The Caste System of the Digital Era

Published on May 17th, 2021

In 2021, we live in the golden age of social mobility. A person born into poverty can (through a combination of ingenuity, determination, and luck) break into the elite 1%. We know this is possible because social media makes it trivial for these success stories to surface and circulate. We know that, at least for now, 80% of all millionaires did not inherit that wealth. Instead, they discovered or created it in their own lifetime. It's a fantastic moment in time. The age of infinity. The age of infinite opportunity.

But is this level of upward mobility a universal possibility? And if yes, will this opportunity exist forever?

It's an absurd question, I know, but hear me out. I'm asking it more in the context of society as a whole society instead of a specific individual. Sure, in the age of technology whereby a single invention (say, Bitcoin) can create a trillion dollars or more of wealth, there will always be opportunities for upward mobility. However, what about the average Joe?

As singular inventions or products create winner-takes-all outcomes, most people will not be the recipients of any financial gain. Or if they do, they will only be able to capture an ever-smaller percentage. Also, what happens when these inventions (say driverless cars) eliminate an entire industry of workers?

To spell it out, technology (by itself) will increase financial inequality and cause a widening gap between the haves and have nots. It's an inevitable outcome of infinite leverage. Now here is where I move from certainty to speculation. What if this gap becomes so large that most people can never catch up? Worse, what if the means of making a living goes away for most of the population goes away? Will people in 2030 (and beyond) find themselves stuck in the have nots while the haves continues to accelerate away from them? Is this where the paradigm shifts enough that things like universal basic income (UBI) become a necessity instead of a prettied-up version of welfare? What if?

What If?

I'm probably wrong. All of this is speculation. However...

If the following two trends are true.

  • Technology is empowering the haves due to leverage.
  • Technology is dis-empowering the have notes due to displacement.

Then it's possible that people will start finding themselves stuck in different socioeconomic classes. People who have been successful in working-class professions may get stuck at whatever welfare or UBI pays out. Alternatively, people who make bank now and buy up tons of assets (real estate, stocks, crypto, etc.) may find themselves with ever-increasing buying power.

Now, this won't mean that it's impossible to move up or down. But. In the utopian vision of the world where humans have designed robots to meet all of their essential needs (e.g., food, water, and shelter), there would be no need to work. Without work, there is no income. Then and there, only those with the ingenuity to create new and novel businesses will accelerate to the top. I don't know if the majority of people on this planet have that level of ambition or creative energy (the average US citizen consumes 10-12 hours of media a day). Whereas they could have made millions of dollars as a lawyer (which will be mostly automated by AI), can they find another endeavor that will pay even close to that amount? Probably not.

If true, then a person's level within the new caste system is still up for grabs. At least, until it isn't. All the more reason to be as successful as you can until it happens. Maybe by 2030?

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CXO of Atomic Form. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.