All things being unequal

AN INTERESTING chart jumped out at me from the pages of the New York Times the other day. It ranked six countries according to the distribution of income. Of the six, Britain was ranked most equitable, Brazil the least and the United States came about halfway in between.

The chart's numbers came from the World Bank and the United Nations, and compared how the richest fifth of the population compared with the poorest fifth. In Brazil, it found that the richest quintile command over 64 per cent of the nation's wealth, versus a mere 2.5 per cent for the poorest. The UK figures were respectively 39.8 per cent and 7.1 per cent, while the US numbers were 45.2 per cent and 4.8 per cent.

That a deep gulf between rich and poor often leads to social strife was perhaps well illustrated by the subject of the accompanying article - the great success being reaped in Brazil by companies that fit out cars with armour plating.

Another country on the list, Mexico, has a wealthiest quintile that controls more than 58 per cent of its wealth, with only 3.6 per cent in the hands of the poorest fifth. I have yet to visit Brazil, but I have been to Mexico on several occasions. Mexico City writhes with a palpable tension that I've experienced in few other places. Heavily armed guards stand outside of banks, stores and the residences of the rich. Crime has risen sharply in Mexico City in recent years, and some Mexican states have districts that are on the verge of revolution. Car armourers find plenty of customers in Mexico, too.

So how, I wonder, will the Internet affect the distribution of wealth on this planet? The Net, after all, is supposed to be a great leveller, giving everyone, in theory, an equal voice. Unfortunately, at this stage of the game, I think just the opposite is true. The Net is going to skew things the other way, wildly.

The problem is that you have to have a computer to get on the Internet, and while there are some 100 million computers online as you are reading this, that figure represents only 1.6 per cent of the people on the planet. Even the least expensive Palm Pilot or ancient 386 PC is way beyond the means of people in the poor quintiles in most countries.

Indeed, literacy is beyond the means of most of the world's poor, so even if Bill Gates were to use his entire fortune to equip every world household with, say, a new PC, it wouldn't do much good. Billions of people wouldn't be able to read the hyperlinks on Web pages, or their e-mail; much less flame the newbies in chat rooms.

So the world has the possibility to go from worrying about the richest fifth to worrying about the richest 1 or 2 per cent. And it's all too possible that such a tiny fraction of the population could begin to amass wealth at a far greater rate than their luckless, and unwired, neighbours.

The reasoning goes something like this: while far too much is made of computers' "usability", networked computers are nevertheless beginning to convey real and measurable benefits upon their users.

Take a simple example: trading shares on the stock market. Once that required part of a day, say an hour, to travel to the broker's, place the order, do the paperwork and maybe make a trip to the bank. Today, online stock brokerages can accomplish the same thing in about a minute. That means that the online customer can accomplish something about 60 times more efficiently than an unwired investor. Indeed, day-trading in stocks has drawn a growing of investors who work at it full time.

If the wired segment of society begins to realise such huge productivity gains, it stands to reason that they will begin to amass wealth much faster than those who don't have access to such tools. It's true that computers confer such efficiency imperfectly: some activities benefit little from computers and networks, and computer crashes can turn a simple task into a nightmare, for a net loss.

But if a wired individual realises gains only some of the time, then it makes sense that he or she will fare better over time than his or her unwired peers, all other things being equal. Larger gains equate to greater wealth which equates to better tools - more bandwidth, better computers, and so the spiral starts.

Today, 8 per cent of California's population creates 42 per cent of the state's wealth, and, yes, those 8 per cent live in Silicon Valley. Boy, are they wired, and boy, are they rich.

Compare a resident of Sao Paolo's slums with a denizen of Palo Alto's mansions: a day's work for the Palo Altan may bring more wealth than a lifetime's labour for the Sao Paolan, and the trend is not toward greater equity.

And, to be sure, this is more than just an issue of computer ownership. Nevertheless, it's already happening that small numbers of people are cornering ever larger proportions of the world's wealth, while others, mired in poverty and illiteracy, fall daily farther behind.

And unless the wealthy and fortunate make a concerted effort, there's hardly anything on the horizon to suggest that things will change. Cheaper computers may help a little, but even pounds 100 machines would be out of reach of most people in the world, not to mention the barriers of illiteracy and culture.

So what's the easy answer? Maybe a wireless, pounds 1 machine that was fluent in any language would help. While we're waiting for that breakthrough, though, it might be wise to pick up some car armourer shares. Online, of course.

cg@gulker.com

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform