Yochai Benkler —
What role does technology play in rising inequality? Is it, as the dominant view among policymakers argues, the primary explanatory variable, operating in reasonably efficient markets to shape the value of different workers, and hence the pay they can command? Is it, as labor economists critical of the mainstream imply, a side show, since inequality is overwhelmingly a consequence of political choices that shape bargaining power in markets pervaded by power? If we think that technology matters; that platforms and robots, ubiquitous sensors and algorithms do exert a real influence on the pattern of social relations that make up the economy, but we doubt that technology causes inequality by a “natural” process driven by its own intrinsic affordances and constraints interacting with markets, then we owe ourselves a clearer story than we have given to this point. While the past quarter century has seen a lot of work on technology and freedom, there has been substantially less critical work on economic inequality and technology. In today’s post, I’ll describe the limits of the mainstream economists’ answer, which lies at the foundation of “the robots will take all the jobs” and the legitimation of winner-take-all markets. Tomorrow’s post will outline the limits of the dominant left reaction, as well as the limits of Karl Polanyi’s approach, which has provided so much inspiration for the present resurgence of political economy. Finally, in the third post I’ll outline a view of the political economy of technology.
I see technology as imposing real constraints, and providing meaningful affordances that are sufficiently significant, at least in the short to mid-term, to be a substantial locus of power over the practice of social relations. And yet, technology is neither exogenous nor deterministic, in that it evolves in response to the interaction between the institutional ecosystem and the ideological zeitgeist of a society, such that different societies at the same technological frontier can and do experience significantly different economic and political arrangements. In the short to mid-term, technology acts as a distinct dimension of power enabling some actors to extract more or less than their fair share of economic life; in the long term, technology is a site of struggle, whose shape and pattern are a function of power deployed over the institutional and ideological framework within which we live our lives. The stakes are significant. A left that ignores the implications of technology as a site of meaningful struggle risks falling into a nostalgia for the institutions of yesteryear. But a left that continues to disdain the state and formal institutions, and to imagine that we can build purely technological solutions to inequality risks abandoning the field to the Silicon Valley techno-utopian babble that has legitimated the extractive practices of oligarchy’s most recent heroes.