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Mummy, what's the point of Evgeny Morozov's tedious columns?

Tech has made us richer and freer, you fool

Worstall on Wednesday I often find myself mystified by Evgeny Morozov and his writings. I find it terribly difficult to work out what he's actually for, or what worldview it is that he thinks he's propagating.

Unless, of course, it's just to piss off the libertarians or perhaps to show us how clever a Morozov can be in uncovering the feet of clay of our current gods.

So it is with his latest column. He's trying to find fault with an idea that I am entirely guilty of propagating and the refutation is, I'm afraid, more than a little weak.

The point that I've been making, here and elsewhere, is that there's three different types of inequality that we might bother to care about. We can worry about that wealth inequality that so concerns Piketty. We can worry about that income inequality that so disturbs the left in general.

And we can worry about consumption inequality which is what I, lackey dog capitalist running pig that I am, tend to think is important.

When we consider these three from the tech industry's point of view we get rather different results. We see vast fortunes being made by certain actors in the tech space and thus we conclude that wealth inequality is increasing. This isn't, in fact, quite true. There's always been some selection of entrepreneurs that make vast fortunes out of the changes in the passing technological scene.

Sure, Jobs and Bezos have loadsamoney, but their fortunes aren't out of line with those made by the pioneers of the steel industry, oil, aerospace and so on. Nor, in fact, out of line with those made by entirely different technological changes, like the Normans, whose cavalry and castles conquered England. Odo, brother of William the Bastard, has been estimated to have owned 11 per cent of the entire output of the country.

Income inequality has indeed been rising as a result of tech changes. Firstly, given how valuable the human input is into designing and making “tech”, the group to which most of El Reg's readership belong, the engineers, have done done well out of it all. There really has been some stretching of income inequality, as wages rise in STEM and tech fields and don't rise in others.

There's also the secondary effect (which might actually be rather larger) in that tech, computing and better telecoms are all things that have allowed globalisation to proceed. That addition of a couple of billion more low-paid and low-skilled workers into the global workforce has indeed had an effect on low-skill wages in the rich countries: it's increased the real wages of the higher-skilled workers.

However, the saving grace that I continually put forward is that consumption inequality of tech products has been falling. Sure, Bill Gates can have a yacht that costs more per week to rent than I earn in a decade. Yet we're really not that far apart in our access to telecoms services, given the cheapness of air time these days.

Given that Facebitchbook and Google are free to use then there's not in fact any inequality at all between our access to these things. So I do argue that, given that I think consumption inequality is the most important of the three, inequality is falling as a result of the digital revolution; that tech that y'all spend your time upon. I also think that's a good thing.

Then along comes Morozov:

Therefore, it seems obvious that equalising access to communication services does not in itself eliminate or even weaken other types of inequality. But should we even worry about those other types, if equality of consumption is all that matters? We certainly must. Silicon Valley, after all, has done little to equalise things like home ownership and there is no prospect of it ever disrupting the world of real estate.

In other words, to make other types of inequality less relevant, Silicon Valley would need to also become the go-to provider of free housing and food: only then one could plausibly argue that your hedge-fund neighbour’s outsize pay is beside the point, since all your own basic needs are covered anyway.

Think about how absurd Morozov's argument actually is. Because tech doesn't reduce housing inequality, we should ignore the way that it doesn't reduce communications inequality? What?

Instead, think about how tech reduces housing inequality. A standard finding is that cities produce higher wages than non-cities; this is the agglomeration argument. Simply being around lots of other human beings increases economic output as there's more interaction and experimentation. That's also what makes housing more expensive in cities. One of the big changes in my working life over the past couple of decades has been the ability to take part in those city-style interactions from thousands of miles away. Meaning that I'm no longer tied to an urban property market in order to be able to take part in that higher urban labour productivity. This is an increase in equality brought about by tech.

Feel free to disagree with this but my feeling is that the purpose of Morozov is actually to comfort those who don't want to hear that this turmoil of people just doing stuff undirected might be a solution to any of the world's problems. You know, those who insist that it must all be directed to some sort of higher purpose, rather than just being allowed to happen. Just letting that happen is a function that is always valuable in any society as there's always that class of people who make their living by directing things. My, don't they need comforting when it looks like the structure of that society might be changing.

One final thing. As I've mentioned around here before, it's entirely possible that the mobile phone is the one single technological innovation that has done the most to reduce poverty around the world in the past 30 years. That same reduction in poverty, the largest ever in the history of our species, that has meant that global inequality has been falling over these recent decades.

I'm pretty sure that the mobile phone counts as “tech” so I do think that it would be fair to say that tech has indeed been reducing inequality. ®


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