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Why Inequality Turns Technology Toxic

A new book draws from thousands of years of history to show that innovation flourishes in egalitarian settings and is stifled by cut-throat by competition.

Blogging Our Great Divide
October 21, 2016

by Christopher Pitt

In The Bleeding Edge: Why Technology Turns Toxic in an Unequal World, European academic and activist Bob Hughes exposes how inequality significantly diminishes our technological options and turns successful inventions into their evil counterparts.

Part historical revision, part policy prescription, the book convincingly refutes the fundamental capitalist assumption that increased competition is the best way to spark innovative technological development. Looking back over 5,000 years of history, Hughes maintains that new technologies have emerged from largely voluntary, egalitarian collaborations, rather than from elites or from the clash of competitive forces.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is a comparison of the production of the iPhone with the production of textiles in medieval Europe. When the first capitalist states emerged in 16th-century Europe, technological innovations had been developing quietly for centuries, mostly through the anonymous contributions of federated craftworkers.

With the rise of merchant elites and patenting practices, the structure of production changed, with guild-based workers replaced by a network of rural, largely female and juvenile workforce. Under this new division of labor, workers specialized in one part of the manufacturing process rather than having the requisite skill to complete the job from beginning to end.

Thus, livelihoods could disappear in an instant with a change in fashion or prices, or the discovery of a new, cheaper source of labor somewhere else. Most profits from the product flowed outside of the area where it was produced and workers had very little power.

Hughes tells a similar tale about the iPhone. The software for the iPhone, and indeed the internet itself, was created by freely associating individuals “in conscious defiance of the management hierarchies and profit-driven, intellectual property (IP) regime that underpin a giant like Apple,” Hughes writes. And yet profits from the phones are highly concentrated.

At the Foxconn factories in China, workers who make the phones receive a basic wage of $130 per month — roughly one 31,000th of the annual salary former Apple CEO Steve Jobs used to make. Only $6.54 of the $600 retail price for the iPhone ends up at the site of production. Just like the medieval textile industry, the electronic industries of today require “rapid obsolescence” and “highly atomized, precarious workforces,” Hughes writes.

In the capitalist market economy, the capitalists themselves have the information and the means to get it, while keeping it from anyone else. Thus, with textile manufacturing in medieval Europe and today’s iPhone production, fortunes are made where the “knowledge is” and power politics ensures that it remains as far from the point of production as possible.

Hughes also points out how the more unequal a society becomes the more technology tends to damages the environment. Drawing on his background working in the IT industry and teaching digital media at Oxford Brookes University, Hughes argues that the capitalist takeover of the computer has pushed humanity down a path of destruction. As an example, he points to the invention of Cloud software and its devastating impact on global CO2 emissions. Wherever elites exist, he argues, self-preservation decrees that they must take control of new technologies to protect and entrench their status, rather than satisfy people’s needs.

With this insightful book, Hughes has made a valuable effort to change the way we view the intersection of technology and inequality and to create a value system that is just for all.

Christopher Pitt is a participant in the Next Leader program at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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