‘The pandemic has illustrated the myriad ways in which technology can be harnessed as a key tool to promote social equality’. Image: Pixabay

At the beginning of the 19th century, textile workers in the Midlands who feared cutting edge technologies would render their profession obsolete formed a social movement.

In response to growing uncertainty, the group took up arms. Some even broke into factories, destroying machinery.

They became known as the Luddites, and although the aims of their movement were complex, in subsequent years their name became a notorious byword for anyone suspicious of technology.

Through a historical lens, the Luddites’ attempts to stem the tide of the industrial revolution might appear absurd, but their behaviour touches on fears that persist two centuries later.

We are still contemplating how our technologies will either help solve or exacerbate the biggest challenges of our age – social inequality and climate change – and what this will mean for humanity’s future.

Although the scientific debate over whether we are the only animals to make and use tools rumbles on, there is no question technology is one of the most defining and enduring features in the landscape of our species’ history. Paradoxically, it has also become one of the most contentious and problematic too.

Since the onset of the industrial revolution, Western art has sought to reckon with man’s complicated relationship with technology – a relationship that is alternatively distrustful and transformative.

In our art, we have anthropomorphised technology and imposed man’s worst character traits on the creatures depicted.

Many of our most infamous cultural villains are not human, from the monster in Frankenstein to HAL 9000 in Space Odyssey 2001, but they are nevertheless depicted as despotic, uncontainable and destructive. The message communicated through these characters is that, without careful thought and consideration, our wild ambitions for the technologies we create might just be our downfall.

In the 21st century, it is artificial intelligence and the internet rather than industrial machinery that preoccupy us.

Every few months, newspaper articles and TV programs remind us with relish that we to be imminently usurped by robots who are better equipped to do our jobs, drive our cars and even be superior romantic partners.

In the context of all these scare stories, the depressing announcement last weekend that Microsoft plans to replace journalists with automated robots did not come as a surprise.

We have also been increasingly exposed to negative coverage of the internet and video games. Politicians and the media have blamed these technologies for causing a plurality of social problems from spreading misinformation to increasing rates of violence.

Though there are serious unresolved questions around how we police the internet, guarantee privacy and protect vulnerable users, the pandemic has jettisoned any wholly negative narrative about these technologies.

In a nation where levels of loneliness were already high, lockdown measures threatened to accelerate the social atomisation of our society even further. During the pandemic, the internet has offered the only viable chance for many people to feel connected to a community.

At the same time, video games have also provided many with an immersive retreat away from an unpredictable world, in the same way novels have for others.

It is indisputable that our government’s application of technologies to fight coronavirus has been seriously flawed.

Despite human error and incompetence, technology has still proven to be one of our saving graces during the pandemic, alongside human solidarity and reciprocity.

The pandemic has also illustrated the myriad ways in which technology can be harnessed as a key tool to promote social equality.

The arts are often criticised for being elitist and exclusive, but during lockdown we have seen how technology can be employed to democratise access.

In pre-Covid times, many major arts providers increasingly embraced digital performances and exhibitions, but the majority still remained primarily reachable to those who were able-bodied, with a disposable income and living near to cultural centres.

Despite initiatives to make the arts more accessible, even the most cursory glance around audiences at performances in cultural institutions like the Globe or the Old Vic reveal they represent a small segment of society.

With the mass digitisation of performances and exhibitions, a much wider audience should be able to engage with the arts.

Many more people can now enjoy a free full-length play at the National Theatre on Youtube every Thursday, take virtual tours of galleries or peruse a plethora of museums’ priceless collections.

Regional inequality was a key topic during the General Election, with many voters in the so-called Red Wall reporting they felt politicians in Westminster had no real understanding of their concerns.

It was subsequently suggested that technology could be used to reverse regional disparities by distributing wealth more symmetrically around the country.

In the UK, because of a lack of professional opportunities outside of urban areas, many young graduates are forced to move to the capital in search of jobs.

In the Guardian last week, the Northern Irish writer Rachel Connolly discussed how coronavirus might reverse the brain drain many areas have experienced.

The impact of the migration of young graduates is two-fold in amplifying inequalities.

Whilst it creates a brain drain and decreases cash flow in regional economies, it also contributes to driving up gentrification in inner city neighbourhoods where young graduates move in.

Digital technology increases employees’ ability to work from home regardless of proximity to the office. It’s been hypothesised this could enable a higher proportion of young graduates to access well paid jobs whilst having the option of remaining in their communities and putting their money back into local economies.

As with so many other aspects of our lives, the pandemic has also laid bare how technology can intensify inequality.

As school classes and jobs have transitioned online digital poverty has been increasingly scrutinised.

For children and families without adequate access to computers and broadband, the move online threatens to jeopardise their educational and employment outcomes.

Globalisation has long been blamed for creating inequalities and tensions in society by displacing industries and causing the rise of populism and nationalism. However, social scientists and economists are increasingly arguing that technology companies also play a considerable role in amplifying global inequality.

In Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the world’s digital revolution, companies are regularly criticised for creating an environment where a small proportion of programmers and software developers, who are mostly highly educated men, can disproportionately amass huge fortunes.

In parallel, middle income and low paid workers in Silicon Valley have seen their wages stagnate and sometimes their job roles evaporate completely, creating ever growing chasms in wealth.

As Silicon Valley has boomed, the price of living has risen, causing a dearth of affordable housing. Many of those working in technology companies in roles such as catering, cleaning and transportation have seen their living standards decline.

Established inequalities in US society mean this predominantly impacts African American and Latino workers.

A growing number of ex-employees of Silicon Valley have published insider accounts of how technology firms exacerbate and compound disparities, such as Wendy Liu’s book Abolish Silicon Valley.

Globally, the monopoly in the digital market of companies like Google has crowded out smaller, local companies from having a feasible chance of competing, resulting in profits being disproportionately reaped by employees of these mega firms.

Climate change remains the world’s foremost challenge. We have used our technologies to mine and exploit the earth for any resources we can squeeze out, leaving us precariously balanced on the brink of planetary disaster.

Our biggest technological challenge is developing carbon neutral industries that enable us to leave a thriving world for future generations whilst also promoting higher rates of social equity in our own society.

As with so many other aspects of our lives, we are approaching a critical juncture with technology.

With the correct political willpower it could be utilised to save the planet from the looming spectre of climate disaster.

If not, then Frankenstein’s message could turn out to be prescient after all, and humanity’s own invention could become the architect of our ultimate destruction.

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