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Living In The Future Is A Class Issue
This weekend, I got the second piece of tech I’ve ordered in the last year that took several months to arrive, the Eight Sleep pod pro cover. It’s effectively a large mattress topper that combines sleep tracking tech with a high-tech way of cooling/warming two sides of your mattress. It was possibly the least enjoyable thing for me, on account of my dyspraxia, to install on my own, but it has led to two of the best nights of sleep I or my wife have had in years, mostly because she is a very cold sleeper and I am a very hot sleeper. It is a purchase I’ve resisted a long time due to the price and the pain if it didn’t work (it was a nightmare to get out of three boxes, getting it back in feels impossible), but it has legitimately been amazing. The problem? It’s $1300 to $1650.
I also got the Hero Health pill dispenser, a $30-a-month subscription to a giant, clanking product that dispenses and notes when my wife and I take our medications - both of us need to, and our adherence has now been 100% since we got it a few weeks ago. I got Tonal about two months ago and I’ve got trimmer, leaner, I look better than I have in a while - and that, of course, cost $3500. Just like all of these connected fitness products, there’s also the option to take on debt - 0% interest free for those who qualify, but with punitive double digit interest for those that don’t.
I originally wanted to write this as a kind of exploration about how the smart home has radically improved my ability to have a positive, successful human life, and how transformative a lot of these things have been for me, which is true but also an example of privilege, and how some of the greatest ways in which tech can improve a life are financially separate from the majority of people. I am guilty - and was nearly guilty of writing a piece that was basically “look how lucky I am!” and I remain guilty of the things I am so lucky to have.
While these truly transformative pieces of technology are built and exist today that affect billions of people, and are seemingly “accessible,” the very nature of the cost of these products means that they are inaccessible to most people due to both the financial conditions the average person lives in and the logistical issues involved.
Peloton and Tonal are both sold out for months, meaning that anyone putting down these thousands of dollars must be able to part with that money, but also be able to part with it for several months with no value add, or take on the debt necessary to complete the purchase. And if they don’t use it after taking on that debt, selling it on is both burdensome and difficult in and of itself, especially with Tonal. The common defense of these products is that they are cheaper than a gym membership, which makes sense until you recognize the upfront cost and the total lack of utility of these connected devices without a subscription. There is the opportunity to get more value out of them if you spent a similar amount on going to the gym (if you use them as such, they are significantly cheaper than a personal trainer), but with a significantly higher up front financial burden and a mandatory monthly fee.
This isn’t new - it’s always been the case that early adopters are privileged, because they can afford more things and can also afford for said things to not be as good, and thus upgrade to better things when they come along. New, exciting and futuristic tech is always expensive, then over time becomes cheaper as companies begin to work out ways to strip out features or use cheaper materials, or said materials somehow become cheaper. Then again, there’re also companies like Peloton that raised prices so that people would think the bike was better.
Hero - while significantly cheaper - still requires a $50-100 downpayment on the device and a $30-a-month subscription to physically organize and dispense your pills. Hero (or something like Hero) should be in the hands of every senior, as approximately 125,000 deaths and 10% of hospitalizations are caused by a lack of nonadherence to medicine (this article is from 2017, but I can’t imagine things have improved). But it isn’t - it’s a tech-enabled, WiFi-powered $30-a-month per person device (as you can’t use one device for two people’s medicines). While yes, you could use reminders and other things, having taken care of two elderly people and their litany of medicines, it is both extremely taxing and a matter of life and death to get medicines right.
Despite 93% of Americans saying they use the internet, only 77% report that they have a broadband connection at home. The pandemic heightened this divide by showing exactly how students from low-income families were shut out of remote learning when they lacked access to the internet or a computer. 19 million Americans lack access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds - all while we move into an increasingly internet and tech-dependent society that does not seek to make basic access to internet and technology a right.
While it’s easy to think that just about anyone can log onto a website on their smartphone, the pandemic made it blatantly obvious how privilege has segmented access to the future. Even if someone can afford a computer, it may not be fast enough to run the software they need to, and even if it is, their home internet connection may not be. While it’s a great thing for some people that jobs have become “remote-friendly,” we assume at that point that people have the space in their home to delineate between work and home, the technology in their home to actually operate as an employee within it, and when all that’s said and done that it’s possible for them to be happy and thrive doing so.
Tech has absolutely given more people access to more knowledge, and more people the ability to communicate with more people. But I feel like the way in which tech is progressing, both in its demands of people’s money and their access to quality internet, is increasingly being catered toward people with more resources. I get it - this is literally capitalism capitalisming at its most capitalist - but I can’t stop seeing the ways in which technology is increasingly focused on making the quality-of-life for the average privileged person better while leaving behind everybody else.
If you’re privileged, you can have everything automated - your bed, which adjusts its temperature to make you sleep better, can tell your coffee machine to make you coffee, which will wake you up so you can go to work on your computer for a company that you’re able to work for remotely, which works because you have the means to have a separate office space or have cannibalized your own home to make one, and can operate because you can afford to live somewhere with high-speed internet. You are able to take a break and get on your Peloton, which works because you have high-speed internet, and thus you’re healthier, and you’ve slept better and thus can get stronger and healthier because of your bed. You’re able to get healthy food delivered to you because you can afford the cost of Instacart, or Prime Now. And ultimately you have access to better jobs because of your ability to stay online without having to share the device.
The future we grew up thinking about is here - it’s just not equitably distributed. The excitement and bubbles in tech are likely growing because for those with the money to spend and the ability to create companies, the future feels exciting and immediate. But the future that most people experience is severely hampered by massive inequalities. There are absolutely technological achievements that have been made available to the masses - streaming media, for example - but a great deal of things are made to make the successful more successful, the rich get richer and the privileged stay privileged.
There are very few easy solutions here. The startup ecosystem rewards those who come up with ideas that VCs believe will be valuable companies, and that value is oftentimes established by the privileged’s investment in said thing. It’s hard to encourage companies to appeal to a larger subset of people and price to them as a result if they think they can price higher and attract a more sustainable (IE: richer) customer base. When the money is coming from the privileged, and aimed at making experiences that appeal to the privileged, the result is products created for the privileged, priced for their convenience and joy. And on some level perhaps these products aren’t possible to make cheaply, and that isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault - it just makes the chasm between the haves and have nots that bit larger, opening more opportunities for a healthier and wealthier life to those who already might have one.
On a governmental level, the obvious choices are infrastructural - we need everybody to have high speed internet, and it needs to be a utility. It’d be a classic shitty conservative thing to get mad at, but there needs to be some way in which we get everybody some basic level of home computing - it’s ridiculous that we took every student remote without making sure that every single one had the means to connect and interact with their student body.
I don’t know if there’s any great solution to the problem of technological accessibility, and I feel like the pandemic made that gap wider. The things that made the pandemic easier (or even bearable) for people - ways to exercise, ways to interact, ways to work - were all inherently reliant on having the physical or fiscal means to make your home function as an office, a gym and a home. The demands of a remote future are not as simple as “hey, no office time”! - they inherently require an investment of money and space that the majority of people don’t have, and we lack any of the social services that would require fairly creating a remote only future.