Technology, the Faux Equalizer

Silicon Valley’s sunny outlook on technology and opportunity ignores systematic inequalities.

Printing Presses, 1910 (Library of Congress)

Just over a century ago, an electric company in Minnesota took out a full-page newspaper advertisement and listed 1,000 uses for electricity.

Bakers could get ice-cream freezers and waffle irons! Hat makers could put up electric signs! Paper-box manufacturers could use glue pots and fans! Then there were the at-home uses: decorative lights, corn poppers, curling irons, foot warmers, massage machines, carpet sweepers, sewing machines, and milk warmers all made the list. “Make electricity cut your housework in two,” the advertisement said.

This has long been the promise of new technology: That it will make your work easier, which will make your life better. The idea is that the arc of technology bends toward social progress. This is practically the mantra of Silicon Valley, so it’s not surprising that Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, seems similarly teleological in his views.

“Hundreds of years ago very few people had access to information. And they were essentially in the corridors of power,” Pichai told Mat Honan, a long-time technology reporter and BuzzFeed’s San Francisco bureau chief. “Even a simple thing like the printing press made books accessible to many more people. I’ve always been fascinated by this thing, that every jump in technology involves leveling the playing field.”

Wait a minute. Let’s unpack that for a second. (And, by the way, the entire story about Pichai is worth reading.) It’s the last bit of what Pichai says that stands out to me: “I’ve always been fascinated by this thing, that every jump in technology involves leveling the playing field.”

Technology, in the long-run, often seems like an equalizing force—especially when it concerns the distribution of information. Certainly, in the Internet Age, many of us have lived through this sort of shift in dramatic fashion. Twenty-five years ago, publishing was an institutional role; publishers were powerful gatekeepers. But today, many people with access to the Internet can publish whatever they want, whenever they want. (See?)

Except not everyone has Internet access. And more than 1 billion people live in countries where they’re subject to severe censorship. Pichai obviously gets that. The comment I highlighted above is part of a larger reflection from him on Google’s goals to increase Internet access in India, and the extent to which smartphones have leapfrogged personal computers in that country.

It’s understandable, of course, that a Google executive might lack some nuance in his optimism about technology. But Pichai’s comment is characteristic of a persistent narrative among technologists: Technology is unequivocally good for you. Honan’s broader description of Pichai’s communication style seems apt in considering his remark about leveling the playing field: “It all sounds vaguely good, even if it’s not very specific.” Which is also a way you could describe relentless optimism about technology, generally speaking—because there’s real danger in framing technological progress and social progress as mutually inclusive.

“Technology by itself does neither good—which is what the CEO implies in his statement—nor ill,” said Abby Rumsey, the author of When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Will Shape Our Future. “Technology is a tool, an extension of human will. Tools have only the powers that humans give them. It is an exaggeration to say that printing technology leveled the playing field.”

Consider, for instance, that it wasn’t Gutenberg’s printing press alone—remarkable though it was—that made books available to the masses; but the eventual production of books made from cheap paper and wood pulp in the 19th century. (And that occurred in tandem with, as Rumsey pointed out to me, the development of technologically enhanced distribution systems like railroads.)

“Before that, books were made from rag paper and assembled in an essentially artisanal mode,” Rumsey said. “That said, it was only in certain places that rates of literacy changed even when books got cheaper. In parts of the U.S., even where books were abundant, like the South, it was illegal for slaves to possess or read a book.”

Technological transitions often entail enormous social and cultural tension. There is hand-wringing about the loss of previously established customs, there is job displacement, there is inequality. “New technologies are for the elite who can afford them,” said Judith Donath, the author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online. Donath, however, thinks Pichai’s point is mostly right. When new technologies catch on, she says, they do eventually become broadly accessible. But that’s not the same thing as a leveling effect.

Just compare the steady flow of venture capital into Silicon Valley with the dearth of funding for other technological projects, like critical infrastructure improvements to water safety, public transit, disintegrating bridges, and so on. “With this dynamic in mind, I would suggest that there is greater truth to the opposite of Pichai’s statement,” said Andrew Russell, a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology. “Every jump in technology draws attention and capital away from existing technologies used by the 99 percent, which therefore undermines equality, and reduces the ability for people to get onto the ‘playing field’ in the first place.”

Russell also reminded me of the famous William Gibson quote, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

“I have never been able to understand why anyone would assume that the future would be evenly distributed,” Russell said. “To put this in a different way: I have never been able to find any evidence from human history to suggest that the future will be evenly distributed.”

“The suggestion that we should expect new technologies to reduce the gaps between the haves and have-nots,” he added. “I don’t buy it.”