Brendan Sheppard, Queens University.
Captain Kirk and his crew cruised across the cosmos in a ship teeming with the technology of our most ambitious dreams, solving problems far beyond our scope. But from time to time, Kirk & Co. would face a problem they dreaded most of all. Their ‘prime directive’ dictated that they, with all their technological might and problem-solving experience, could not interfere with the development of civilizations that had yet to achieve space flight. Even when a developing species faced certain death, the Enterprise was not to interfere.
In the past few centuries, on our own planet, the technological divide has widened between ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ countries. We are now forced to ask whether we, as developed nations, should impose new technologies on countries that can’t introduce these technologies themselves. This moral question must come before the practical one: how. Technology is a tool, and a tool can be a weapon in the wrong hands. Every technological advance has forced major cultural change, from the domestication of wheat to the rise of social media. We are in many ways fortunate to have survived so many drastic changes forced on us by the inevitable, unstoppable advance of technology. Change brings turmoil, and hardship, and it is not inevitably ‘for the best’. So where do we get the right to force such turmoil on countries less equipped to weather the storm of change?
The US, by no means an underdeveloped country, is currently undergoing a major period of strife as a response, in part, to the disappearance of many jobs in the wake of automation. Technological change is forcing a collective recontextualization of concepts like ‘work’ and ‘civic duty’. Look no further than the sudden prominence of universal basic income , or a federal job guarantee , or free post-secondary education , in political debates. We are being forced to reconsider the purposes of work, of education, and of relaxation. We are living through a drastic reinvention of society sparked by technology and innovation. This is what change feels like.
If the US buckles under the weight of such changes, what will countries with less robust institutions experience? Will they have the tools to adapt? Or will ‘developed’ countries return to provide ‘developed’ solutions to the problems they themselves introduced? Do we want both the introduction of new technologies and the resolution of their associated challenges to be provided through the lens of the same two or three cultures? What will be lost if ‘underdeveloped’ countries don’t have the chance to innovate their own paths through the strife that comes with change?
On the other side of this equation is what feels like a moral duty to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves. When new technologies seem to make such obvious improvements to our lives, who are we to withhold these advantages from others who could benefit from them too? A great deal of the power disparities which keep ‘underdeveloped’ countries at the whim of their ‘developed’ counterparts could be resolved if ‘underdeveloped’ countries had the infrastructure to support a greater economic presence on the world stage. Without the contributions and support of ‘developed’ countries, it will be difficult for the ‘underdeveloped’ to catch up.
A balance must be achieved between sharing the benefits of new technologies and maintaining the agency and independence of countries which are still undergoing stages of development that ‘developed’ countries have already survived. This will require a precise approach, which intervenes only when intervention is ideal for the wellbeing of all parties. It will require calm and rational deliberation.
What we are seeing instead is the product of two factors: capitalistic expansion and protectionist politics.
As megacorporations like Amazon and Facebook look to monopolize the known universe, their capitalistic need for growth and expansion encourages them to further entrench themselves in the economies of developing countries. Their accumulated wealth gives them a surplus of resources with which to outcompete and stymie the growth of domestic alternatives. This decreases the global diversity of the industries they subsume, limiting competition and restricting the availability of fresh or unique perspectives in the industry. Monopolization of domestic markets by foreign companies will also be harmful to the economies of countries from which revenue is extracted without a reciprocal investment in the local economy or the creation of local jobs and other mechanisms for wealth to flow back into these communities. Since wealth is so directly correlated with power, the lost opportunities for local enrichment will deprive communities of the ability to represent themselves and their own interests in an effective and undismissable manner.
As international tensions heighten , policy decisions which concern the wellbeing of more than one’s own nation grow scarce. Protectionist attitudes lead to a straining of international relations and a diminishing concern for the wellbeing of our species as a collective in favour of a concern for the isolated success of our secluded ‘tribes’. The power – especially technological power – of developed countries, no longer guided by the careful hand of altruistic rational thought, becomes less predictable and more prone to dangerous applications. It becomes more difficult to foster an effective international sphere of global development when more and more of the components of that sphere are disconnected from the whole and at odds with each other.
The technological divide between ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ countries is a divide of power and culture. Unlike Captain Kirk and his crew, we can’t just stand by and watch, or float off to some other planet and thereby keep ourselves from interfering; we are already too close to the problem – too connected to this world. The power which ‘developed’ countries have over ‘underdeveloped’ countries merely by their state of technological and industrial advancement will have an effect. The nature of that effect will be determined by how much time we find to care. The more often we engage in discussions which are rational and aimed towards enhancing the wellbeing of our collective rather than our individual interests, the better we can ensure a future where someday, as a united species, we launch little ships off into space, and share in the rewards we have reaped from that unstoppable technological advance.
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