STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Our unequal technology future


Popular culture has a lot to say about the future and technology.

There are dire warnings like in Minority Reportand Surrogates. There are ecological warnings couched in robot-love stories, such as in WALL-E. All of these stories ask, "What does technology do to us as human beings and to our relationships with others?"

Those dire warnings are one way we express how we feel about technology. The converse is, simply put, that technology will make everything better---all tech is good tech and all good tech is progress.This is the idea of "technological determinism."  A subtext to this idea of forward progress is that everyone will have the same access to technology in the future. 

But, we know now that the digital divide  is wide. Unequal access extends to networks, computers,  smartphones, tablets, gaming systems, and other gadgets those with resources take for granted. Acceptance of tech inequality is so embedded it has its own ironic hashtag: #FirstWorld problems. 

What happens if we look more closely at representations of the future and technology through the lens of opportunity? Who's included, but more importantly, who gets left out? We had some compelling comments about the recent mantra that "everyone should learn how to code":

Patti raises a great point: what are the barriers that make it difficult, if not impossible, for everyone to participate in our great tech future? The accessibility movement has a central tenet that designing for people living with disabilities benefits others beyond that population. After all, becoming disabled---whether through illness, genetics, accident, or age---is a group that anyone can join at any time. And if you're lucky enough to have a smartphone, have you taken a few of the assistive technologies for a spin to aid in reading tiny print?

But what about income and resource barriers to present and future tech? A book that got me thinking about this a lot is Enrest Cline's 2011 novel Ready Player OneSet in the year 2044, the book opens with our 18-year-old protagonist Wade camped out in his Aunt's laundry room trying to protect the computer and virtual reality set up he's cobbled together from cast-offs. His rig is an important part of this life because in this future world, kids go to school virtually in a place called the "OASIS" and have different levels of equipment that determine how freely they can move in the virtual world. And since the Cline describes the real world as dystopic, crowded, and post-nuclear, the virtual world is all that exists as a respite from the grind of daily life. 

Ready Player One, despite being set in 2044, is deeply entrenched in 1980s television, gaming, and film culture. The plot revolves around Wade's quest to find hidden Easter eggsinside a video designed by a Steve Jobs-like character, who has died. The first person to find all of the clues and solve several puzzled---all based in 1980s pop culture trivia---will inherit a fortune amassed from the proliferation of the virtual reality system that has come to dominate the world. The winner will also gain control over the OASIS, a prize that an evil corporation is cheating its way toward with an indentured army of players. 

I won't spoil the book by telling you whether Wade succeeds in his missions. But, Wade's story, to me, treads the line between techno-utopianism and warning: if you have the right skills, even though the deck is stacked against you in having access to all the tech goodies the future promises, you can still get ahead. There's technological determinism embedded in saying that everyone should learn how to code, as if a guaranteed technical future rests in knowing a programming language, such as Python

What's notable about Wade's journey is that he---a parent-less, penniless tech-savvy waif---is clearly written as a character with technological skills as a resource. He can scavenge for materials, he knows what components are compatible with which other parts, and he has coding skills. Aside from a female love interest and a couple of characters from Japan, other characters aren't notably different from Wade in terms of race and gender. Perhaps this makes the class distinctions in the distribution of technology more apparent. But the inequalities the book highlights are overshadowed by whether Wade's abilities in making do, or "hacking" OASIS, make him a winner. 

State of Opportunity will continue exploring issues of technology and opportunity. There are a lot of questions to ask about our assumptions: what will technology do for us? Who will be able to use all the promising gadgets we hear about onour own airwaves? Who can afford them? And what are technologists doing to expand the meaning of accessibility?

If you have stories to tell us about technology and opportunity drop us a line in the comments below, via Twitter or on our Facebook page. We can also talk about the limits of soliciting stories via social media and the web...

Related Content