Does Technology Insulate Elites Dangerously?

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A piece in the New York Times calls attention to the widespread use of air purifiers by the Chinese political elite to avoid much of the pollution affecting other citizens. Of course these devices can presumably be bought by other Chinese citizens who can afford the $2,000 price.

According to the Broad Group's Web site, it did not take much to convince the nation's Communist Party leaders that they would do well to acquire the firm's air purifiers, some of which cost $2,000. To make their case, company executives installed one in a meeting room used by members of the Politburo Standing Committee. The deal was apparently sealed a short while later, when technicians made a show of cleaning out the soot-laden filters. "After they saw the inklike dirty water, Broad air purifier became the national leaders' appointed air purifier!" the Web site said.

But are workarounds for social ills only Chinese? Of course the wealthy have always had advantages against urban hazards. The west end of many though not all cities, from Los Angeles to Berlin, is usually more fashionable than the east because it's generally upwind of atmospheric pollution sources. But it was once harder to avoid the ills that affected poorer neighbors. Those Victorian doorknob units had little flaps over their keyholes not just to decorate but to keep out soot that could be a problem even from so small an aperture. And Londoners all used the same water and sewer systems, a powerful incentive for Victorian engineering triumphs of sanitation. (The Great Stink of 1858, penetrating the Houses of Parliament, helped prompt the construction of Joseph Bazalgette's sewer network.) New York's magnificent reservoir and aqueduct system was similarly motivated.

The bottled-water industry, air and water purifiers, electronic security systems, residential backup electric generators, (possibly revived) paid  "trusted traveler" programs at airports, and congestion charges, road pricing, and sale of passes for previous high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes -- all use advanced technology to insulate those who can pay from everyone else. In the 20th century executives might commute to Westchester or the North Shore of Chicago, but in Manhattan or the Loop they breathed the same air as their clerks. In fact, it was common for industrialists to live near the factory to keep an eye on things, even at personal risk. (One of the most beautiful parks in my area, with a beloved azalea garden, was originally home to a rubber factory owner, who apparently raised his family as toxic waste from the nearby plant polluted the property.)

Privilege in place of cash-based inequality has of course long been a hallmark of many nominally egalitarian regimes. When I visited Moscow in 1988 during perestroika there were still special lanes for official cars. The fall of the Soviet Union a few years later, far from extinguishing the flashing blue lights of the old regime, extended driving privilege from the nomenklatura to an even larger oligarchy; even Moscow authorities have been cracking down, even if they aren't questioning the principle but only exposing false credentials.Privilege through the technological marketplace is more subtle but it also promotes dangerous complacency. The financial crisis has been our own Great Stink, but the markets still have not found their Bazalgette.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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