Technology is making the world more unequal. Only technology can fix this

Here’s the good news: technology – specifically, networked technology – makes it easier for opposition movements to form and mobilise, even under conditions of surveillance, and to topple badly run, corrupt states.

Inequality creates instability, and not just because of the resentments the increasingly poor majority harbours against the increasingly rich minority. Everyone has a mix of good ideas and terrible ones, but for most of us, the harm from our terrible ideas is capped by our lack of political power and the checks that others – including the state – impose on us.

As rich people get richer, however, their wealth translates into political influence, and their ideas – especially their terrible ideas – take on outsized importance….

After all, there comes a point when the bill for guarding your wealth exceeds the cost of redistributing some of it, so you won’t need so many guards.

But that’s where technology comes in: surveillance technology makes guarding the elites much cheaper than it’s ever been. GCHQ and the NSA have managed to put the entire planet under continuous surveillance. Less technologically advanced countries can play along: Ethiopia was one of the world’s first “turnkey surveillance states”, a country with a manifestly terrible, looting elite class that has kept guillotines and firing squads at bay through buying in sophisticated spying technology from European suppliers, and using this to figure out which dissidents, opposition politicians and journalists represent a threat, so it can subject them to arbitrary detention, torture and, in some cases, execution….

That’s the bad news.

Now the good news: technology makes forming groups cheaper and easier than it’s ever been. Forming and coordinating groups is the hard problem of the human condition; the reason we have religions and corporations and criminal undergrounds and political parties. Doing work together means doing more than one person could do on their own, but it also means compromising, subjecting yourself to policies or orders from above. It’s costly and difficult, and the less money and time you have, the harder it is to form a group and mobilise it.

This is where networks shine. Modern insurgent groups substitute software for hierarchy, networks for bosses. They are able to come together without agreeing to a crisp agenda that you have to submit to in order to be part of the movement. When it costs less to form a group, it doesn’t matter so much that you aren’t all there for the same reason, and thus are doomed to fall apart. Even a small amount of work done together amounts to more than the tiny cost of admission…

The future is never so normal as we think it will be. The only sure thing about self-driving cars, for instance, is that whether or not they deliver fortunes to oligarchic transport barons, that’s not where it will end. Changing the way we travel has implications for mobility (both literal and social), the environment, surveillance, protest, sabotage, terrorism, parenting …

Long before the internet radically transformed the way we organise ourselves, theorists were predicting we’d use computers to achieve ambitious goals without traditional hierarchies – but it was a rare pundit who predicted that the first really successful example of this would be an operating system (GNU/Linux), and then an encyclopedia (Wikipedia).

The future will see a monotonic increase in the ambitions that loose-knit groups can achieve. My new novel, Walkaway, tries to signpost a territory in our future in which the catastrophes of the super-rich are transformed into something like triumphs by bohemian, anti-authoritarian “walkaways” who build housing and space programmes the way we make encyclopedias today: substituting (sometimes acrimonious) discussion and (sometimes vulnerable) networks for submission to the authority of the ruling elites….(More).