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IP: A sobering thought for technologists in the New Year
From: Dave Farber <farber () cis upenn edu>
Date: Wed, 30 Dec 1998 03:25:43 -0500
Date: Tue, 29 Dec 1998 22:10:28 -0800
From: "Chris Gulker" <cg () gulker com>
To: farber () cis upenn edu
"Technology, the child of science, has not favored a kinder and more just
world... technology has become a wedge driving the haves and the have nots
ever more widely apart... A Sierra Leone resident makes on average $179 a
year. Bill Gates is currently worth $73,433,864,275"
..from an upcoming column for The Independent (London).
Nevertheless, wishing all a happy, if sobering, new year...
Neither kinder nor gentler
By Chris Gulker
As the year winds down, I¹m sitting around the fire a lot unbelievably, it
snowed here in California¹s Silicon Valley keeping warm and thinking about
technology and people.
To be sure, these are my two favorite topics. I love to lurk and watch as we
humans, admirably evolved to be hunter-gatherers, confront things like
operating systems, PDAs and even VCR displays you know, the ones that are
always blinking "12:00 AM".
One of my favorite thinkers, Freeman Dyson believes we have a real problem
at the end of the 20th Century and 2nd Millennium. Dyson thinks that
technology has become a wedge driving the haves and the have nots ever more
widely apart, and writes about it in his book "Imagined Worlds".
In my last column, I wrote about how Dyson¹s words came home, hard, as I sat
in the deep leather seats of a friend¹s high-tech, wired-to-the-max,
luxurious Jeep speeding past farm workers in the rain and cold of
California¹s Central Valley. Warm and comfortable, sitting amidst the many
blessings of my technologically-driven life, this disturbing thought
Dyson is adept at following events in numerous disparate fields - sociology
and nuclear weaponry, astronomy and biology, history and mechanics - and
weaving these threads in interesting and revealing ways. Dyson, a
mathematician by training, is Professor Emeritus at Princeton¹s Institute
for Advanced Study, as well as a writer of popular books about science.
An unabashed supporter of the sciences, Dyson nevertheless contends that
many of the ills of current American society are due to science. Drugs,
guns, racial intolerance and illiteracy may be the immediate causes of our
social morass, but the unwise application of science is the deeper root.
Science is a mixed blessing in Dyson¹s view. It grants great and god-like
powers to human practitioners who, unfortunately, have a decidedly checkered
record as far as the wise application of said science goes. On the one hand,
scientists create cures for polio, on the other, biological weapons. Without
a well-developed moral and ethical framework to guide us, humanity is in big
trouble as our knowledge, and powers increase.
Technology, the child of science, has not favored a kinder and more just
world. In Dyson¹s opinion, America¹s ills, and those seen elsewhere in the
world, result whenever the gap between rich and poor widens sufficiently.
Contrast, say, a resident of Sierra Leone, the nation at the bottom of the
U.N.¹s list of livable countries and a certain resident of the U.S., Bill
Gates. A Sierra Leone resident makes on average $179 a year. Bill Gates is
currently worth $73,433,864,275 according to the "Titan Ticker" on Upside
Magazine¹s Web site, and his wealth has been increasing at a recent
annualized rate of just over $21 billion. Poorest guy: $179, richest guy:
$21,000, 000, 000 - today¹s gap makes, say, revolutionary France look
downright appealing, never mind that the gap might be the one between one¹s
head and body.
An economist has said that Bill Gates is worth more than the 100 million or
so poorest Americans put together. The U.N. says that the world¹s 358
billionaires are worth more than the countries with 45 per cent of the
world¹s population some 3 billion people.
The gap between rich and poor is, indeed, the culprit. In absolute terms, a
poor American is far better off than a poor Sierra Leonan. The American
will earn more, eat better, live longer and see more children survive to be
adults than her African counterpart. This datum will, however, in no way
reduce the frustration or sense of uselessness that often befalls people
trapped in American poverty.
Science and technology create the machines that replace unskilled workers
and the computers that replace unskilled clerks. Computers tied into global
information networks make it easy for companies to send jobs to nations with
the lowest bidders, reducing dramatically the numbers of good, well-paid
blue-collar jobs that once led to education for working-class children, and
an all-important chance to escape the poverty cycle.
"Because of science, families with access to computers and to higher
education are rapidly becoming a hereditary caste, the children inheriting
these advantages from their parents" writes Dyson. " children deprived of
legitimate opportunities to earn a living have strong economic incentives to
join gangs and become criminals". Social displacement follows hard on the
heels of technological revolution.
Dickens prospered by writing about the wretched plight of people displaced
in the Industrial Revolution, when land and agrarian skills were quickly
pushed aside by capital and manufacturing skills as the basis of wealth.
Must we repeat history as the Information Age dawns?
In my neighborhood, most 9-year-olds are computer-literate. I bought my
13-year old nephew an iMac for Christmas. A few miles from here, 9 years
marks the age when kids are first being lured by gangs, and more than a few
13-year olds either have a gun or know where to get one. Dyson reports the
same grim disparity between his home town of Princeton and its neighbor,
So what¹s the answer? Technology?
Steve Jobs answered that one particularly well, I¹m told, at a recent
education conference. Asked if technology could help solve the problem of
illiteracy, he thought for a moment, then said no, only teachers and parents
can do that.
Happy New Year, all. I, for one, intend to spend the year looking for ways
to chip away at "the gap".
- IP: A sobering thought for technologists in the New Year Dave Farber (Dec 30)