Science Questions

Will technology increase social divide?

Thu, 19th Sep 2013

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Question

Peter Macree asked:

Could rapid advancements with technology led to higher levels of social inequality?

Answer

We close the show with Tamara Roukaerts, marketing tech expert from TRM&C who answers a question that listener Peter Macree got in touch with: Could rapid advancements with technology lead to higher levels of social inequality?

Tamara -   Well certainly, a lot of technology does confer an efficiency Crowd Walkingadvantage on people who use it.  So, if you have a Smartphone, there potentially is an advantage over someone who has a feature phone.  If you use the internet, you potentially have an economic advantage over somebody who does not use the internet. 

These kinds of disparities in access to technology do have socio-economic implications.  They can sometimes even serve to increase the divide.  I think that's why itís so important to bear that in mind when new technologies come on stream, so that fewer people get left behind. 

Itís really easy to glance over the fact that over 20% of the UK population have yet to go online.  That's more than 10 million people and 16 million lack basic internet skills, like being able to send an email or browsing the internet.  Potentially, that would be like a social or an economic handicap.  You might find it extremely difficult to get a job.  Over 90% of jobs these days actually have some ICT component to them.

Hannah -   Thanks to Tamara Roukaerts. 

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Technology impacts our life in many ways. 

As mentioned, there is a portion of people who don't use the internet, or use it infrequently.  Many are elderly.  I know my grandmother never used a computer, although perhaps she would have enjoyed some of the research aspects that the WWW has brought with it.  But, truthfully, those that don't embrace computers can still be excellent contributors to society.  Sometimes keeping up with the latest technology can be overrated, and often a big waste of time and expense.

Another aspect of technology is actually replacing workers with technology.  This has been going on for hundreds of years, especially in Europe where the guild and apprentice system was replaced by the factories and assembly lines. 

Looking at grocery stores, we've gone from every item being individually marked, and price increases meaning relabeling everything, to simply scanning bar codes.  And, now "self-checkouts" are common.

I'd hate to think how many people have been displaced by robots in the auto industry.  Computers certainly have caused a great increase in the document production ability of individuals in the work place (good or bad).

What will happen as more workers are displaced by improved computers and robots?

"Displacing workers" has to a large extent meant an increase in worker productivity.  So far, the 20th and 21st centuries have brought a tremendous increase in personal wealth. 
Bigger houses,
More cars.
More stuff.
More disposable stuff.  No need to take one's shoes to the cobbler for repair.  When your TV breaks, just buy a new one. 
Shorter work weeks.
I suppose that women have always worked to some extent, but somehow we have even absorbed the merger of men and women in the workplace.

Undoubtedly there have been people left behind.  But, so far, technology has brought wealth to the society.  It is hard to predict how future technology will continue to impact the world, but it may mean less work and more wealth.

What went wrong in Greece? CliffordK, Mon, 30th Sep 2013

Some 30 years ago I was headhunted by a company that made confectionery. Pleasant chat about applied physics (uniform heating of viscous fluids etc) and programmable machines, then a tour of the factory. My interviewer said "We have 800 employees on this site and we make n thousand packets of sludge a day . We'd like you to double the output and reduce the workforce to 10 in 3 years." 

Politicians talk about employment. Businessmen talk about profit. Not the same thing.

Even where people are employed, technology is not necessarily a Good Thing. When I was a lad, we hired gangs of big blokes to swing pickaxes and shovel dirt to make foundations, drains and roadways. Nowadays we can shift the same stuff quicker, cheaper and more accurately with a JCB driven by a little girl. Males are superior to females in only one respect - upper body strength. That is now redundant, but 50% of the population can't gestate or lactate, so what on earth are men for?  I think we will go the way of veal calves in the next century, unless the law changes to permit designer babies.

On the other hand there's no doubt that the mobile phone has revolutionised the developing world, and in a good way.
alancalverd, Mon, 30th Sep 2013

The one thing that men do have on women is a more continuous presence in the workforce.  Of course that isn't true in all cases, but many women take a decade off of either no work or part time work during a critical early portion of their career. 

As far as technology, it may be that we will work ourselves out of nearly the entire semi-skilled workforce.  No need to be welding or painting cars, machines will do all of that. 

For the time being, humans will continue to fill high skill level positions such as engineering and basic science, but not everyone can be an engineer, chemist or physicist.  And, of course, equipment maintenance. 

Beyond that, there will be a group of low skilled workers.  Being a pretty face greeting people at Walmart.  Perhaps also stocking the shelves. 

But, many of these low skilled positions will be at risk of replacement.  In 50 years, will long-haul truckers be replaced by robots?  What about robotic janitors cleaning and stocking our buildings?  `

We are entering a brave new world where the world has seen huge socioeconomic changes from 1800 to 1900, then again from 1900 to 2000, and we can only anticipate greater changes from 2000 to 2100. CliffordK, Mon, 30th Sep 2013

I think the biggest, selective effect that computer technology will have is on people who want to, or can communicate effectively. On the one hand, it works against those who can't write or even find a library to use a computer. On the other hand, it's hugely empowering to those who can, both politically, and economically. They can exchange information, economic resources (buy and trade) and by pass the capitalist gate keepers (whether it is the music industry execs who decide what bands they promote, or the government who taxes goods and services) in a way they never could before. cheryl j, Mon, 30th Sep 2013

Modern judicial practice is to advise the administration on how to fight politically correct wars, rather than prevent them from starting wars. This makes it harder to actually win the wars, but the enemies are usually not really a threat to our existence and we have a nuclear button as a last resort. So it's full speed ahead for profits and a use for all that excess population. grizelda, Tue, 1st Oct 2013

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