translates into political influence, and their ideas – especially their terrible ideas – take on outsized importance.
In Saudi Arabia, the delusional superstitions of a tiny, super-rich elite exclude nearly 45% of the population from full participation in civic life. This is unequivocally bad for the gulf state, whose next cure for cancer or post-oil economic transition may never emerge because its inventor was stuck indoors waiting for her “male guardian” to drive her somewhere.
But we needn’t only look to the Middle East to find rich people’s bad ideas making everyone worse off.
While Saudi hydrocarbonism denies humanity to women, American hydrocarbonism denies credibility to climate scientists. This is a much more democratically stupid idea in that it will kill rich people as well as poor: even the best-guarded McMansionis still epidemiologically linked to the people dying of tuberculosis outside its walls, and mosquito-borne Zika doesn’t care about your wealth.
In Britain we have the weaponisation of shelter, in which homes become a speculative investment instead of a human right, which massively unbalances the UK economy while distorting work, education and family life – even as our cities fill up with empty tower blocks laden with celestial safe-deposit boxes that may be money laundries for offshore criminals first, and only incidentally places where someone might live, someday.
But this inequality-instability contains the seeds of its own downfall. Letting small elites enforce their cherished, foolish ideas as iron-clad law eventually produces a state so badly run that it collapses, either through revolution or massive reforms (see, for example, Brazil). Smart unequal societies prevent collapse by convincing their elites to hand over some of their earnings to the rest of the country, producing broadly shared prosperity and a sense of national solidarity that transcends class resentments (see, for example, Sweden).