Technology causes problems as well as solves problems. Nobody has figured out a way to ensure that, as of tomorrow, technology won’t create problems. Technology simply means increased power, which is why we have the global problems we face today – Jared Diamond
We talk about the value of evolving technology in our increasingly digitalizing world. In the post-pandemic era, the technological reach can hardly be questioned. Whether it be the Black Lives Matter movement or the MeToo movement, technology and data are helping fuel an unprecedented movement for social justice worldwide.
However, with recent technological advances, concerns have been raised about how it can widen the gaps between the rich and the poor.
A survey conducted by McKinsey revealed that responses to COVID-19 have speeded the adoption of digital technologies by several years, many of which could be here for the long haul. On the other hand, for the first time in 25 years, extreme wealth and extreme poverty have increased simultaneously.
ChatGPT has become a buzzword, creating headlines that ask if such technology will put developers out of jobs. This AI-based tool has impressed users with its potential, especially because of its applications in research, government services, law, journalism, and programming. It is argued that by working alongside AI, people can increase their productivity and save human hours and effort.
Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram along with e-commerce platforms such as Amazon and Flipkart, emerged as dynamic hosts for small businesses, selling their products to niche audiences. Additionally, a rise in e-learning platforms increased access to quality education in order to curb the learning gap introduced by the COVID-19 lockdowns.
FinTech also enabled greater financial inclusion and increased the percentage of the population that has access to banks and formal credit. These technological innovations are aimed at reducing barriers to social justice and promoting a more egalitarian society.
While technological advances have increased productivity and GDPs, their benefits have not percolated to everyone. Cornered by a small elite, such benefits evade the rest, who have been left far behind. Statistics reveal that in 2022, up to 677 million people could be living in extreme poverty—almost 100 million more than without the combined crises of the pandemic, inflation, and the war in Ukraine.
But such a decline was only consistent for some. Almost two-thirds of the $42 trillion in wealth created since 2020 belong to the richest 1%.
Some of today’s most prevalent technologies are worsening long-standing societal problems such as racial and economic injustice. There’s no denying the positive impact social media platforms have had on advocacy. As mentioned, #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo sparked conversations about racism and sexual harassment to mobilize action regarding crucial social justice issues.
However, internet platform algorithms can spread disinformation and hate—Facebook’s own research reveals that Facebook Groups are “driving people apart” and promoting extremism. Meta showed that hate speech on Facebook rose to 38%, and violent content on Instagram rose to 86%. Such statistics reveal just how rapidly social media platforms can become polarized echo chambers, leading to hate speech and discrimination against marginalized groups and communities. Subject to trolling and harassment from users, many marginalized group members cannot use such platforms for their benefit.
An interesting phenomenon called Data Colonialism has been on the rise for quite some time. By providing access to “free services,” social media platforms generate data to develop AI models and other Big Data insights. Benefits reaped from such activities are primarily concentrated in developed countries, particularly within Silicon Valley companies.
Privacy activists have raised concerns about how nations collecting vast amounts of data on their own citizens have the potential to create surveillance states akin to Big Brother envisioned by George Orwell’s book 1984. And we know better than to question the chilling effect surveillance can have on the freedom of speech and expression, which also acts as an additional barrier to social justice appeals.
We mentioned ChatGPT, so let’s begin with such technology. The idea behind such technology is to help take away simple but time-consuming labor so that human effort can focus on innovation. However, automated low-skill roles will lead to job loss, resulting in an all-too-real impact on people’s livelihoods. ChatGPT has shown that even roles such as software engineering, journalism, and law are at risk of being taken over by AI, leading to additional job losses.
Furthermore, for AI-enabled tech to impact lives meaningfully, it must be accessible in the first place. However, equitable access to technology, particularly the internet, is yet to be achieved.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted its importance in telemedicine, online education, access to financial services, and employment opportunities. But these were not accessible to around 50% of the world’s population, without access to the internet through broadband or mobile. Most of this population is concentrated in developing countries. Due to differential internet adoption rates, such a lack in access also contributes to inequality within and across countries.
For those who have access, low digital literacy levels become the barrier they struggle to overcome, thereby limiting meaningful engagement with technology.
There are major inequalities regarding how data is used and the benefits that arise from it. Developing countries lack the necessary infrastructure and technical expertise to adequately harness and use data. On the other hand, developed countries with prominent social media companies profit from data from users worldwide, leading to data colonialism, wherein the developing world is seen as a source of data with unequal sharing of benefits.
Considering such barriers, the potential of technology to act as an enabling force for establishing social justice is limited and requires collective and concerted efforts to overcome these barriers. While Jared Diamond may have accurately described the power technology yields, the world is yet to see just how much power can be utilized to reduce the very barriers it has borne so far.
Neel Nitin Karnik – Deputy Research Manager, Sambodhi