Another kind of inequality

Income might not be it all

Income inequality is one of the most pressing issues of our times. Obama has already spoken (and unspoken) about it; Piketty wrote an enormous book on it; governments and NGO’s around the world are intensively working to mitigate it... It has been a central theme of discussion and one of the main enemies — even a threat — for capitalism. As currently known, this kind of inequality creates social gaps between different groups, as access to wealth ends up giving different opportunities to those who should be equal. Non-representativeness, unequal access to services and opportunities, a growing sense of disparity, injustice and hatred for the “other” are commonly seen in communities and societies as they experience it.

However, we can still reduce income inequality, since there’s a common ground between the two (or more) sides. Yes, it might be that some have more money than others, but the tools and senses they use to relate with the world are still basically the same.

Technology is bound to change that more than a little. From biogenetics to human enhancements; from virtual reality to 3D-printed organs; from space travels to continuous healthcare… All those technological changes that human senses, body and mind are going through are, because of the level of funding required to create them, starting to be used by some very specific people first. And it might impact the distribution of wealth and knowledge in the world in a way that we’re not really looking at.

So, in a near future, we might have to deal with another kind of inequality, derived directly from income: technology inequality. It’s a kind of technological disparity that, due to recent large advances in science, to the nature of our technology and to the distribution of those advancements in the population, might set us apart a lot more.

So let’s try to understand the factors behind it a bit more.

Technology changes the ways we relate to the world and to others around us

A good and easy example of that is email. It might seem odd, nowadays, to consider email a groundbreaking technology, but it revolutionized the way we communicate. This message service have made the whole world much more quick at doing whatever task it needs to do.

But it also made us rely on its existence and difficult to develop things without it. Think of the last time you've successfully completed a project without email. And now think that approximately half the world still doesn't have access to it. I’m not arguing here that they can’t do things without email — the human race made almost everything in it’s history without it. But the sole existence of that medium makes it difficult for those who live with it help those who don’t.

And yet, email was just the very beginning...

Virtual reality, for example, might create another layer of reality in which we’ll have to locate ourselves. Google Glass creates an always-on layer between you and the world; Oculus Rift, an entirely new way to experience parts of the offline world that you can’t, or even new realities; training interfaces, an additional layer of information to help guide us through our world with smaller dangers; Hololens, an additional interface for us to play and create with. That’s a major change in how we experience situations and in how we remember/record things.

That same kind of change will occur in other settings: self-driving automobiles will modify our transportation patterns; 3D printed organs will modify our perception of health and danger; space travels, in a further future, how some of us relate to time...

And that’s not a matter of good or bad. It’s not a moral judgement. What matters to the argument is that they only change how some of us experience life. And that’s because of the nature of development and production of our technologies.

The technology we produce is mainly intensive in capital

When some good is intensive in capital, it means that the main factor responsible for it’s production is capital, a.k.a. money. So, all those groundbreaking technologies we hear everyday that are bound to change humankind forever are being developed with a LOT of funding. And they also need a whole lot of infrastructure to function right.

Because of that, they’re going to be used firstly by people who have access to capital and that can pay the premium cost that they will have at the first moments. And they’re also going to take more time to reach underdeveloped countries and groups, as the infrastructure needed to have the basic access and possibility of using it will be lacking.

Continuing with the Oculus Rift example, the first good-to-use and viable attempt of a virtual reality headset. It was firstly financed on Kickstarter (for 2.5 millions) and then bought by Facebook for 2 billion dollars. Each one will be sold for approximately US$ 200, a good north-american price for such a gamechanger device. Oculus surely has many good uses: for training, for entertainment, for education, for feeling experiences… And it also changes the way we interact with both the digital and the physical worlds. But, as it needs internet access and other infrastructure to work properly, large chunks of the world won’t have it for a long time. Just like they don’t have Iphones or email.

So, a small part of the world will add even more layers of reality and perception for their world, while others won’t. Those differences will only make it harder to narrow the inequality gap, and they can also be responsible for the widening of it. Why?

If you perceive the world in a different way, empathy becomes increasingly difficult

The third and most important impact of the way we currently distribute technology lies on the fact that, simply put, the widening of inequality causes a break in our capacity for empathy. And empathy, as every designer and psychologist should know, is the basis for the creation of ideas and concepts that can change people’s lives for the better. The greater the difficulty in creating empathetic bonds with other people, the less likely we are to create the conditions (institutions, services, ecosystems, structures) needed to decrease this gap. So, the more inequality we have, the more difficult it will be to create bonds with other people, and even more difficult it will be to fix any of the problems they might have.

It’s not about the impossibility of creating those bonds and empathizing, it’s about the growing difficult of doing it.

If technology further contributes for this widening by changing only how some people relate to the world, it might get even more difficult to solve the inequality problem. If technology continues to change only how some people behave and interact with the world, then it will have lost the magical powers that the western culture attributes to it, as the miracle who will solve the world’s problems. Technology will only save some, and seggregate other.

And it’s already happening at a slower pace: it’s said that Silicon Valley has an empathy problem, that it cannot properly connect to its users. If even the “knights of modernity and technology” can’t empathize to people who are REALLY next to them (outside of the building, right?), what to say about users that are across the ocean and that live an increasingly different life? Can we hope that Silicon Valley are the ones who will solve our problems?

The technology we currently produce works like a catapult.

Just try to think about technology as a catapult or a slingshot. And a very expensive one, by the way. The difference it that, instead of rocks, it catapults humans. If you’ve got the resources for it, it’s going to throw you very far away. If you don’t, you’ll stay just where you are.

Some will soon be flying, while others can’t. Some will soon be implanting artificial organs, while others die of diarrhea. But still, we can’t blame anyone for developing and using these technologies. It’s perfectly natural to develop technologies that we think will solve our problems.

What can’t be ignored is the perception that the same things and ideas that are (supposedly) increasing our welfare, are also leaving a lot of people behind.

So, how do we solve technological inequality?

I really wish I had the answer.

I couldn’t find a good answer for it. What I could find are good guidelines for studying, some intellectual work developed in the social sciences. Ernst F. Schumacher looks like a good way to go. An unorthodox economist, he defended throughout his career that, the more we use capital intensive technologies, the harder it gets for underdeveloped countries to use it. And the more we think that only those huge and expensive technologies are going to solve our lives, the harder it will be to solve it.

What we might need to narrow the inequality gap are “appropriate technologies”. Those are local developed technologies, intensive in labor, that solve the problems people really have. So, instead of technology further increasing inequality, we can use tech as a tool to decrease it.

Some design methodologies also look like good ways out. They emphasize empathy, regarding it as the basis of good product development. If we could take that to political and economics classes, we might hope that social policies get a bit more humanized. And, if we can put together economists, political scientists, designers, and engineers, the better it will get. But still, even if we are empathetic when developing, we might still have to think about how the product/policy we are creating will affect others empathy.

This subject still needs a lot of studying. I couldn’t find any more good guidelines, but I’m sure they exist — every critic and suggestion is extremely welcome, as I’m currently developing research on it. But even if we find (or develop them), there is a long path we still need to walk to transform technology in a reliable ally for solving social problems.