If societies really want to tackle inequality, they'll need to do more than just improve access to new technologies.
BOGOTÁ — Everyone talks about how we're in the midst of a technological and scientific revolution that's rapidly transforming our world in ways that exceed previous revolutions.
New technologies come to us so fast that it seems almost unnecessary — and repetitive — to keep mentioning them. And yet, we cannot overlook how such technologies are redefining our societies and institutions. But what's most important here is not just that people have access to these technologies, but that they reap the benefits of such advances and share in the dividends.
However sophisticated or confusing they may be, the key issue with these technological changes is wealth distribution. If yesterday we were focused on returns from land and machines, today we must pay special attention to the dividends of digital technologies, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.
These new dividends, like past ones, can be either democratizing in their impact or help concentrate power in the hands of the few. But if they're to permeate society on a democratic scale, we first need a society that absorbs like a sponge, and that, in turn, depends on another basic factor: better education.
Have we already missed the train?
Improved education is needed not just at the higher levels of science and technology, but also in primary and secondary schooling, which creates better citizens. Unfortunately, in Colombia, too many people are excluded from quality education.
This is another reason why education must be a long-term, state policy, rather than subject to the short-term whims of whatever administration happens to be in power. And that means more government spending, which can be financed by more progressive taxes and a smaller military budget.
Colombian students walk to class –– Photo: Michelle McFarlane
One cannot have a truly democratic society if economic inequality allows a few to also hoard all the political power and wield it over the great majority. There can be no democratic society if everyone can access certain technologies, but only a few will reap its economic rewards. A decent education is one that permits a better social distribution of the dividends of science and technology.
Citizens should not allow the frequently used terms of this revolution — words like technology, digital, 4.0 or 5.0 — to confound the most basic social demands that include, and are a precondition to, democratic access to the dividends of science and technology. Colombia is no exception, and unless it embarks on a concerted revolution in education, it won't be able to properly assimilate the tech revolution.
Indeed, this is a particularly important challenge for developing nations like ours, which are already playing catchup when it comes to education. If we missed the train already, as they say, what happens now that the train is moving that much faster?
*Hernández is an economics professor at the Pontifical Xavierian University in Bogotá.