Welcome back to Atsiko’s Monthly World-building Seminar! Today, we’re going to be talking again about technology and its influence on society. In fantasy literature.
In the spirit of my official seminar schedule, I wanted to talk about how the ideas in the previous post can be applied to the real world.
According to the MIT Technology Review and the National Bureau for Economic Research, income and wealth inequality are directly related to the way in which an increasingly technological culture advantages the technologically literate over any other group. Which only makes sense. However, it’s important to keep in mind that those most likely to be technologically literate are people who are already advantaged in a given economy/society. And when new technology comes around, they are also the most likely to have the time and resources available to capitalize on the possibilities of that new technology. And this has been true throughout history. When a group of people has a smaller share of inherited wealth, and a technology comes along that eliminates or changes their field of employment drastically, they have less chance of being able to recover and find a place in the new incarnation of society.
The roots of this problem all go back to the concept of specialization of labor: As a society grows larger and more organized, individuals in the society begin to switch from being jacks of all trades to being the master of one. With the advent of agriculture, the job of producing food could be handled by a smaller percentage of the population, leaving the rest of the society free to pursue other trades. This leads to the development of trades, where the master passes on their skills and knowledge to the apprentice, and these traditions result in an increasing level of quality in those areas. As trades become more specialized, it becomes increasingly harder for an individual to learn a new trade, whether by themselves or from a teacher. Finally, trades become specialized enough, and important enough to the economy that they begin to gain prestige, the supply of those skilled in the trade is exceeded by the demand for their services, and they become economically more stable and lucrative.
And some day, a new technology is invented which makes some trade obsolete. Or perhaps a step in the production of a good that was once important and labor-demanding becomes simpler and easier, eliminating the need for the people who specialized in that step begins to dry up. Now they must either invest in learning a new skill or be relegated to the pool of laborers suited for only easy tasks which are little trouble to learn. The suppl of workers is closer to or even exceeds the demand, and the individual faces a decrease in the standard of living.
Not every technology has this effect, but the more innovative and powerful the technology, the more likely it is. And while new technologies make create new jobs and trades, they tend to be more specialized, and create fewer jobs than a job-killing technology may destroy.
The next step of the association between technology and inequality involves the way in which technology breeds complexity in a society. As more technologies arise, and the limited population divides further between career paths, it becomes necessary to have more effective organization. Now jobs in organization begin to diversify and increase in complexity. Because some human beings are better at certain tasks than others, and because there are a limited number of slots in most fields, especially as increasing levels of technology make tasks in those fields more efficient, the ease of switching between careers decreases. And even the mid-level careers go through this, such that high-level and mid-level careers both drop to low-level when their relevance is eliminated by technology.
Finally, as technology and organization increase in complexity and investment of time and knowledge, there is a class of job that only a tiny number of people are suited for, but for which workers are in high demand. You can never eliminate all the low-level jobs.; human society will always have the equivalent of today’s “minimum wage” job, at least as far as fantasy is concerned, no matter what the level of technology or magic involved. Supply and demand will always hold, and so as a result, the greater the level of technology, the wider the income gap is going to be, no matter how much that same technology may raise the floor. And as this rise in demand for certain skills convinces more people to aim for those career tracks, the people in the middle shift more towards the top, and the economy sees more profit in those areas, increasing demand and also increasing inequality. Those who would previously have been in the mid-level fields are now instead either hitting the tail-end of the upper-level, or failing out and losing their investment, dropping into the low-level fields. You can read a bit more about the ideas of capital bias and skill bias here.
The easiest example of this today is Silicon Valley. As noted in the MITTR article, Silicon Valley is one of the areas of the highest economic inequality in this US, being one of the centers of technological innovation and change. But basically any American corporation can model these concepts. Certain high demand fields, such as CEO or other management jobs are paid not according to merit, but rather based on competition between companies for an under-available commodity.
So technology leads both to a massive increase in the overall productivity of the society, but also to larger and larger amounts of inequality. This is something that’s important to keep in mind when building your own fictional society, and it can lend a lot of verisimilitude to your world-building. And in our third and final post for this introductory mini-seminar, I’ll go into more detail about both realistic and reasonable applications of these concepts to fictional world.