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.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders