Readers Write In #216: Why hasn’t technology solved poverty yet?

Posted on July 5, 2020

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(by G Waugh)

“It’s all these people talking about how technology is and how it saves all this time. But what good is saved time, if nobody uses it? If it just turns into more busy work. You never hear somebody say, ‘With the time I have saved by using my word processor, I am gonna go to a Zen monastery and hang out’”

These are famous lines in an exchange from Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995). These lines that appear in a supposedly non-political film explores and develops what John Maynard Keynes had posited a few decades before. Keynes, one of the world’s most influential economists of the last century was extremely optimistic about the way science and technology had developed during his time. His famous opinion was, considering the efficacy of today’s technological advancement to satisfy all human necessities with reduced labor and time, the average working man could be expected to lead a fulfilling life spending only close to 15 hours a week at work. But close to five decades after he made this contention, all we see throughout are 12-14 hour work-days, mad scramble for jobs amid increasing job insecurity, falling wages and rising starvation in almost all parts of the world.

With the introduction of Green Revolution in India in the 1960s, the input costs towards producing food must have plummeted, the productivity of land must have increased manifold as a result of which hunger must have been wiped out from the face of the country at least a decade before. But what we see today in a pandemic-infested country like ours is lack of sufficient jobs for the workforce, starvation for the unemployed even if we have mountains and mountains of food stored in our FCI granaries. India is still supposedly one of the world’s largest producers of rice and wheat competing with the likes of the United States and China and yet our levels of hunger and malnutrition have forced us to compete with the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

It is still assumed widely that unhindered private capital would single-handedly be responsible for technology to progress rapidly, providing mankind with tools to reduce production costs of basic human essentials that indirectly would help man to toil less and lead a more spiritually fulfilling life. If anything, research on almost every field is sponsored or dictated by venture capitalists all over the world with the democratically elected state barely having a say on the direction innovations based on technology must take. But if technology backed up by private capital as it is the case today world over, has all the answers to human problems of need, why has it been so slow in finding them? Why does technology the more it grows, instead of allowing humans to pursue their favourite occupations always ends up increasing starvation world over allowing a very miniscule percentage of population to appropriate a disproportionately vast share of created wealth? Why does the age of smartphones and artificial intelligence paradoxically coincide with the age of unprecedented economic inequality where close to 1% of the world’s population lay claim to more than 60% of annually created wealth?

Some answers are found in David F Noble’s book Forces of Production that centres on America’s affair with technology in the last century. Noble argues that in the wake of the October Revolution in Russia, the industrial capitalists in America were too alarmed at the prospect of a communist revolution at home as a result of which they tried to invent technological solutions to deal with the predicament. Billions of dollars were invested in developing technologies that replace human labor even if they were not sufficiently cost-effective. The objective of the technological quest was to reduce dependence on manual labor with a view to sidelining their role in the process of production with a view to undermining their scope for collective bargaining. The technologies were also for the most part tethered to national defense objectives one of which was containment of Communism all over the globe. It is argued by Noble that newer technologies did show tangible results in just less than three decades effectively breaking worker solidarity and resulting in deradicalisation of unions and socialist forces all over America.

Noble here also makes a very interesting argument that most of the scientists and technocrats who served as the prime movers behind these technological revolutions were not, as it is widely assumed to be completely non-political. They were hired and nurtured by a rapacious class of capitalists who largely dictated the course the upcoming technological advance had to make and hence the clique of scientists whom they fostered were naturally representative of the interests of their benefactors. This is precisely the juncture in American history at which even something as apolitical as technology was co-opted into a long term, self-serving political mission that bore the potential to damage the interests of millions of poor people whom it ideally was supposed to serve.

Within four decades of the beginning of the technological revolution, automated tools and devices had intruded into areas of manual specialization succeeding in deskilling the worker effectively. The emergence of capital intensive production methods eliminated the need for the employment of skilled permanent workers who were quickly replaced by temporary contracted supervisory staff whose undefined tenures of employment did not facilitate unionization. Weaker unions meant meagre pay revisions, violation of minimum wage and labor safety laws and finally plummeting purchasing power. Lower purchasing power had reduced effective demand leading to higher retrenchment rates and concomitant pauperization of the masses. All of these had terrible effects on the American economy which in turn was capitalized by the big business houses which pushed for reduced welfare spending and removal of regulatory oversight to facilitate more private investment and entrepreneurship. All of these developments characterized the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1970s which had their echoes in Britain and the rest of Western Europe.

For an inveterate film buff as me, answers emanating from a completely different sphere as politics for an apparently apolitical rumination on the state of technology and its impact on the human condition in Linklater’s 1995 classic Before Sunrise is another reason why the film is supposed to be placed on the international cultural canon.