Of Course Technology Isn't Society's Great Equalizer

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Tech companies are no different than other companies.

I read a headline yesterday that made me laugh aloud.

"Tech Was Supposed to Be Society’s Great Equalizer," said The Atlantic. "What Happened?"

I'm not that intrigued by this question. I'm intrigued by a different question: Since when was technology supposed to be society's great equalizer?

"The early boosters of the Internet sprang from the counterculture of the 1960s and the New Communalist movement," continued the article. "Some of them, like Stewart Brand, hoped to spread the sensibilities of hippie communes throughout the wilderness of the web. Others saw the internet more broadly as an opportunity to build a society that amended the failures of the physical world."

"Shockingly," this utopia did not come into being. If these communalists knew more about history, they would have known technology has been decreasing equality for hundreds of years.

The idea that technology could usher in an age of equality is an old one. People used to think that machines were "labor saving devices" that would bring about more free time for everyone. But free time didn't get evenly distributed. Instead, the benefits of tech went to those who owned the machines.

The pattern goes like this: New technology appears on the scene. Bosses use said technology to replace workers. Now all those salaries can go back into the pockets of the bosses, or back into the businesses, which just amps up the whole cycle. Machines have been taking jobs since people stopped being farmers because machines took their farms.

Granted, today's tech companies are a special kind of manipulative.

"Facebook’s platform amplifies preexisting biases—both of ideology and race—and political propaganda," the article continued. "Amazon’s dominion over online retail has allowed it to squash competition, not unlike the railroad monopolies of the 19th century. And Apple, in designing the most profitable product in modern history, has also designed another instrument of harmful behavioral addiction."

Companies use technology to consolidate power and make more money? Say whaaaat?

"The tech industry isn’t a digital hippie commune, anymore. It’s the new aristocracy," the article went on. "The largest and fastest growing companies in the world, in both the U.S. and China, are tech giants. It’s our responsibility, as users and voters, to urge these companies to use their political and social power responsibly."

I'm not sure "urging" will do the trick. Technology could usher in a golden age of equality. It could create a world where machines do most of the work, and everyone can access things like food, housing and healthcare. But that would take more than politely asking companies to be nice.

Technology is a tool. Like all tools, the benefits go primarily to those who own it.