Technology and Inequality

serversNancy Lindisfarne writes – We live in a world mad drunk on technology and political stupidity. Bob Hughes’ new book, The Bleeding Edge: Why Technology turns Toxic in an Unequal World (Oxford: New Internationalist. 2016) says more about this poisonous combination – its causes, consequences, and possible cures – than anything I have previously read. This is an ambitious and important book. The questions Hughes addresses about the relation between equality and creativity – and the converse, why inequality is so stifling of innovation and so destructive of the environment– are extremely pressing.

And they are questions that haunt us. Thinking hard about technology is frightening. Our world is so full of things that most of us don’t understand, perhaps it is better not to look.

How does electricity work? Errrrr, you switch it on at the wall…And my mobile phone? Errrrr, something about fibre-optics, huge servers on mountainsides and zillions of satellites …And airplanes? Errrrr, it has to do with thrust and aerodynamics, doesn’t it? And, anyway, birds manage to fly ….And cars? Well, that used to be easier before they started talking back …

Most of us could not be more technologically primitive. This forces us to put blind trust in experts – in scientists, engineers, witch-doctors and politicians – whose claims – in the absence of known connections between aspiration and instrumental effect – amount to little but magic and sorcery.

And it is perhaps even scarier when we begin to acquire the rudiments of understanding, and start to ask how technology, the environment and politics fit together. What Bob Hughes does in this history of human society is put these pieces together. He writes with clarity and moral courage. His most compelling observations are about industrial and neoliberal capitalism and how the ruthless competition for profits not only kills technological innovation, but increases inequality and leads to environmental disaster.

Cutthroat competition is all. It is measured by what is known as the ‘churn rate’ and depends on a complete advertising myth that change itself is synonymous with technological improvement. So Nokia has lost out to and has been taken over by Apple. This happened, not because Nokia phones didn’t do the job, or weren’t robust enough and somehow became obsolete, but because they lost out to the advertising spin of the Apple giant turning the iphones into mini-computers and selling new, must-have versions year after year.

The iphones have become what the economist Fred Hirsch called ‘positional goods’ – if you’ve got one, then I must get one too. More important, positional goods are those that become increasingly hard to do without. And this doesn’t just happen, but is more or less coercive, and hits the poor hardest. Early on, car manufacturers in the US attacked public transport systems across the country. As Barbara Ehrenreich describes in her Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001) in the US, it is impossible to hold down a minimum wage job without owning a car. And now that applying for jobs requires on-line access, this has become perhaps the most important service offered the poor by the US public libraries. Or, for example, in the late 1960s and early 1970s powerful retail lobbies forced through legal changes that ended what was known as ‘resale price maintenance’ in the US and ‘retail price maintenance’ in the UK. These ratcheted up competition and opened the way for Wal-Mart, Amazon and threatened the survival of independent, IGA, grocers in the US and corner shops across the UK.

But Hughes tells us that behind the iphone is the much bigger computer story itself. The technologies of bits and bites, of zeros and ones, is an old one. Then during the Second World War, governments sponsored wide-ranging research as part of a desperate war effort. Those governments understood that task-focused research, spurred on by commitment and solidarity, and free of from both organizational and social restrictions, allowed creativity to flourish. And during this period, there was a staggering amount of technological innovation. Among much else, the Colossus was built at Bletchley Park. Government sponsored research is one way of opening up egalitarian spaces for good science and true invention.

Another outbreak of equality was part of the social movements and economic boom of the 1960s. This too was a period of much technological innovation, and many alternative ways of building computers were on offer. But then, profits fell during the early 1970s and the capitalist elite embraced the strictures of neoliberal economics and imposed cuts from the top down that created a much more unequal world.

As competition intensified, entrepreneurs scrambled to build on the limited, but proven, binary technologies of the war-time machines. The diversity of wide range of analog technologies was lost. And here lies the madness of the system. The war-time machines were clock-driven and designed to work through linear sequences. They could only do one thing – one computing operation – at a time. But since the 1970s, there has been very little freedom time, space, money or encouragement to rethink computer design and architecture. So companies, to remain competitive, have relied on making the computers work faster and faster. George Dyson, the computer historian, has said they are ‘perhaps the least efficient machine that humans have every built. There is a thin veneer of instructions, and then there is a dark empty 99.9 percent.’

As Bob Hughes says, the manufacturers are like a group of men running a desperate race without having had time to put their trousers on. The technology is limited, unimaginative and now fundamentally archaic. It could have been left behind long ago. But this hasn’t happened, and the computer giants are running the legs off what they’ve got.

