Inequality and technology - RSA

Inequality harms growth and it harms human creativity too – what can be done?


  • Employment
  • Technology

In a short period of time, inequality has gone from being a purely social concern to an economic concern too. In a report published today, the OECD makes that case that inequality harms growth and recommends a series of remedies in response. One of these remedies highlights the importance of developing human capital across the life-cycle. This chimes very much with the New Digital Learning Age report that we have very recently published (link below).

The OECD makes an important point about the impact of technology on inequality. This is a key point technology imparts a double impact: it distributes power to those with social and human capital but also contains within it the seeds to spread this power wider. This is a paradox. Technology is both a force for concentration of power but can spread power more democratically too. The question is how?

In his President’s lecture on inequality, technology and public policy here at the RSA on Wednesday evening, Tony Atkinson, author of Inequality: what can be done?, made a striking proposal. He argued that we should choose the social over the economic good when it came to technology. He gave the example of a car paint-shop which is harmful work better performed by robots. This can be contrasted with meals on wheels which could be performed by drones but where it is a social good that it is performed by humans given the feelings of isolation that many elderly feel. Interestingly, David Cameron’s former Director of Strategy, Steve Hilton, makes a similar point with regards automated check-outs in supermarkets in his new book More Human.

Now, when a leading academic associated with the left and one of the leading thinkers on the right both make similar points about the impact on technology on the social good, it is wise to pause and consider. We have seen organic and fair-trade movements prosper. Why not human good movements? Professor Atkinson is right to suggest that Governments should consider the social as well the scientific impact of the investments they make in scientific knowledge and research. But there is the need for a stronger social movement and social awareness within companies in response about the impacts of technology as well. We should insist upon it through changes to company law.

There are those who will argue that’s all well and good but surely companies should only consider their efficiency and profitability. When we are facing an unbalanced economy though inequality as mapped out in the OECD report as well as the social harm that stems from that, that’s not good enough. This is not to adopt a new luddism. It is rather to advocate that Governments, companies and consumers are engaged in a dialogue around the social good and technology and law, self-regulation, and activism are needed.

However, there are almost certainly rapid changes coming to the economy and the labour market on account of technological change. The consequences of these changes could well be increased inequality and significant pockets of exclusion. Yes, we have a choice and this could be stopped but there is a generally supportive environment for the spread of ever more advanced technology driven by our love of new technology. And to try to stop it will cause harm anyway, especially economic harm, as well as missing the opportunity to capture wider benefits.

This is where our policy prescriptions in the New Digital Learning Age provide some ways forward for to help people adapt to change and even thrive amidst it. It is important that technology is applied in a robust and evidence-based fashion in school – especially as it can help those who are most disengaged and promote collaborative learning which engenders crucial team-working skills. It can provide additional touch-points for employers with learners – each additional contact is shown to have a real impact on job prospects. Finally, the entire informal and spontaneous learning economy which has sprung up through online resources such as YouTube, Udemy, and Italki can be turned to more formal skills.

Backed by initiatives such as Cities of Learning, which enable open accreditation of learning through open badges and provide strong encouragement for people to engage (much as we have been providing public health messages already). None of this solves the challenge of inequality alone – the shape of the economy, innovation and productivity, wealth distribution, and wage levels are crucial too - but it does start to address it. It is an essential component and will help to tilt technology more towards wider benefits than costs. In so doing, it will safeguard the social legitimacy of technological change to a greater extent (though this is a secondary consideration).

This social legitimacy for innovation and technology is a critical component of a more creative society. Rather than turning our backs on change or rushing headlong into it we can shape and steer it. This will help us spread the benefits for which there will be economic as well as social gains. We will also safeguard our pathway towards a society where each can pursue their creative talent.

The New Digital Learning Age by Anthony Painter and Louise Bamfield is available here.  


Engage with our research



Be the first to write a comment


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.