by Bhawna Sharma
Scroll through social media these days, and the excitement surrounding vaccines and Volocopters quivering in the horizon is palpable—these are technologies which are high in demand but also becoming increasingly exclusive. In the past week, Singapore heaved a sigh of relief following the announcement of free COVID-19 vaccines for all Singaporean residents as soon as December-end and the launch of flying taxis in the next three years, further cementing the country’s strong position as a regional business hub.
Volocopters and vaccines are great for many reasons: a potential end in sight to months of pandemic-laden misery, economic revival, and the possibility of sustainably zipping from one end of Singapore to another in just ten minutes. Adding to the win-win situation for Singaporeans, the German start-up Volocopter plans to hire more than 200 full-time employees as the air commerce model expands into a network of routes by 2026.
On a macro-level, the benefits are straightforward. But as with any modern-day technology, the rosy picture starts to get complicated when we consider who captures the benefits and who pays the price.
That is one of the reasons why my initial reaction to imagining flying taxis gliding their way through Singapore’s futuristic skyline was admiration tinged with unease: admiration for technology which continuously improves life, but unease for the increasing distance between the haves and have-nots it creates.
In a compact and highly urban city like Singapore, the eerie image of a wealthy few looking down from above while the majority of the population is trapped in the daily grind of public transportation is unsettling. Moreover, even if the technology becomes cheaper over time, it may take years before it is adopted widely among Singaporeans.
Parallely, the threat of being left behind by technology is rapidly unfolding in the desperate race to secure a COVID-19 vaccine, with rich countries hoarding 53% of the global stock for just 14% of the world’s population. While the UK has secured an equivalent of five doses per head, for example, Bangladesh has only secured one dose for every nine people. Poor countries may end up receiving vaccines much later than expected, and suffer casualties while developed countries busily flatten the curve.
A fair (and frequently used) counter-argument to concerns over distribution is that access to niche technologies is a direct reflection of those who can afford them – rich countries are able to hoard vaccines and put their citizens first because they own the resources to do so. But from a longer-term perspective, prolonged and chronic inequalities rooted in technology become destabilizing when left unchecked.
In the state of California, for example, the wealth created from Silicon Valley is concentrated in 20-25% of the population and poverty is high. What makes the gaping inequality worse is the sheer economies of scale digitisation allows, generating billions while requiring a low employment base. Meanwhile, much of the employment is increasing in retail, restaurant, and manual jobs, where wages are sluggish or shrinking. Clearly, the inequalities of technological innovation can no longer be passed off as inconsequential necessary evils.
As countries continue to navigate the difficulties of a post-pandemic world, the agenda to make technology more equitable and accessible therefore needs critical attention. If technological advances keep on favouring a select few at the cost of the majority, we may well be on our way to a world run on the tyranny of the minority – the minority being vaccine and Volocopter monopolists.