Many of us, now and through history, have fought for a more equal world. The suffragettes, the civil rights movement and in recent years the Occupy movement. There have been successes but it’s often been frustrating: we know that 85 or so mega-billionaires still own more than 50% of the entire world population. And yet, in our times, I want to argue that an unprecedented equality is possible and that we are evolving towards a more equal world. Not unequivocally, not linearly, but the grand arc of history is, in my view, towards more access and more equality. But it’s not to be found where most of us are looking for it. It’s not about income equality, it’s about technology, dematerialization, values development and fluidity of roles.
To explain this, I want to take us on a brief, highly abridged, highly generalized, tour of cultural development. In traditional culture, birthright and the ‘natural order’ tends to predominate. There may be certain privileges for the oldest son (and responsibilities). Your place in society is largely determined, not by your own endeavours, but by the standing of your family. You may take on the same profession as your father. Your dad was a smith, you become a smith. Though there are notable exceptions, if you are a woman, likely you will be in a caregiver role, with only minimal time or opportunity to work, let alone have a ‘career’. Only a very few people will have the family ties to be able to justify any claim to authority, to being a prince or a king. As in Game of Thrones, lineage is taken seriously and high-level politics is usually duked out between few leading families.
Modernist culture inverts this logic and structure, with much more emphasis on self-made people. Hard work is valued, not just because of duty, but because from hard work you can rise out of your circumstances. You can potentially climb to a different status and set of life possibilities. Meritocracy is the ideal, even if the different places we start from and the systems we live in, never fully allow for this. I studied at Cambridge University. When it was established, Cambridge was a place firstly only for males and secondly only for (upper class) gentlemen. So I would never have gone there. Nowadays, even though there is much more to do, the university has outreach programs to less advantaged communities with a commitment to finding the best talent regardless of background. The wealth in modernist society can still be found in traditional structures (the royal family in the UK, the Church, the Bush family in the US), but the biggest fortunes tend to go to self-made people (Gates, Buffett, Zuckerburg).
Here’s an important point. It’s more equal to have Bill Gates as the richest person in the world rather than Prince Charles because, in theory at least, many people have a shot at being a Bill Gates. The challenge is, this values structure can tend towards even more income inequality than in traditional society, even if standards of living across the board tend to be much higher. Right now, many are decrying the wealthiest 1% and the data which points to a growing income inequality (say if you look at how many times more a CEO makes than the factory floor worker). Arguably, we are at the height of modernist culture with its corporations, banks, American dream culture and pursuit of self-improvement and profit. So, modernist values and culture have a mixed scorecard when it comes to equality. They offer huge gains in political rights – one person one vote, equality before the law, universal human rights. But economically, the equality is in greater equality of opportunity for rags to riches, but not in increased equality of outcome (income). Note, from the perspective of modernist thinking, this is desirable for some, the so called ‘right to be rich, and right to be poor’. But it misses systemic issues which mean that the playing field is never really level and there are big losses for the losers (think ill Americans without health insurance). So, while we may want short-term mechanisms to militate against the most pernicious effects of this income inequality, we need a shift in the deeper structures if we want to achieve more equality.
In post-modernist culture, people take issue with all the ways that it isn’t a level playing field. Women’s rights and opportunity get championed. Any group which has previously been marginalized gets championed – gays, communists, non-dominant races, transsexuals. There is a deeper understanding of and empathy with context. We notice the glass ceiling for women. We notice the systemic racism of the police force with campaigns like ‘BlackLivesMatter’. We notice the counter-productive ways our military intervenes with insufficient humanitarian justification. We tear down the hierarchical structures of business, family and politics in favor of cooperatives, a ‘family of choice’ which includes anyone you love and more room for individual expression. We prefer flat consensual organizational structures, favored famously by the tech community. Post-modern culture definitely does a lot to move us towards a more equal world because of its inclusivity and sensitivity to people’s experience and their intrinsic worth. It also cares about negative externalities, those things that modernist culture left to its own devices ignores and doesn’t measure – especially impact on the environment in its single-minded pursuit of profit and excellence.
The unfortunate danger though is that post modernist thinking can throw the baby out with the bathwater. There can be a rejection of the things which haven’t worked – corporations, money, power politics – rather than looking for a healthy version of those things. This can in turn lead to a situation where the political power in society is still largely dominated by the old traditional families and the nouveau riche business people and financiers. And so people rightly recognize the entrenched power structures but they miss that there is more intra-society inequality because everyone now has a chance to matter.
We can do even better than this. Instead of rejecting corporations and their greed, we can notice that corporations can be more and less healthy, and healthy corporations have been a backbone to major economic development, so we can value them whilst pointing out their shortcomings. We can see how they can co-exist with thriving NGO, nonprofit and impact investment sectors, which we also critique. We can notice that though Uber may have difficult questions to ask about its employment policies, and though it’s being held in a broadly traditional venture capital structure with all its inequities, the peer-to-peer model is ushering in something new. What’s new is that many people can be equally likely to be on either side of the equation, driver or driven. Just as many people can be on either side of the AirBnb equation – letting a room in my house, or renting a room in someone else’s. That is, the view of equality is not centred on redistribution, it’s centred on systems where people can play multiple roles in a more fluid way. Think of it like a jazz ensemble. We may have a lead soloist, but that doesn’t prevent all of us having our own time when we solo. It’s a distributed and fluid approach.
