Amplifying Inequality

by Kentaro Toyama

Why do we assume that advances in technology will reduce inequality? It has something to do with the law of amplification, explains Kentaro Toyama.
Graph of the rate of poverty in the United States from 1959 to 2013. Poverty levels remain relatively stable despite significant technological developments during the same period.

Since the 1970s, the United States has witnessed an explosion of digital technologies: the internet, the PC industry, mobile phones, Google, Facebook, iPhone apps… Almost everything we tout as a digital success was invented or widely disseminated in the last forty-odd years. Yet over that same time period, in the same country where these innovations took hold, can we say that things have really improved? By many obvious measures, the answer is no: the rate of poverty has not declined, politics has not become more civil, and inequality has increased, dramatically.

In other words, even in America, a golden age of technology hasn’t reduced poverty or inequality; if anything, disparities have widened. Why, then, should we expect that technology will reduce inequalities elsewhere?

Today, thanks to a pervasive mobile phone network, Syrian refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere are better able to keep in touch with distant family. Some have smartphones and keep in touch on Facebook. Without doubt, that communication is priceless. Ultimately, though, the technology has done little to change their prospects. Millions upon millions of refugees remain in camps with no opportunity to work and limited access to education for their children. (And let’s not forget the many people left in Syria, including those who couldn’t afford the trek to escape.)

Some may argue that thanks to technology, such tragedies can be tweeted and retweeted online, which should, in turn, lead to greater empathy around the world. Maybe that’s what happened in Germany, which has absorbed half a million refugees in recent years. But if so, what explains the United States — a larger, richer country that is home to Silicon Valley — pledging to accept only 10,000 refugees, and so far admitting a mere 1300?

There’s a simple reason why machines on their own don’t cure our social ills. I call it the law of amplification: For the most part, technology’s impact is to amplify underlying human forces. Amplification means that technology only helps where an intention to help already exists. Amplification means that the internet only educates those who already know how to educate themselves. Amplification means that technology alleviates inequality only with the political will to shrink disparities. In a world where the rich get richer, technology only accelerates inequity.

Technology is powerful. But power by itself doesn’t make things better, any more than dictatorship guarantees happy nations. Power alone isn’t enough. The right heart, mind, and will are essential. Why hasn’t inequality declined in an age of cheap, real-time information? It’s because we aren’t intent on eliminating it. We can build ever-smarter machines, but if social conditions don’t ensure that their benefits are evenly distributed, inequality will remain unaddressed. If, instead of chasing shiny new solutions, we focused on laying fairer social, political, economic, cultural foundations, then suddenly, we’d find that even the technologies we already have are more than sufficient to amplify our good intentions.

Kentaro Toyama is Associate Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan School of Information, a fellow of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT and author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.

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