We must act to stop the future from turning dystopian

While dystopian science fiction is increasingly becoming true given the growing stratification of society, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor, technology has greatly exacerbated these differences. As we build our digital public infrastructure we need to redesign these technologies to ensure equitable access and benefits.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

One of the recurring tropes in science fiction is the radical stratification of societies of the future. In Time, an Andrew Niccol movie starring Amanda Seyfried and Justin Timberlake, tells the story of a society where everyone has just one more year to live after the age of 25. As a result, the world has stratified itself into the poor, on one hand, who are forced to trade the time they have left to eke out a living, and the extremely wealthy on the other, who can afford to buy time from the poor, achieving virtual immortality and consequently growing wealthier. In The Hunger Games, the affluent live in Panem, a bohemian, sybaritic society whose members spend their time extravagantly accessorizing their look while watching the ultimate life-or-death reality TV contest. All the while, the poor live in abject squalor in The Districts, the sole purpose of their existence being to supply Panem with everything it needs.

As dystopian as this future sounds, I am increasingly convinced that the world we inhabit is steadily moving in this direction. The net worth of the richest among us is so vastly disproportionate to the cost of food, housing, travel and other essential expenditures that, to them, these essentials are free for all intents and purposes. They don’t ever have to spare a thought for what anything they want to buy might cost. As a result, they can afford to care for their health in ways that will wipe out those less fortunate, indulging in preventative treatments that others will think extravagant. They can insulate themselves from pollution and the effects of climate change in ways that the poor in their ghettos simply cannot afford.

Authors such as Steven Pinker are at pains to point out that, as a matter of fact, things have never been better. We are healthier than we ever have ever been, and far fewer people across the world live in abject poverty. However, though things might have improved, those global metrics belie the increasing [[stratification of society]] that is widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots by the day. As much as things have overall become better compared to even half a century ago, the difference between the truly wealthy and the just moderately well-off is widening so rapidly that the dystopia that science fiction peddles is no longer just a fantasy.

You don’t have to look very far to see signs of this. Today, the wealthy among us live in plush apartment complexes and gated communities, safe in carefully crafted bubbles of comfort whose main purpose is to shield them from life outside. These mini-cities are equipped with their own electricity, water supply and security, and often offer shopping facilities so that residents never have to leave their cocoon.

When they do get out, it is in luxurious climate-controlled cars that shut out the noise, smells and sights of the world they are compelled to pass through. If they have to travel longer distances, they do so in chartered planes that take off from their own exclusive airports. On the rare occasions that they have to use commercial airlines, it is usually in first or business class, which, on the gigantic Airbus A380 aircraft, is on an exclusive upper deck accessed through a completely separate aerobridge directly from the lounge, ensuring that they don’t even accidentally come in contact with their less fortunate co-passengers crushed together in the economy section below.

Technology has, if anything, exacerbated these differences.

Back when workers were the primary means of production, the wealthy depended on them to run their factories and their shops. This allowed the working classes to leverage this dependence to negotiate better conditions of livelihood. With the growing automation of production, however, society’s dependence on people has virtually vanished, denying the working classes the leverage they once had.

As commerce has become more digital, interactions between different classes of society have reduced to the point where the wealthy no longer have any reason to remind themselves of how the other half lives.

Even if the world we occupy is not so different from the dystopian futures of science fiction, it might still be possible to avoid the stratification that these stories foretell. More often than not, the technologies that have perpetuated societal stratification are proprietary products available only to the elite, the few who can afford them. If we could, instead, redesign our technologies so that they are delivered over platforms that ensure these can be widely accessed on the public internet, the benefits they offer would spread more equitably across all strata of society.

Societal platforms tend to democratize population scale technologies. As we build new digital technologies for various sectors of the economy—such as the financial, medical and agricultural sectors—we would do well to ensure that they are designed to be accessed by all.

It is only in this manner that we will be able to achieve a more equitable distribution of benefits across all segments of society.