Our Equal Future: Does Technology Hold the Key to a Flatter World?

Far from making the world more fair, technology serves to reinforce, and perhaps even increase, inequalities.
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Over the past two weeks, I, along with millions of other Trekkers, sat in a dark, air-conditioned theater and met once again the crew of the Enterprise, as I've done many times over the last few years over Netflix and on various hotel-room TVs. But the more I've watched, the more I've been I've been visited by a nagging feeling that the whole concept is even more escapist than even its sci-fi veneer would suggest. But what could possibly exceed warp speed in imagination? Aren't holodecks already the pinnacle of escapism?

It was during the latest movie that I was able to put my finger on it. Much of the film takes place circa 2259 AD on Earth, and something clicked as the villain John Harrison gallivanted from one action sequence to another through the streets of London and San Francisco: In Star Trek, our planet is full of sky-bound towers and gleaming architecture, but unlike the darker futures of Robocop or Blade Runner, there are no slums. In the world envisioned by Gene Roddenberry, the poor are no longer with us.

A quarter millennium before Captain James T. Kirk, one of the persistent myths about technology is that it makes society more equal. In 2005, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman insisted on it in the title of his book, The World is Flat. Digital technologies -- from Netscape to mobile phones -- figured prominently in nine of his "ten forces that flattened the world." In a 2010 interview, social media pundit Clay Shirky said -- even as he attempted to distance himself from an earlier techno-utopianism -- that "I am an optimist about democratizing media." This year, in a keynote at the media and technology conference South by Southwest, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proclaimed that "Technology can level the playing field instead of tilting it against low-income, minority and rural students."

Flattening, democratizing, leveling...these are words frequently associated with digital technologies -- but is that what they really do?

I lived in India for more than five years starting in 2004, and what I saw was increasing inequality. The country's elite families were superpowered by the IT boom and the diffusion of mobile telephony. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the country's traditional underclasses remained stuck in illiteracy and malnutrition, even as they acquired cell phones. Inequalities have increased as educated people capitalize on a new knowledge economy while others have neither the training nor the cultural capital even to apply for the job of an assistant to a receptionist at a call center.

This pattern is everywhere for anyone with eyes to see it. To cite a few examples: In a 2005 article, The Economist noted astutely that:

the digital divide is not a problem in itself, but a symptom of deeper, more important divides: of income, development and literacy[...] So even if it were possible to wave a magic wand and cause a computer to appear in every household on earth, it would not achieve very much: a computer is not useful if you have no food or electricity and cannot read.

Oxford Internet Institute researcher Mark Graham studies the underrepresentation of digital content in poorer countries and poorer neighborhoods. In a world where marketing is increasingly virtual, those with less digital aptitude are literally invisible to would-be customers who navigate the world through digital maps.

And in the New York Times a few weeks ago, Jenna Wortham worried about a "gated community of gadgetry" as new technologies like Google Glass enter the market at high cost. She writes that people who can afford a new technology's earlier versions have a competitive advantage.

Presented by

Kentaro Toyama is a visiting scholar at the School of Information, University of California, Berkeley. He is working on a book tentatively titled Wisdom in Global Development: A Different Kind of Growth. For more information, see KentaroToyama.org. More

Kentaro Toyama is a visiting scholar at the School of Information, University of California, Berkeley. He is a leading researcher on international development, who focuses on the potential and the limits of information technology to address the challenges of global poverty (about which he writes a blog here). Toyama graduated from Yale University with a Ph.D. in computer science and Harvard University with a bachelor's degree in physics. He is working on a book tentatively titled Wisdom in Global Development: A Different Kind of Growth. For more information, see KentaroToyama.org, and follow him on Twitter: @kentarotoyama.

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