Does Technology narrow or widen the poverty gap?
The question is huge and when I started thinking about it I really didn’t know where to start and certainly not where I would end up.
The word ‘technology’ is so wide that I decided I needed to break it down a bit and maybe start out by thinking about the kinds of new tech that could potentially help reduce poverty. Some of the things that sprang immediately to mind were:
- Desalination and water cleaning systems.
- Affordable mass transport.
- Remote access to education and information.
- Medical technologies.
- Cheap, sustainable and local power generation.
It’s not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination and there are hundreds of other areas of tech development that could easily be included but these are some examples of things that could easily help to reduce poverty.
When we think or talk about poverty then most people immediately start with the developing world, and if you look at Africa, India and South Asia then there is a lot of good news to report…
- Global poverty continues to decline.
- In developing countries financial inequality is decreasing.
- Extreme poverty is at an all time low.
- In the developing world mobile technology is contributing to financial inclusion for those who never had it before.
- Easier access to global markets is creating trade opportunities.
But poverty is a global issue, you can live in the richest country in the world and still be personally far below the poverty line, the not so good news is that:
- In ‘developed’ countries the poverty gap is widening.
- Greater income inequality is leading to polarization of societies and political instability.
- Technology advances and automation are removing the need for many well paid skilled labour jobs and leaving only jobs at the highest and lowest levels of the pay scale.
This last topic of jobs is one that people often cite as a downside to new technological advances and there is some logical basis for their arguments:
- Advanced robotics and Artificial Intelligence already mean that we can do things that were previously impossible but take away jobs in the working class.
- In the near future intelligent automation will start to eliminate more traditionally middle class jobs, bank clerks, office administrators, etc.
- According to a 2017 report, half of the world’s jobs could be automated by 2055.
It is not all doom and gloom, it should be that eliminating the need for humans to do certain jobs that can easily be automated would free up human resources to take part in more creative roles that machines can’t (yet) do. Note that I said it should be, because we don’t have the needed structures in place to make that a reality.
Historically it has been that the phrase Human Advancement meant:
Changes that cause people to be better off, without making others worse off.
And that progress meant:
Advances in science, technology and social organization to improve the human condition; prosperity, greater equality, better education, reduced infant and maternal mortality, longer and healthier lives, increases in employment options and freedoms.
Technological progress doesn’t necessarily mean that anymore, this is the first time in history that new technology decreases instead of increasing the number of jobs available.
And after all of these considerations and a few others, I stopped and realized that I had been looking at the question completely the wrong way all along.
The bottom line is that it is very easy and therefore tempting to say that technology is a main factor in the widening of the poverty divide but really this is just an excuse.
Technology alone can’t do anything. Technology certainly does not cause inequality, in fact it does the opposite, it enables opportunity and wealth creation.
The real problem is how we decide to share the wealth and the benefits, and this is not a new problem.
There have been many technological revolutions, the invention of the steam engine, the printing press, mass production, the car, the internet. Each of these have massively changed the world, have created levels of opportunity and freedom and wealth creation that had not existed before they came along. Yet, each of them completely failed to eradicate poverty or even to significantly shrink the poverty divide because those with the best educations, the highest level of political influence and the most financial resources capitalized on them and did not redistribute the wealth.
The fact is that most of us don’t like to share too much, you can blame capitalism or human nature or anything else you choose, but whatever reason you give for it won’t change the reality.
Economist Robert Solow wrote that:
“Redistribution is a dirty word in almost any political setting. It’s not something that we’re very good at and it’s not about to happen. However any decent person should find having extreme poverty coexisting in the same society with extreme wealth immoral.”
I strongly believe that technology actually can shrink the poverty gap, but only if the people who create, control and sell it are willing to let it do so.
It’s not exactly the democratizing of technology but maybe things are changing a bit in the attitudes of those who create it, both Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates have pledged to give 99% of their wealth to charity during their own lifetimes and set up systems to do so. It may only be two people and it is not direct but it is a start to wealth redistribution.