The Triumph of Inequality

We spent a great deal of time talking about inequality of opportunity and outcomes. The tech industry  is fanatically progressive in its opinions, as the unfortunate James Damore, formerly of Google, recently learned. The tech industry's drivel about diversity and equality masks a guilty conscience:  Digital technology creates inequality of a kind we have never seen before in human history.

Instead of talking about inequality of outcomes, suppose we talked about inequality of knowledge?

Three hundred years ago, pretty much everyone knew how their technology worked. Europe had lived for a millennium on the innovations of the Carolingian Renaissance: the water wheel, the horse collar, and three-field crop rotation. Everyone knew how a water wheel worked. Water pushed the paddles and gears turned the millstones. Not everyone knew how a steam engine worked, but a lot of people did. The same applied to internal combustion engines.

Not only were those technologies easy to understand: They were easy to make. Any competent carpenter could build a water wheel. The Wright brothers built their first airplane in a bicycle shop. Henry Ford made his first internal combustion engine out of spare parts in a backroom at the Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit.

How many people know how a computer works? Solid-state electronics depends on quantum theory, which is understood by one in 10,000 Americans at best. To build a competitive integrated circuit now requires a multi-billion-dollar plant. A numerically minuscule elite invents the technologies we use every day, and a handful of large corporations access the capital required to manufacture them. Apple and Microsoft dominate their industries by making them easy to use. How long has it been since anyone typed an instruction into a computer, as we did in the antediluvian days of DOS? We use an "intuitive" graphic interface that does all the work for us.

Industrial robots, 3-D printing, and similar technologies permit a few scientists and programmers to do what tens of thousands of industrial workers once did. The factory floors of modern plants are empty except for the maintenance personnel, with robots guided by white-coated technicians in a glass bubble overhead. One computer scientist with a plan, Jeff Bezos, has laid waste to the retail industry. He employs 350,000 people to put merchandise inside cardboard boxes, until the robots replace them.

Inequality is spreading into the furthest corners of the world economy. In remote villages where everyone farmed the same kind of subsistence plot or sat in the same kind of market stall, mobile broadband allows the cleverest person in the village to access the global market through platforms like Alibaba. The grim equality of rural life will disappear; the talented few will gain access to markets and capital and get rich by hiring their neighbors.