The Silicon Bullet for Inequality
Inequality in the world is worse than we think.
We generally view inequality as differences between income and wealth. Through this lens, inequality in the world is staggering:
Roughly 50% of the world’s wealth is owned by 26 people, the same amount of people that would fill up half of a standard bus. Nearly than half of the world lives on the equivalent of $5.50 a day or less, which means they struggle to meet their basic needs.
Unfortunately, using wealth inequality as a point of comparison doesn’t help us much in the way of ensuring the citizens of our towns, cities, countries — emerging global society at large — live dignified lives.
A more appropriate way of thinking about inequality is through the lens of opportunity.
This is, in many ways, a function of one’s financial position. The more better-off one is economically, the more free they are to pursue what they wish. Money buys time and opens doors — and the more money you have — the more keys to the world you have.
There is a considerable problem with thinking about opportunity through the lens of wealth, however. There are some keys to the world that money simply cannot buy. It doesn’t matter how many zeros you have in your bank account, no one can buy the ability to read, to play an instrument, or the feeling of being loved and part of a community. These critical components of the human experience contribute to well-being more than access to wealth. That’s not to say that access to money isn’t crucial to alleviate suffering, rather, as research supports, money can’t simply buy happiness.
The idea of equality of opportunity, while far harder to reduce to something quantifiable, is a better reflection of our intuitions and understanding of what makes a life lived fulfilling, dignified, and beautiful.
Freedom and Equality
This notion is one that we’ve been aware of for centuries and has guided much of the world’s political thought. Opportunity means freedom. Freedom is a central tenet of liberalism, the politics that has dominated the West in recent centuries. It could be the foundational principle upon which the astounding achievements of our species rests upon.
Core to liberalism is the idea of protecting and enhancing the freedom of the individual, ensuring that citizens have certain inalienable rights like freedom of speech, and the ability to and forge a life of their own choosing.
The ability to exercise your freedom is the same as choosing to take advantage of an opportunity. Whether or not we do that is the choice of the individual. Central to liberalism is whether or not we have the freedom or opportunity to do so.
Keys to the World
Not all freedoms are created equal, some unlock far more of the world than others. For instance, once one gains the ability to read, their world changes forever. Literacy enables people to navigate the world around them, learn new things from books, and even write them! Once established, the ability to extract and communicate information through the written word opens up the landscape of possible lives we could live like a library of thrilling books beyond imagining, stories where we are the main characters and the authors as well.
When we view inequality in the world through this lens of freedom, the disparity maybe more stark.
It’s likely that you, reading this on your device, are closer to the world’s richest 0.01% than the poorest 3.5 billion people of the world in terms of freedom and opportunity.
In fact, from this perspective, you possess riches that the kings and queens of antiquity couldn’t of conceive of — abilities that would defy the dreams of even the most imaginative inventors.
The reason is that you have access to the Internet.
The Silicon Bullet for Inequality — Internet Access and Device Ownership
The Internet may be our species’ greatest triumph. It is the ultimate tool of freedom and opportunity, the library of the world, and so, so much more.
It provides each of us with access to the collective ancient wisdom of cultures from around the world, multiple civilisations’ worth of creative output, computational resources previously not even accessible to world leaders. (Soon, every-day citizens will be able to access quantum computers.)
The list of what the internet provides is inexhaustible and grows faster than we can describe. And all of its riches are accessible through a supercomputer-multi-tool made of glass you carry around with you in your pocket.
The Internet’s value is so great that the ability to access it is now necessary to secure human rights. (For more information, read The Internet and Control: A Global Human Rights Issue.)
And half the world still doesn’t have access to it.
Viewing inequality through the lens of freedom of opportunity, there’s no greater way that we could reduce inequality in the world than by ensuring internet access for the world’s population.
Internet accessibility can transform peoples lives in unimaginable ways. What follows are just a few areas in which Internet access can change the course of someone’s life for the better.
Literacy and Education
People are capable of learning just about anything through the Internet. World-class universities have provided lots of their material online for free. YouTube is brimming with millions of hours of content on how to do just about anything, from changing a tire, build apps, to fashioning your own water purification system.
To be able to access this information the ability to read is crucial. You can’t navigate the Internet if you can’t read what’s on your screen. Fortunately, there are now technical solutions to solve even that problem.
In 2014 and 2015, two XPRIZEs were launched to spark the developments of open-source, scalable, smart-device solutions capable of teaching children basic literacy and numeracy, and to improve the literacy of adults.
In the space of a few years, several companies were successful in developing viable solutions.
According to the Global Learning XPRIZE executive summary report:
Before the Global Learning XPRIZE field test, 74% of the participating children were reported as having never attended school, 80% reported never having been read to at home, and over 90% of participating children were unable to read a single word in Swahili, the national language of Tanzania. After 15 months of learning on Pixel C tablets donated by Google and preloaded with one of the five finalists learning software, that number was cut in half.
Healthcare accessibility varies widely depending upon which country you’re in. Even in the most developed countries, remote communities lack access to well-trained doctors. This lack of accessibility to healthcare means that people around the world die every day from easily-treated health problems.
