Is it time for a world technology organization?

It is time for us to start thinking of ways where the benefits of technology improvements can be more equitably distributed, just like advances in medicine are

The software that underpins mobile devices of both Samsung and Apple is owned by Google and Apple—which are both American. Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

I had dinner last week with a couple of old American friends of mine. At dinner, I pulled out my shiny new Samsung phone, which I have bought after many years of being an iPhone user. I had changed my phone ecosystem at my son’s behest. Being significantly more tech-savvy than I, he had impressed upon me that it was a better phone. I am still fumbling with the new phone, but I have discovered a couple of cool things that the Samsung can do that iPhones can’t—and I was trying to tell my American friends that they should consider changing for their next smartphone purchase.

Their response startled me. “What’s wrong with you, Sid?” they said. “Haven’t you heard of Make America Great Again? It’s Apple all the way! We buy American!” I couldn’t believe my ears! I knew my friends are independent thinkers and I was incredulous that the ongoing rhetoric had affected them to the extent that these two otherwise tech-savvy executives completely missed out on the fact that neither device is made in America, but the software that underpins both is owned by Google and Apple—which are both American. The Samsung is in fact no less American than the iPhone!

Let me make clear that I am not a commentator on American—or indeed any other country’s—politics, and am avowedly apolitical. I am not condemning anyone’s manifestos or rhetoric in any way. All I am doing is trying to point out that in a two-party system like in America, or in any other electoral system where there is only one of two possible outcomes (like the yes/no vote on Brexit), the rhetoric of the ‘rabid right’ or of the ‘loony left’ has the ability of affecting the ‘muddled middle’ in profound ways.

Kenneth Arrow, an American mathematician and the youngest Nobel laureate ever, was the first to point this out in the 1950s. In his doctoral thesis, he concluded that in any electoral system where three or more preferences exist, the proponents of the minority voice paradoxically have the ability to dictate the broader choice. His finding is popularly known as Arrow’s impossibility theorem.

This can be illustrated with an example: Let’s say a population has three preferences in the run-up to an election which pits binary choices against each other—A: go to war or B: don’t go to war. While there are only two choices (A or B), the voting populace itself may be distributed along three lines as follows: one, the hawks—who are in a minority but absolutely want to go to war, and two, others who form the majority of voters but are roughly equally split—the doves who prefer not to go to war under any circumstance, and the realists who don’t want to go to war unless it’s absolutely necessary. In an election where only two choices can be made, the minority hawks, who want to go to war immediately, have the ability to dictate the outcome by convincing the realists who believe in not going to war unless really necessary by prevailing on the realists that war is actually needed. This isn’t the minority swing vote we are normally told about—it’s a systematic way for a minority going about setting a voting agenda such that it carries the day.

A recent article in Forbes talks about a study by a person who is probably of Greek antecedents—Christos Makridis, a doctoral student in labour and public economics. Makridis finds that the more pronounced the economic disparity experienced in an electorate comprised of haves and have-nots, the political polarization gets greater and greater in a predictable way as the income distribution gets more skewed. This is in keeping with normal thought processes and is as you and I would expect, but this polarization can be dangerous when one thinks about how such polarization is further affected by Arrow’s analysis. The polarized voting populace allows for an easier manipulation of an overall election result by anyone in a minority fringe group.

In an earlier column , I spoke of Yanis Varoufakis, the ex-finance minister of Greece, and his recent book. He quotes his speech at a joint press conference he held with Wolfgang Schauble, finance minister of Germany, during which he pointed out that while still a minority, fascism (or rather Nazism) was the fastest growing segment in Greece’s parliament, and that without a German bailout of a Greek default, Greece ran the risk of Nazism becoming a rampant political force in Greece. This would have been a classic example of how Arrow’s theorem could have caused the majority of the country to align with the Fascists. By Varoufakis’s own admission, his speech did not go down well.

If rhetoric can affect businessmen with global exposure, it can no doubt also affect many others who are in the middle and have never left their home countries. While the increased economic nationalism found in many nations today may be the proximate cause for globalization to slow, the root cause probably lies in the increasing economic disparity we are seeing in each country, much of it caused by the adoption of new technology. It is time for us to start thinking of ways where the benefits of technology improvements can be more equitably distributed, just like advances in medicine are. The time might be right for a UN-sponsored body to manage this, much like the World Health Organization does for health.

Siddharth Pai is a management and technology consultant.

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