For generations societies predominantly on the Indian subcontinent have employed sharply demarcated caste systems, a measure of social standing generally based on one’s genealogy, which in turn traditionally determined the rest of the course of one’s life. While such social stratification is largely now seen as discriminatory and divisive (and thus almost obsolete), it looks like the modern digital age is not without its own caste system, but this time based on how we interact with technology.
In his keynote address at last week’s Mobile World Congress, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt spoke of connectivity and the spread of the digital revolution across the globe. He noted that while an overwhelming majority of the world’s population has a mobile device, approximately only 2 billion are online, meaning the age of connectivity has yet to reach 5 billion others.
But as smartphone prices drop and wireless technology becomes ubiquitous around the world we’ll soon start to see a different sort of technological and cultural divide begin to grow, one not based social standing, on the difference between connected or unconnected, but defined by our level of connectivity.
While certainly not as controversial as social stratification, the caste system that will emerge in the digital age, according to Schmidt, will nevertheless have its own sharply demarcated categories, clearly separating the “haves” from the “have-nots.”
Schmidt noted that as this divide emerges we’ll see at the top of the pile the “ultra-connected,” the “lucky few” of the digital age who find themselves on the bleeding edge of wireless advancement, enjoying a veritable digital paradise, “where bandwidth is plentiful, devices are affordable, everything is on the cloud and technology becomes as invisible as electricity is now.” As Schmidt explained, “It [the Internet] will just be there. The Web will be everything and at the same time nothing.”
In the middle will sit the so-called “connected contributors,” a veritable digital middle class. Schmidt described this particular group as those who can use technology to change their lives, made up of developers and “educated consumers, supporting the creations of the 10 percent [the ultra-connected].”
Finally there are the other 5 billion, the “aspiring majority,” who will find the web more accessible and usable in year’s to come as wireless networks spread and technology becomes more affordable and accessible.
While this vision of the digital class system has the same sort of sharp demarcation we’ve seen in past social caste structures, Schmidt was quick to point out one vital difference, in this class system “technology is a leveller — the weak will be strong, and those with nothing will have something.”
His point, regardless of one’s connectivity the benefits of the digital will be that all (or most) will be connected, and all will have access to the same opportunities the Internet provides. “Technology is power by its very nature,” Schmidt said, waxing hopefully, “and by ensuring access we can create a global community of equals.”
In the end, however, I remain sceptical of Schmidt’s altruistic utopian vision, seeing instead a converse dystopian future where one’s place on the connected class system will continue to be exploited for financial gain and technological superiority will continue to be used to keep people down, perhaps even by companies who proclaim “Don’t be Evil” as their corporate motto.