But how equal is this world you ask? If you only look through the lens of wealth or income distribution, it might not be. What you might want to notice, however, is that there are other goods which are becoming more valuable. If you own a car, but the world is moving towards self-driving vehicles which you have access to a la Uber, how valuable is owning a car? If you own a home, but the world is moving towards collective access structures, how valuable is owning a home? Of course, it still is, and in the short term it will continue to be and may even be in the long term. But when I am using netflix, I don’t really care how big your DVD collection is, let alone your VHS collection! (Hence the importance of leapfrog technologies, where for instance Africa has wide mobile phone adoption, but few landlines. Solar and off-grid batteries will follow.)
The zero-marginal cost of technology – that things can be shared effectively for near cost zero or free – is, in my view, making the world more fair. The world is dematerializing – we can do way more with way less. All the things your smart phone can do (make calls, play music, tune into the radio, take payments, shoot HD video, edit spreadsheets and much, much more) would have costed in today’s money $30k+ just two to three decades ago. 6 billion people have mobile phones, with smart phone penetration rising exponentially. Said differently, could the value of disposable income be going down? If education becomes more freely available with Harvard.edu and Khan Academy, if information continues to flow ever more freely, then is the differential of the wealthy life – the life opportunity differential that money affords – gradually becoming less? I am writing this from Kenya where everyone is sitting around on their smart phones, posting to instagram and messaging in whatsapp. Which is what my friends in the developed world are doing much of the time. So while some primary goods are unevenly distributed (running water, for example) which has real effects on life chances, alongside that you can see how access to culture and information is becoming more available, more equal. If I put my attention only on the primary goods, I might miss that access is expanding. Meanwhile, more and more people do get access to clean running water, so we are bringing up the floor whilst the ceiling is already converging. Too much focus on the floor and I miss the ceiling.
Even within the developed world, and growing income inequality, think about the actual life experience of someone making the median wage ($40,000 in the UK) and who is living in the mix of the dematerialized world. Think how much of their life they can do on a laptop which costs them 1-2% of their income (or 0.25-0.5% if amortized over say 4 years). Someone who is way more wealthy may worry less about IT repair bills or the latest upgrade but will probably not be having much of a different technological experience. They both read Kindle, they both spend 3 hours a day on their smartphones, they both do some remote working, they both message people on the other side of the world, they both check train/plane times at a click of a button, they both use Uber, they can both hire cleaners through an app. Of course, there may have very different homes, cars and holidays. But they probably both still have homes, cars and holidays. Do you get what I am pointing at? They lives and life chances are way more similar than the median wage vs wealthy person in the less developed world. (In part, that’s because the less developed world will likely have fewer people in post-modern consciousness.)
This is why I say that to evolve a more equal world, we may have to evolve our notion of equality. Equality isn’t that anyone can make it to be the owner or CEO – that’s a modernist notion of equality and it tends towards large levels of inequality. A better equality is that the CEO and worker could be the same person on different days, just like I could drive Uber or ride Uber. Now you might say that’s all well and good with uber as driving is a low skilled thing, which most people can do and it’s very low cost to sign off the qualification needed (drivers test and vehicle check). What about dentistry or engineering? Undoubtedly, we don’t just want any old person having a crack at building a bridge. But, in a way we actually do. Bear with me! The point is not that we are lowering standards, but we are evolving how standards are recognized. Think Linux. An amazing operating system inside every android product, kicked off by a 21 year old and built upon by an army of volunteers where peer recognition determines how much you can contribute to the Linux community.
And here is the killer point which integral culture nails: it’s an exclusive club to which everyone is invited. Anyone is invited to contribute to the linux community. Any one of us (an inability to use tech and relevant aptitudes notwithstanding) can be a Linux engineer. But we have to get to a sufficient level of expertise, recognized by the community, in order to add value. Now, in the past, that had to be through formal qualifications and government-issued certificates. In today’s world, it can come from community recognition. So the value of a Harvard degree goes down, the value of having built recognizable stuff goes up. And as more and more people opt for an entrepreneurial career path, the opportunities for this multiply. Send me some relevant links to projects you have been involved in becomes more relevant than what your alma mater was. But remember, this will only be true for postmodern culture and beyond. So in traditional and modernist structures, the Harvard thing will still matter more. Some people miss this, so they miss how the world is becoming more equal even while it isn’t. To understand that, you have to be with complexity and paradox, which themselves, arguably, are developmental achievements.
So we are opening access while not dumbing down excellence. That’s a world I want to live in. Don’t you?
All the new paradigms will still be used by different structures/cultures in different ways. Twitter brings in huge equality – anyone in the world can broadcast their views to a global audience. And of course, pop stars will still have massive followings, mostly from people in modernist culture. But if we focus on that we miss the bigger trend, in my view, which is of opening access and greater equality. Just like if we focus on Uber and it’s multi-billion valuation, we might miss the bigger trend of equality between driver and driven. Again, in traditional and possibly modernist culture, I would want a driver, I wouldn’t then turn around and drive that same person. But in post-modern culture and beyond, same technology, but a different orientation to role fluidity.
So as more people move beyond traditional and modernist structures, are we living into an unprecedented opportunity for equality? An unprecedented opportunity for everyone’s intelligence to be brought to fruition? It makes sense that a more evolved system would want everyone’s intelligence, rather than a select few, harvested, right? This is what technology and values development is making possible. A world of individuated communitarians. A world where everyone can contribute their gifts in service, not just of their own ambition, but of our collective potential and for our collective problems. A world where more and more of us live beyond class. A world where part of the equality is to follow your own life script without being limited by birth, or societal conformity. A world where the most valuable things are near-free and I feel good that everyone has access to them, rather than a world of selves which want to define themselves by owning things which other selves don’t. A more equal world that we were starting to believe wasn’t possible but whose emergence is already well underway.