Make the Internet Great Again

Amidst a flurry of doom-portending headlines airily declaiming global headwinds, another crisp blow: ‘Estimates show that just eight men own the same wealth as the poorest half of the world.’ Last month, Oxfam released a report damning inequalities in the global economy. Yet the level of humanity’s contemporary welfare is unprecedented. Capital growth remains unceasing; developing nations approach the economic standards of the developed world. ‘Inequity is the nemesis of progress!’ yelp the shuddering disenfranchised. ‘Envy not the wealthy! Their progress will save you,’ the prosperous’ refrain returns. ‘Take neither at their word,’ wisdom tells us, ‘and look to history,’ says the truth.

A group of malcontent workers protest against their employers. They are dissatisfied with meagre wages, fearful of machinery that is replacing them and resentful that their bargaining power has weakened. They do not seek to stall technology’s steady development. Instead, they question technology’s misuse by the propertied and they question unfairness. Welcome to Nottingham, 1811-1816, the heart of resistance against the Industrial Revolution. These people are Luddites. Their concerns: overheads, destitution, looms.

Though a colourful and popular movement, Luddism was eventually suppressed. Pondering the Luddites, we learn what drives a desire for the destruction of political and mechanical infrastructure; this system provides exorbitant surplus for some and entails degradation of others.  They remind us that technological development is desirable as a means towards broader goals, but not in and of itself. You may disdain capitalistic direction, or you may admire it. Civic participation increased during the Industrial Revolution because improved conditions allowed suffrage and education. It improved general living-standards and allowed a middle-class to thrive. It signified new political machinery and a hastening of technology’s progression.

You are probably a student who uses Facebook, with student debts, borrowing against your future income. You did not read that sentence thinking: ‘I am one of the poorest people in the world! Screw those people who live in slums, owning nothing, my net wealth is negative. Zuckerberg is morally obliged to give me his wealth!’ If you did, go watch The Social Network. Zuckerberg was a student like you, except smarter and more of a jerk. He created Facebook and changed our way of life for payment, not to cover your university fees. If society does not reward people like Zuckerberg, who take risks to start businesses, there would be no reason to bother taking risks.

Before you log back onto Facebook and unfollow Oxfam’s page because they use terms like ‘net wealth’ and ignore others like ‘innovative entrepreneurship’, stop. First, briefly shut your eyes. Imagine you are deciding how to distribute the world’s present wealth, but you are clueless about which person on earth you will be. Looking at Oxfam’s report, you realise that there is a 50 percent chance you are going to live below the ethical poverty line. ‘Huh,’ you think, ‘in today’s conditions if I want to secure myself basic human rights, I’m screwed.’ Worse still, you realise that large populations of people too poor to afford education create unskilled labour forces that produce goods less efficiently than their skilled counterparts. Returning to Oxfam’s report, you notice the wealthiest 10 percent worldwide saw 46 percent of total income growth over 25 years. You see economist Dr Piketty’s research showing that there was no income growth for the bottom 50 percent in the US over 30 years. ‘Maybe some redistribution to increase the productivity of the worst-off allowing them to contribute more to society would improve everybody’s welfare,’ you think to yourself.

Congratulations, you have just participated in a thought-experiment. Sucks to be you, you’re now a philosopher. But, before you head to social media madly tweeting that the system is broken, consider what controls the system. In a network like Facebook, or in certain Washington circles, unseen forces manage the prominence of content. Anyone with enough resources and the right connections can ensure content fitting their agenda is more widely distributed than other types, which was a tactic used in the recent US election. Voters and users rarely subscribe to publishers who produce content that does not affirm their ideology. Relatable rhetoric, engineered to be pithy – the kind seen alongside memes or in Reagan-esque catchphrases like ‘Make America Great Again’ – thrives in a political campaign, or an environment like Facebook. People feel gratified seeing their beliefs so aptly summed up by three to eight word slogans.

Competitive markets demand that businesses survive through efficiency. It is easier to transfer capital internationally than for cheap labour to migrate with strict travel regulations. So corporations build factories overseas. They employ workforces in developing countries that do not have the bargaining power to enforce regulations that would ensure the decent treatment of employees. They minimise taxation by taking ownership offshore to countries willing to lower corporate tax rates.  Tax revenue with lower rates is better than no tax revenue at all, so governments trying to curb unemployment surrender to the influence of business interests and vie to offer ‘tax breaks, exemptions and lower rates,’ the Oxfam report notes. They maximise profits by reducing labour costs, ‘squeezing workers and producers,’ as Oxfam dubs it. Manipulating politics and people’s lives is unethical, yet most businesses’ goal is to optimise returns to people wealthy enough to invest in them, their ‘shareholders’.

The problem for everyone else is that marketing a product is similar to marketing an idea. The masters of convincing you to buy that AI-managed home-theatre system are also able to convince you to elect the policy equivalent of a lemon-car. After you find out that your new TV set-up only receives one channel taxonomically and that the brakes in your new vehicle barely do anything to stop you veering off a cliff, you think: ‘Might have to go ask those nice salespeople how much they’ll charge to fix this heap of junk!’ Meanwhile, those same savvy businesspeople have taken the profits from your purchase and invested it in making the internet great again, with another social media campaign warning: Don’t trust those robots taking your wages!