Network: Can technology bring about a kinder, more just world?

Families with access to computers and to higher education are becoming a hereditary caste
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The Independent Culture
As 1998 wound down, I've been sitting around the fire a lot - unbelievably, it snowed here in Silicon Valley - keeping warm and thinking about technology and people.

To be sure, these are my two favourite topics. I love to lurk and watch as we humans, admirably evolved to be hunter-gatherers, confront things like operating systems, personal digital assistants and even video-recorder displays - you know, the ones that are always blinking "12:00 AM".

One of my favorite thinkers, Freeman Dyson, believes we have a real problem at the end of the 20th Century and second Millennium. Dyson thinks technology has become a wedge driving the haves and the have nots ever more widely apart, and writes about it in his book Imagined Worlds.

In a previous column, I wrote about how Dyson's words came home, hard, as I sat in the deep leather seats of a friend's hi-tech, wired-to-the- max Jeep speeding past farm workers in the rain and cold of California's Central Valley. Warm and comfortable, sitting amid the many blessings of my technologically driven life, this disturbing thought returned.

Dyson is adept at following events in numerous disparate fields - sociology and nuclear weaponry, astronomy and biology, history and mechanics - and weaving these threads in interesting and revealing ways. Dyson, a mathematician by training, is Professor Emeritus at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study, as well as a writer of popular books about science.

An unabashed supporter of the sciences, Dyson nevertheless contends that many of the ills of current American society are due to science. Drugs, guns, racial intolerance and illiteracy may be the immediate causes of our social morass, but the unwise application of science is the deeper root. Science is a mixed blessing in Dyson's view. It grants great and god-like powers to human practitioners who, unfortunately, have a decidedly chequered record as far as the wise application of said science goes.

On the one hand, scientists create cures for polio, on the other, biological weapons. Without a well-developed moral and ethical framework to guide us, humanity is in big trouble as our knowledge, and powers increase.

Technology, the child of science, has not favoured a kinder and more just world. In Dyson's opinion, America's ills, and those seen elsewhere in the world, result whenever the gap between rich and poor widens sufficiently.

Contrast, say, a resident of Sierra Leone, the nation at the bottom of the UN's list of livable countries, and a certain resident of the US, Bill Gates. A Sierra Leone resident makes on average $179 a year. Bill Gates is currently worth $73,433,864,275, according to the "Titan Ticker" on Upside magazine's Web site, and his wealth has been increasing at a recent annualised rate of just over $21bn. Poorest guy: $179, richest guy: $21bn - today's gap makes, say, revolutionary France look downright appealing, never mind that the gap might be the one between one's head and body.

An economist has said that Bill Gates is worth more than the 100 million or so of the poorest Americans put together. The UN says that the world's 358 billionaires are worth more than the countries with 45 per cent of the world's population - some three billion people.

The gap between rich and poor is, indeed, the culprit. In absolute terms, a poor American is far better off than a poor Sierra Leonan. The American will earn much more, eat better, live longer and see more children survive to be adults than his or her African counterpart. This datum will, however, in no way reduce the frustration or sense of uselessness that often befalls people trapped in American poverty.

Science and technology create the machines that replace unskilled workers and the computers that replace unskilled clerks. Computers tied into global information networks make it easy for companies to send jobs to nations with the lowest bidders, reducing dramatically the numbers of good, well- paid blue-collar jobs that once led to education for working-class children, and an all-important chance to escape the poverty cycle.

"Because of science, families with access to computers and to higher education are rapidly becoming a hereditary caste, the children inheriting these advantages from their parents," writes Dyson. "... children deprived of legitimate opportunities to earn a living have strong economic incentives to join gangs and become criminals." Social displacement follows hard on the heels of technological revolution.

Dickens prospered by writing about the wretched plight of people displaced in the Industrial Revolution, when land and agrarian skills were quickly pushed aside by capital and manufacturing skills as the basis of wealth. Must we repeat history as the Information Age dawns?

In my neighbourhood, most 9-year-olds are computer-literate. I bought my 13-year-old nephew an iMac for Christmas. A few miles from here, nine years marks the age when kids are first being lured by gangs, and more than a few 13-year-olds either have a gun or know where to get one. Dyson reports the same grim disparity between his home town of Princeton and its neighbor, Trenton.

So what's the answer? Technology?

Steve Jobs answered that one particularly well, I'm told, at a recent education conference. Asked if technology could help solve the problem of illiteracy, he thought for a moment, then said no, only teachers and parents can do that.

Happy New Year, all. I, for one, intend to spend the coming year looking for ways to chip away at "the gap".