The Internet can help alleviate some of these problems. Using internet-connected devices, people can now get access to healthcare workers remotely.
Telehealth has already shown to be effective in more developed countries. In a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2012, telehealth services resulted in a 45% reduction in mortality rate and a 20% reduction in emergency admissions.
In some cases, technologies remove the need for doctors altogether.
Developments in artificial intelligence are increasing the availability of eHealth capabilities substantially. Trained on data vetted by experts, these systems are analysing and classifying ailments with accuracy on par with, and sometimes better than, trained experts. For instance, one AI system has been trained to classify skin cancers based on images alone, and in many cases can do so better than experts.
This is just one example of an ever-increasing supply of scalable expertise that can now benefit the internet-connected world.
Internet access doesn’t solve all problems associated with healthcare, of course. There are still issues of getting access to critical medical supplies to those who need them. Fortunately, we’re making strides in that direction as well: medical supplies delivered through drones.
As the capabilities of our devices grow, opportunities for remote-work are skyrocketing. The ability for one to learn whatever they want online and to sell those skills on the global market gives people access to literally an entire world of opportunities. Those who live in places with limited job opportunities in their communities can turn to the internet and can get access to work, and in many cases, earn far more than they would be able to in their own communities.
Due to this, getting a personal portal to the internet could be the single most effective intervention in reducing inequality (wealth included) in the world.
It could also be the most productive.
A Selfish Justification for Altruism
We now live in the Information Age. The ability to sense, store, and communicate information about the world and take coordinated action based on it has arguably been the driving force behind our ascendance as a species. It’s this ability that has enabled us, an animal sharing 50% of its genome with bananas, to put robotic rovers on Mars, harness energy locked in atoms, and see the cosmos for the speckled expanse it is.
Each of these incredible feats was made possible by 1200 grams of pink flesh just like the one you have you in your skull: the brain.
The human brain is one of the most complex objects we know of in the universe. It is, in many ways, analogous to a computer. And like a computer, it’s only as useful as the information it has access to. It doesn’t matter how powerful it is — if you don’t provide it with good inputs, you won’t get good outputs.
Given the tremendous creative potential of the human brain, we’re effectively squandering the latent productive capacity of half the world. There are millions of geniuses out there whose potential may never be realised simply because they don’t have internet access.
We have the opportunity to connect 3.5 billion creative problem solvers to the entirety of our species’ information — the totality of human creative output — and it will benefit us all.
How much would it cost to equip the remaining 3.5 billion people with access to the Internet?
The smartphone revolution has lead to a dramatic reduction in the cost of electronic parts. While flagship devices now push past the $1000 mark, it’s now possible for one to get their hands on a smartphone for less than $100. The standard lifetime of these devices is around two years, so let’s say device ownership could cost $50 a year per person.
The cost of internet access can vary widely as well. For this example, we’ll think in terms of 3G or 4G access, rather than broadband, as the latter requires substantially more infrastructure, and only supplies internet to specific locations, rather blanketing a specific area. It’s possible to get a cellular connection for as little as $10 a month.
At a cost of $50 per year for a smartphone and with yearly internet access costing $120 a year, a person could have a personal portal to the digital world for $170 a year.
To supply the Internet to the remaining half of the world, these figures show that it would cost less than a trillion dollars annually. (This doesn’t even consider that a large portion of this population are children, who wouldn’t need to personally access the Internet.)
A trillion dollars per year may sound like a lot, but here’s some context.
- In 2018, the global GDP was roughly $85.5 trillion.
- We collectively spend over $5 trillion subsidising energy (mainly fossil fuels).
- The GDP of the United States of America is over $20 trillion.
Regardless, the figure is still large when you view it as a cost alone. When we consider how much of a productive investment it may be, and the fact that it is truly a matter of equality and distributive justice at a global scale, it looks like a feasible and worthwhile investment.
This exercise obviously isn’t an exhaustive economic analysis. Rather, the purpose of these back of the envelope calculations is to show how little it would cost to connect the remainder of the world and be truly connected to one another.
Of course, Internet access isn’t a solution to all of the world’s problems. There are still questions of how we could provide electricity to the billion people without it, how can we ensure people have access to resources critical for life, like water and food.
This should not be seen as a panacea. Instead, global internet access could be a catalyst to radically reduce global inequality and drive much of the change we so desperately need.
The luck of where we are born no longer needs to be the determining factor in the opportunities we’re afforded in life. The Internet provides us with the ability to bypass borders and deliver access to a world opportunity to all people on Earth, sharing the fruits of our species’ collective labour.
If we as global citizens truly care for the well-being of people around our planet, regardless of their backgrounds, and wish to dramatically improve our species’ problem-solving capabilities (because God knows we need it), we will endeavour to ensure that all people have a personal means of accessing the Internet if they so wish.
This may not be something that can be achieved by the coordination of national-governments and NGOs alone. It may be necessary for people who see themselves as a part of humanity before any nationality — global citizens — to band together and try to make this a reality.
It’s time we come together and deliver this new birthright the world — because we can.