Computers are also becoming smaller and smaller. What has happened with the microchip is a good example of how a key part of the system works. The microchip, it would seem, is a near perfect commodity, and comes as close as can be to that ideal of commodity production, printing banknotes. But as Hughes explains, ‘computer-chip manufacture is a high-stakes game, but with the catch that serious profits are only made on the fastest and latest chips while they are still ‘leading edge’. The industry is said to be driven by ‘Moore’s Law’. But this turns out to be nothing to do with the technology, but with the way ‘a number of small firms with the resources to manufacture chips, but no means of co-ordinating their actions, have been drawn into a bidding war – so that they end up committing astronomical and yet more astronomical amounts to stay in the game – with relatively little positive effect on the wider world: the same kind of phenomenon as a traffic wave, a stampede or a stock-market bubble.’

The microchip problem is central to present technologies, but it is by no means the only one. The ‘weightless economy’ or the ‘frictionless economy’ were ideas that became fashionable in the early 1990s. The suggestion was that computers and the internet would have a low impact on society, that cities would shrink and we would see ‘the death of distance’. But all this turns out to be a lie. The data servers that power the internet use enormous amounts of energy, and ‘cloud computing’ is nothing more or less than relying on more and more of these. And now there is just so much of it! In 2012 Greenpeace wrote, ‘The combined electricity demand of the internet/cloud data centers and telecommunications network globally in 2007 was approximately 623 kWh (kilowatt hours). If the cloud were a country, it would have the fifth largest electricity demand in the world’ – less than the US, China, Russia and Japan, but more than India, Germany, Canada, France, Brazil and the UK. The Greenpeace figures are nearly ten years old, and the increasing inequality that lies behind such numbers staggers the imagination.

What happened was that rather than just being used for communication, commercial competition began to alter the character of the worldwide web. The web has become a forum where transnational advertising, mail-order commerce, and the global food industry can do their worst. It has also become a place for managing the increasing commodification of intellectual property and the media in the form of licensing fees, rents and royalties. The connections are everywhere, so, for instance, Disney won a copyright decision that protects their rights to Mickey Mouse until 2103!

On the other hand, the scale of the web initiates other processes, some of which deliberately, and others inadvertently, challenge the increasing monopoly of the computer giants. Thus there is the invention of bitcoin and other of new kinds of money, and there is industrial and political sabotage, from casual hacking to the remarkable, principled leaks of scale by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowdon. And there are other possibilities, such a revolution led by digital workers as described in Cory Doctorow’s splendidly engaging novel, For the Win (New York: Harper, 2011).

The Bleeding Edge is a book full of information on contemporary computer technologies, from start to finish – from rare metal mining to dealing with ‘toxic trash’. So, for instance, the ‘Coltan [Columbite-Tantalite] rush’ of 2000 expanded the horrific ‘Great War’ in the Congo (from 1998-2004) because of the demand for smaller capacitors which store the electrical changes in electrical devices. ‘Tantalum capacitors are a major reason why modern electronic devices can be as small and as portable as they now are.’ But the deadly fighting in the Congo had far less to do with the limited sources of tantalum there, than with difficulties in the cost-effective extraction of tantalum from the world’s largest sources of the rare metal, two huge open-cast mines, one in Canada, the other in Australia. In 2000 the expected Christmas spike in demand for second generation mobile phones and PlayStation2 meant that it was an easy choice for the electronic corporations to fuel the Congo wars and brutally exploit the Congolese miners who have nothing and work for almost nothing. As Hughes writes, ‘nobody gained anything from this mayhem – which was, however, an entirely natural result of large corporations protecting themselv es against financial embarrassment, as required by their legal duty to shareholders’.

As for what happens with ‘toxic trash’, the story is equally heart-breaking.

This book is a tour de force – in its breadth and erudition, and in Hughes’ willingness to tackle the politics behind in his extended case study of the technologies of industrial and neoliberal capitalism. And the book is an eye-opener and ghost-buster. It takes haunting fear and mystery away from the technology, and locates the real dangers with the capitalist competition which allows more and more powerful technologies to fall into fewer and fewer hands.

Hughes explains why rewarding people with money doesn’t work, and says we need a new way to measure value. In the face of acute climate change, we need this urgently. In the first instance, we don’t even need new technology – what we have already can do the climate jobs we need and get us to a near zero-carbon economy. What is missing is a disposition for change among the elites who benefit from the present grossly unequal, and environmentally disastrous, system.

Throughout The Bleeding Edge Hughes wrestles with questions of equality of the kind explored by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level (2009) and in Thomas Piketty’s 2014 study of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In the final chapter, entitled ‘Utopia or Bust’, Hughes describes what a society that serves the common good might look like.

This is a book we should all aim to read, not least because we need to know as much as we can about our enemies. What Hughes doesn’t say, however, is how we get to the revolutionary equality that will get us out of this fix. Let us hope that will be the subject of his next book.


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