Questions from our children – 1. Did you do all you can with digital to distribute prosperity more equitably?
This is an expansion of the first question from my earlier post – “What will our children ask us about how we used digital?
Digital technologies and its powerful offshoot, the Internet, have given us scores of products and services and opened new markets. Further, most of the economy has been transformed by these technologies. The economy has been boosted in many parts of the world resulting in new or better jobs for a vast number of people. Digital is global in nature and has spread to many parts of the world beyond the rich western countries.
But, it is not all rosy.
- Many companies are emerging, but the digital giants such as Google, Amazon, and Alibaba are dominating in many fields that open. The economic opportunities seem to be going to a select few companies and the people who are invested in them or employed by them.
- Similarly, those at the top of the economic hierarchy are reaping a large share of the digital bounty. Those who provide capital (owners and investors) have been increasing their share of the economic benefits compared to those provide labor (workers) when measured against historical norms.
- Digital has created many opportunities for consumers while this is better than the past, it is far from perfect. The digital economy requires a level of access to participate that not all have. Most parts of the digital economy are closed to those who do not have the financial wherewithal or products (such as a credit card).
- The most innovative companies are concentrated in certain parts of the world and the people who are employed have the right education and the ability to learn and experiment with the latest technologies and trends, a luxury not available to all in the world.
- Parts of the labor force have been automated and this has disproportionately affected those with fewer skills. AI and automation threaten to wreak more damage.
We can’t deny that digital has created vast economic opportunities and benefits to consumers. While these issues above are real, we need to acknowledge that it used to be worse and if anything, digital technology has made it better by removing barriers for many to participate. But the question is not if things are better, but rather are they the best we can do. We should stop and consider what it will take for anyone to participate in the digital economy easily and reap its benefits as consumers. We can look for ways to significantly enhance the preparedness of people everywhere to work in the digital economy or find ways to channel their ideas into useful enterprises. There can be no excuse for not making use of digital technologies and content to massively improve the education of people in every nook and corner of the world and open economic opportunities for them. We should be able to bring them much closer to the best the western world has to offer in terms of educational attainment. We might have to consider even larger ways of distributing work at an aggregate and individual level. We will have to level the playing field deliberately, at a micro-level (for instance things like payments and identity) and at a macro level. As before, I am not proposing answers, but leaving us with some questions for us all to consider. How do you think we can proceed? I invite you to share your ideas.
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