This “piece” ran in Political Items on Saturday, 21 January. Pieces like this are part of what Political Items offers. You can subscribe to Political Items by clicking here. The first 14 days are free. Unsubscribe any time. You can share this piece by clicking on the “button” below.
“Inequality” is a fact of modern life. A (relatively) small number of people own a great deal of the world’s wealth. According to the World Inequality Report (coordinated by Lucas Chancel, Thomas Piketty, et alia), 50 percent of the world’s population own 2% of the world’s wealth. Ten percent of the world’s population owns 75% of the world’s wealth.
In the United States, in the second quarter of 2022, 68 percent of the nation’s wealth was owned by the top 10 percent of earners. The lowest 50 percent of earners owned 3.2 percent of the total wealth.
These are facts.
The question is: does anyone care? More to the point, does anyone care who doesn’t already care? Democrats seem to think so and it’s certainly true that the “inequality issue” resonates with “progressives.”
But once you travel outside those precincts, there’s general indifference. Few people begrudge Jeff Bezos his vast wealth. He built a great company. That company makes all of our lives more efficient and and much more convenient. Good for us. Good for him. He is now so rich the only thing he can do with his wealth is give ever-larger amounts of it away.
The same holds true for any number of ultra-rich individuals. Conceptually, that’s good news for all of us. You may not have liked Eli Broad, for whatever reason, but his money continues to underwrite the Broad Institute of Harvard University and MIT, which is working on a universal vaccine that will protect humanity from diseases of all kinds and may, at some point, prevent disease altogether. You may not like Steve Schwarzman, for any number of reasons, but his money underwrites the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing., which addresses the global opportunities and challenges presented by the ubiquity of computing — across industries and academic disciplines. You may not like Bill Gates, for plenty of reasons, but his wealth has done more for public health around the world than the efforts of most governments. Ditto Paul Allen. Ditto Warren Buffett. Ditto Mark Zuckerberg. Ditto the Koch family. On and on it goes.
Social inequality, on the other hand, is a huge issue in mainstream America, on a number of different levels. Black people resent the fact that they have to deal with racism every day of their lives. Blue collar people resent the condescension (and sometimes contempt) of the monied and intellectual elites. Everyday people resent being told that their values don’t align with more “enlightened” views. The triumph of “meritocracy,” by definition, leaves vast numbers of people lacking “merit.”
A lot of our (U.S.) politics takes place within the arena of social inequality. As economic inequality has grown and the prospects for economic advancement have dimmed, social grievance has, at least to some degree, replaced aspiration as the “narrative” of American politics. Obama ran on Keep Hope Alive. Trump ran on “Destroy The Village to Save It” Biden ran on “Beat Trump.” No one will run on “Keep Hope Alive” in 2024. That much we know for sure.
All that said, economic and social inequality are fast becoming yesterday’s debates. They are now less important than what might be called “code inequality.” Vladimir Putin’s pithy quote about how whomever controls Artificial Intelligence will rule the world is true. It also describes the continental divide between the real Masters of the Universe and the rest of us.
How many people would you say really understand the algorithms that make artificial intelligence intelligent? How many people would you say know how to deploy CRISPR editing technology to snip out or insert this piece of genetic code or that? How many people would you say understand how to make a rocket launch a satellite into space and then return to its launching pad, in tact, ready for another launch.
The answer, obviously, is very, very few people. I can’t imagine it’s more than 10 million people and that seems high to me. Just for the sake of argument, let’s multiply 10 million by 10. You now have 100 million people who, hypothetically, can do some of the “tasks” described above. There are 8 billion people on the planet. Which means, staying inside our hypothetical, that 1.25% of the world’s population is fluent in the lingua franca of the future of commerce, law, science, technology, etc.
The rest of us are basically clueless and with each passing day, more so. With each passing day, our lives are increasingly “managed” by algorithms. For the moment, the algorithms “manage” us mostly for our convenience, amusement, what have you. But in the not too distant future, control of the algorithms (assuming we can still control Artificial Intelligence and it isn’t controlling us) will convey ever greater power to those who write and understand those algorithms. Knowledge of genetic engineering will control the evolution of all living things on the planet, including human beings. You see the point.
There’s no way back. There’s no off-ramp, no kill switch, no fencing. With income inequality, you can over-tax rich people or force them to devote the majority of their wealth to philanthropic good works. With social inequality, you might legislate a two-year commitment from every American in their twenties to some form of national service, requiring them to work with people from different backgrounds, different socio-economic status, different states, who have different religious beliefs, etcetera. No World War II veteran from New York every looked down on a World War II veteran from Mississippi. They were equals, socially, and understood that each depended on the other. Bringing that sense of social equality back would be good for the country, in myriad ways.
Code inequality can’t be “fixed.” In practice, it can’t be regulated. And it can’t be undone. It’s done. The “haves” have knowledge of the code and the number of “haves” dwindles as the code gets more intricate and complex. As the code gets more intricate and complex, “super-haves” emerge. The “super-haves” tell the “lesser-haves” what to do, what coding errands to run.
The rest of us are busy and…..stupid. We don’t know the codes. We have no idea how to code. We’re the “have-nots.” And as such, we are almost entirely dependent on the coders and their overlords, the “super-haves.”
People don’t hate Silicon Valley people because they’re rich. We hate them because they’re smug. And they’re smug for a reason. They can be. Who’s going to put them in their place? No one, because, at the highest level — moral values aside — only coders can “police” coders.
Coders hold all the cards of power. The old cards of Superpowers — nuclear weapons — remain. But algorithms are ultimately much more powerful, assuming leaders around the world are averse to human extinction. The algorithms learn all the time, consuming terabytes of data every second of every day and stitching it together to create “super intelligence.” In a world managed for the maximization of super intelligence, you and I don’t really matter.
How “code inequality” plays out in the next 10–20 years is going to be the political story of the century. I haven’t a clue as to how it will play out. But one thing to remember is that coding has no need for specific physical presence, save energy and fiber optic connectivity. It’s borderless. The assets are quite literally in the cloud. The intellectual assets walk in the front door every morning and walk out every night. They can do that in Toronto or Ireland or Singapore just as easily as they can in Palo Alto or Cambridge. And if they do, the great American universities, like MIT and Harvard and Stanford, will follow them, setting up “satellite” campuses near those new offices. They’ll have to.
I remember standing next to a well-known person in the world of genomics at a fancy coffee shop in New York City and telling her that I thought the work being done at the Broad Institute at Harvard held great promise for public health. She nodded sympathetically at my assertion of the obvious and then said, almost to herself, “people think it’s the future. It isn’t. It’s the present.”
That’s the thing about the code. It isn’t “the future.” It’s here, now, getting smarter every day. In tandem, the people who write it get more powerful, every day, and with nothing really standing in their way.