January 03, 2007

A Question for 2007: When is inequality a good thing?

The internet was supposed to be the great equalizer, the tool that would let anyone become a publisher, a news source, a movie director or the creator of even new medias. Shockingly enough in large part it succeeded and the predictions came true. Anyone on the right side of certain economics and techno-literate thresholds can indeed go online and distribute their works for little or no cost. We live in a world of publishers now and it's great in many ways, for one it enables this blog to exist. Yet something also went horribly awry in the process. We got everything the internet promised, everything except the equality.

In a world of millions of news sources we still focus our attention on a select few. There has been a bit of a reshuffling at the top for sure, new information powerhouses have stepped up and dominated, while some of the old media players have stumbled while others danced nimbly into newly global audiences. But information continues to follow a power law curve, which roughly means we focus 80% of our energies upon what emits from just 20% of the providers, and the top 1% command half of our total attention. Wealth too follows this distribution, with the super rich dominating absurd amounts of the world's cash flow, and the payouts to the top dogs at the likes of Google, MySpace and YouTube only reinforce this inequity.

Equality is a concept wrought with it's own inequities. We pay incredible lip service to it as a concept, but rarely implement it well in reality. There are only a few people willing to defend say the extreme difference in earnings between top Wall Street executives and the entire quarter of New York City's population that lives below the poverty level while also living in one of the world's most expensive cities. But there are few still who are actually willing to do something about it.

One of the ironies of inequality is that it's almost always looked at a bad thing, when in fact it often is exactly the opposite. Take your blood for example. You may have left small drops from cuts and scratches around your childhood haunts. You've probably given a few samples that now sit in testing labs or medical disposal sites. You might have donated a few pints that now sit in blood banks or circulate in some form through another persons body. But the vast majority of your blood stays within your body and you wouldn't want it any other way, would you? Your blood evenly distributed across the globe wouldn't do anyone much good, would it? That globe of course is an inequality in itself, stars, planets and atmospheres are ultimately the result of a radically unequal distribution of elementary particles.

Equality of course can also be stunningly boring. We wouldn't want all flowers to be equal in shape and coloring, nor do we enjoy it when every building looks the same. But none of that takes away from the fact that the inequalities of power, wealth and culture we tend to focus on have awful and far reaching consequences. Consequences we don't often actually address. There is a danger in shifting more attention towards the overlooked space of positive inequalities, a risk of de-emphasising the existing problems even further than they are now. But with that risk comes the potential to find solutions. Perhaps, but just perhaps, the fact that so little is actually done to address the radical inequalities in America and beyond stems from that discord between the idea of inequality being bad and prevalence of subtle examples of where it isn't. More than that though is the prospect that somewhere within the examples of positive inequality lies an answer, or at least a start of answer to how we can transform the negative inequalities around us into a better state of being.

So it's 2007 now, maybe ask yourself, when is inequality a good thing?

Posted by Abe at January 3, 2007 09:31 PM


mmm - thought-provoking and useful - particularly the focus on the benefits of 'inequality' - which do seem to be oft-cited as a (spurious) justification of inequity. Seems like this is a discursive tactic of sorts - which is systematically used in an attempt to silence critics and close down argument. On the Internet - yes, power-concentrations are depressing. But so is also the incredible 'digital divide' in which huge sections of the world, and great chunks of nations's populations are excluded from this and other digital resources.

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