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.

Technology, of course, creates new possibilities; it lowers barriers to information and communication. But consistently, the barriers are lowered more for some than for others exactly because the digital divide is a result of other divides, less a cause. Anyone can send an e-mail to the President of the United States, but not everyone gets a response. Anyone can "friend" Rihanna on Facebook, but not everyone is friended back. Anyone can open up an online shop, but not everyone will be Amazon. Digital technologies provide possibility, but possibility isn't actuality.

This gap between possibility and actuality, which I alluded to before, is the source of the myth of technology's equalizing power. Technologies increase possibility, sure, but actual outcomes depend on other assets. Given the jagged social world we live in -- where some people have immense wealth, elite educations, and powerful networks, while others don't -- technology amplifies the differences.

People with power, wealth, and celebrity don't stand still as new technologies are introduced to the masses. They also use technologies to further leverage their capabilities and build on their advantages. Britney Spears hires publicists to tweet to her 27 million Twitter followers. Hyper-educated prodigies start multimillion-dollar tech companies. Presidential candidates ramp up their Internet fundraising contributing to billion-dollar war chests. Far from flattening and democratizing, technology serves to reinforce, even increase, inequalities.

So, what to do? Unfortunately, even technology critics tend to mislead us. Having identified a technology problem, they think in terms of technology solutions. Graham suggests that digital maps should indicate what they don't know, as if that would even the odds for the unrepresented. The Economist article, in a logic-defying turnaround suggests that we should promote "the spread not of PCs and the internet, but of mobile phones." Wortham hopes for low-cost technologies, inadvertently buying into the market fundamentalism of low-cost goods as the answer to social inequalities.

There's little point in closing technology divides, though, as long as capability divides and political divides persist. In fact, focusing on digital symptoms can be a distracting non-substitute for the real cure, like an ice bath for a fever. We don't lose sleep over otherwise privileged people who are digitally illiterate because deep inside, we know that it's not the technological disparities that are the real problem. That's why no one shed a tear for John McCain when it was revealed he didn't use e-mail. That's why there are no non-profits working to help well-off gadget abstainers overcome their refusal to use iPhones.

And that's why Star Trek has begun to feel especially escapist to me. Having swept away social challenges with ultra-technologies, the series bought into a much larger fantasy. Fans of science fiction emphasize how advanced science creates a unique backdrop against which to explore human problems. In Star Trek, though, the claim is that science has solved all human problems -- the only remaining threats to humanity come from either aliens or remnants of a misguided past. (Okay, there's also that pesky problem of "not enough power!")

It's a nice conceit, and I'll continue to watch Star Trek for its diversionary value. But one day, I hope we'll get to see the future trajectory that brings about the egalitarian world that Captain Jean-Luc Picard explained in First Contact: "The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity." If we ever figure out how to reach that point, it will be worth more than the galaxy's store of dilithium crystals.