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25 May 2017

Are We about to Witness the Most Unequal Societies in History?

Humanoid robots work side-by-side with employees on an assembly line
in Kazo, Japan.  Photo:  Issei Kato/Reuters
Are we about to witness the most unequal societies in history?
Yuval Noah Harari,
The Guardian, 24 May 2017

Biotechnology and the rise of AI may split humankind into a small class of ‘superhumans’ and a huge underclass of ‘useless’ people. Once the masses lose their economic and political power, inequality levels could spiral alarmingly

Inequality goes back to the Stone Age. Thirty thousand years ago, bands of hunter-gatherers in Russia buried some members in sumptuous graves replete with thousands of ivory beads, bracelets, jewels and art objects, while other members had to settle for a bare hole in the ground.

Nevertheless, ancient hunter-gatherer groups were still more egalitarian than any subsequent human society, because they had very little property. Property is a pre-requisite for long-term inequality.


Following the agricultural revolution, property multiplied and with it inequality. As humans gained ownership of land, animals, plants and tools, rigid hierarchical societies emerged, in which small elites monopolised most wealth and power for generation after generation.

Humans came to accept this arrangement as natural and even divinely ordained. Hierarchy was not just the norm, but also the ideal. How could there be order without a clear hierarchy between aristocrats and commoners, between men and women, or between parents and children?

Priests, philosophers and poets all over the world patiently explained that, just as in the human body not all members are equal – the feet must obey the head – so also in human society, equality will bring nothing but chaos.

In the late modern era, however, equality rapidly became the dominant value in human societies almost everywhere. This was partly due to the rise of new ideologies like humanism, liberalism and socialism. But it was also due to the industrial revolution, which made the masses more important than ever before.

Industrial economies relied on masses of common workers, while industrial armies relied on masses of common soldiers. Governments in both democracies and dictatorships invested heavily in the health, education and welfare of the masses, because they needed millions of healthy labourers to work in the factories, and millions of loyal soldiers to serve in the armies.

Consequently, the history of the 20th century revolved to a large extent around the reduction of inequality between classes, races and genders. The world of the year 2000 was a far more equal place than the world of 1900. With the end of the cold war, people became ever-more optimistic, and expected that the process would continue and accelerate in the 21st century.

In particular, they hoped globalisation would spread economic prosperity and democratic freedom throughout the world, and that as a result, people in India and Egypt would eventually come to enjoy the same rights, privileges and opportunities as people in Sweden and Canada. An entire generation grew up on this promise.

Now it seems that this promise was a lie.

Globalisation has certainly benefited large segments of humanity, but there are signs of growing inequality both between and within societies. As some groups increasingly monopolise the fruits of globalisation, billions are left behind.

Even more ominously, as we enter the post-industrial world, the masses are becoming redundant. The best armies no longer rely on millions of ordinary recruits, but rather on a relatively small number of highly professional soldiers using very high-tech kit and autonomous drones, robots and cyber-worms. Already today, most people are militarily useless.

Continue reading:
https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/may/24/are-we-about-to-witness-the-most-unequal-societies-in-history-yuval-noah-harari

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