A lot is written about coming increases in inequality, driven mostly by technology. Basically robots will replace almost all low-income and middle-income jobs, leaving a society where wealth accumulates with those who have access to capital and an understanding of high-technology. In short, those who own the robots will own the future, and everybody else is fucked.

This is bad news for the vast majority, and comparisons are often made with previous instances of inequality that have led to civil unrest, revolution, or just plain old suffering. However, I think this time it will be worse because it will be perpetual, and for two reasons.

Reason one: Poverty wont be too bad.

That sounds awful, but what I mean is… “you have nothing to lose but your amazon prime, your netflix and your smartphone” is not much of a rallying call. As technology gets cheaper and the provision of basic services becomes even cheaper, allowing everyone, even the very poorest in society to have a ‘livable life’ becomes almost trivial. I’ve already seen this in my lifetime. My grandfather had an outside toilet (basically a shack) a black-and white TV and a house with no kitchen at all (he built one from spare building material he swiped from sites when he worked as a builder). His house had only a tin bath, no telephone (obviously), and was tiny, even by modern standards.

These days that would be awful, and he would be considered to be living in poverty, eligible for all sorts of benefits etc. In other words, life for people on my grandfathers level of income is vastly better now than it was then, and even back then, we had no workers uprising. I simply cannot see any revolution or popular uprising from people as long as they have facebook, food, a warm house, TV and a smartphone. People now have too much to lose.

Reason two: We won’t know any poor people (or maybe rich people, depending which group you are in).

We may think that situations like downton abbey show inequality at its worse. The rich landed gentry living a life of luxury while the poor servants live a life of near poverty and servitude, but there is actually something very beneficial they had which increasingly we are losing.

They had integration across income levels. Lord Grantham may well consider himself vastly ‘superior’ to his butler and his valet, but he chats to both at least ten times a day. he knows his butlers personal opinions, his concerns, and his thoughts. Ditto, the butler and valet know what troubles Lord Grantham has, how he feels, what he cares about etc. They all live in the same house, albeit in very differently furnished rooms.

In other words, even in a land of masters and servants, there is human contact, maybe even some understanding, some empathy. It really matters where we have personal *human* interaction with people. Its very hard to ‘dehumanize’ people we know really well. Racism, Sexism, Classism, whatever form of exclusion you name, it all relies on keeping ‘the others’ at arms length. This is why religious extremism tries to separate people from outside influence. Its hard to be a suicide bomber when most of the people you will blow up are people you feel like you know and understand. Its no surprise people didn’t like the idea of ‘marrying down’, it blurred the important distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Shockingly, I recently realized I don’t have any close friends (who I see weekly or monthly) who are non-white, nor any who are gay (to my knowledge). This is quite a shock to me, but its true. Also…an increasing number of my friends work for themselves, and are fairly (or considerably) financially successful. In other words, increasingly I seem to associate with ‘people like me’. We all see this as a problem with social media, ‘blocking’ and ‘share with friends’. Admit it, how many of your friends hold strongly different political opinions to you? Now more interestingly, how many of your friends earn more than four times what you do? or less than a quarter of what you do?

As technology increasingly dominates our lives, we no longer integrate with people across financial boundaries. I do most shopping through amazon, never meeting even a cashier, and even when I go food shopping the UK has a fairly strictly defined stratification of grocery shopping destinations by income level. Restaurants even get graded online as £ ££ or £££ to ensure you pick the right one for your income. Cars are now cleaned by robots, soon even taxis will be driven by robots, and parcels and post even delivered by robots. How much random interaction with people not of your choosing will you have in 2020?

A lack of interaction with people from different groups means a lack of empathy for those groups. The age of the hyper-rich and the relatively poor majority is coming, and if we expect the hyper rich to care about anyone else we have to wonder how they will even understand the rest of us if we never meet them. Even their few remaining employees will be bussed in to work to avoid contact with the masses. The new Mr Carson or Mr Bates is a robot or a disembodied AI voice, and the new Mr Grantham won’t care.

An age of huge inequality and technological isolationism is coming, and I cannot see it ending any time soon.

 

6 Responses to “The new inequality wont be downton abbey. it will be worse”

  1. Luke Hughes says:

    Much to what you say. However, revolutions can be peaceful through the ballot box. Depressing in some ways as some recent elections may be, the candidates elected were not the ones backed by big money. The people still have a voice and use it through voting.
    On the other hand if you argument is the non hyper-rich will be *content* with a certain level of basic income, maybe so.

  2. Les says:

    To vote reasonably, a person first has to understand all implications of his decision. Current economy, politics and society are very complex and difficult to understand even for an expert:
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/29/trump-brexit-society-complex-people-populists

    In UK we have Brexit, which will generally fuck up poor voters even more in near future. Also, look what happened in US – people voted ‘against elites’ and Trump is pulling the richest cabinet in modern history:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-38168382

    I doubt that uneducated person can really forecast implications of their decisions.

  3. The ultimate goal of capitalism is to reduce the cost of living to near zero. With good AI and cheap energy we could all be living like kings in mansions for a dollar a day.

  4. Alan says:

    I agree with your premise that so long as people meet a minimum level of safety and happiness, they won’t rebel. And I think I’m okay with that. But I disagree that it’s inevitable. The empathy problem threatens it.

    A significant chunk of those with power and money already believe that anyone less powerful and wealthy than they are morally inferior and deserve to suffer. Once you have that idea, destroying the social safety net seems like a reasonable idea. “A smartphone? Luxury! If they want a smartphone, they should get off their asses and get a job, just like I did when I took my first job as an executive for my billionaire father! Too much crime in their neighborhood? Well, they’re just inherently prone to crime; there’s nothing to be done for it.” As the wealthy and powerful become increasingly disconnected, that idea will find fertile ground to spread.

    If the revolution comes, I will have no sympathy when the 1% ends up against the wall; if they’re so damn smart and deserving, they’d have seen it coming and ensured things never got that desperate for the 99%.

    (I think the bit about grading restaurants by £, ££, or £££ is a bit off base. I know it’s been common in the US since at least the 80s, going back to newspaper reviews and books of reviews. I’m pretty sure it’s a lot older than tha.I’ve never viewed $$$ as meaning it wasn’t appropriate for people like me, but that )

    “The ultimate goal of capitalism is to reduce the cost of living to near zero.”

    BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

  5. Oli Norwell says:

    This is excellent, quite possible one of the best things you’ve written. Of all the future predictions you read online, your point about people increasingly being able to just come in contact (both online and offline) with those they’ve chosen to communicate with has to be one of the most certain. Like you say, it’s not just offline where people can have stuff delivered, work from home, and avoid people, people are increasingly doing it online as well.

    Perhaps in cities the effect is less extreme. Though is seeing other types of people walk past you in the street really any kind of substitute for connecting with them, probably not.

    Ultimately though, the effect can be dramatically reduced if you really wanted it to be. Each person has the opportunity to reach out and make new connections online, to people entirely different from themselves. I suppose like anything in life, you first need to find the motivation to do so, and without curiosity, it’s hard to see the average person bothering to do so.

    • cliffski says:

      its easier if you yourself have changed. My location and my income changed dramatically, so did my career so I *know* my current friends are not a diverse bunch. if you have always lived among similar people, you probably don’t know how isolated you are.