Does technology worsen poverty?
Technology, it is said, helps uplift people’s lives. The question is, whose lives? Experience tells us that technology can both worsen and alleviate poverty and inequality.
We all realize that there is much more to poverty than earning less than a certain minimum level of income for meeting a family’s basic needs—which is still how official statistics define who are poor. Poverty is much more complex, and has social, economic, ecological, political, cultural and spiritual dimensions. Many years ago, I found myself in a discussion with a group from a small rich country, who started out almost bragging that no one is poor in their society. On closer probing, they began expressing a deep hunger, a poverty of a different dimension, particularly in the cultural and political spheres. They even expressed envy for us Filipinos, who they see as amply endowed in these dimensions of human welfare. These sentiments from people of a supposedly rich country convinced me even more that poverty is much more than lack of income.
It is widely seen how technology has contributed to worsening economic poverty and widening income inequality. The gap between rich and poor nations, and between the rich- and poor-within nations, has widened as a result of unequal access to information and communication technology (ICT), in what is known as the “digital divide.” We see glaring contrasts within Asean alone: 90 percent of Singaporeans have access to the internet, while only 18-19 percent have access in Laos and Cambodia. Most African countries have less than 10 percent. In an age when knowledge and information are power, such disparities help the ICT “haves” leave the ICT “have-nots” even farther behind.
On the social dimension, jobless growth has become a problem for rich and poor nations alike. As technology-based production processes rely less and less on human labor, more and more unskilled and low-skilled workers find themselves losing their jobs, and their self-esteem as well. Technology is also seen to have worsened ecological poverty. Technology-driven and energy-intensive industrialization has brought with it widespread pollution and environmental degradation. Genetically modified organisms, now widely entrenched in commercial agriculture and food production, have led to widespread fears of various ill effects on human health and environmental integrity. On the political front, the world financial crisis showed how the technology-driven financial sector could undermine the sovereignty of nations. Governments find themselves ill-equipped to forestall economic crises induced by the actions of private individuals like international currency traders and fund managers, and at worst, online hackers. Technology has permitted split-second transactions that could move billions across borders with a few computer keystrokes.
Many lament how cultural poverty is resulting from the way global mass media and the internet are homogenizing cultures more toward the unsustainable lifestyles of the West. Cultural identity, asserted in things ranging from cuisine to modes of apparel, along with social norms and values, is under threat. On the spiritual dimension, the way technology leads people to feel that human destiny is completely within their control tests ethical and spiritual values around the world. Scientific advances that make human cloning and retardation of aging could have profound implications on the ethical and spiritual underpinnings of civilization.
Still, worsening poverty in its various dimensions need not be the inevitable result of technological advance. Put at the disposal of the entire populace especially in the countryside, ICT could go a long way toward empowering poor rural populations to achieve what their richer urban counterparts can, via telephone, computer and internet stations in every village, for example. Availability of essential drugs and environmentally sound technologies need not be restricted to those who have the money, if alternative ways to reward innovation can be found, other than vesting monopoly power via intellectual property. The key is to make technology available and accessible to all.
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