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Rawls, The Internet, and Globalization

The philosopher whom I have grown to respect the most is John Rawls. Rawlsian thought says that we should evaluate the question of justice under a “Veil of Ignorance.” The “Veil of Ignorance” requires us to abstract ourselves from our personal circumstances and open ourselves up to the possibility that our being could have been inserted just as easily into any other time and any other place. However, philosophy only goes so far. It only tells us why we should act. How is a more difficult question, and like trying to settle on a philosophical imperative, it is fraught with counter-arguments and self-doubt that can only be combated by an unwavering commitment to a cause.

Globalization is a broadly defined term. It can refer strictly to international trade agreements and multinational corporations, or it can encompass any modern phenomenon, like the Internet and airplanes, that have “shrunk the world.” In the broadest sense, I believe in globalization’s ability to counteract the main forces behind injustice: racism, censorship, unequal opportunity, and a zero-sum mindset. The forces that have given rise to globalization, likewise, allow one to work towards those goals without compromising on a comfortable life. According to John Rawls, “It may be expedient but it is not just that some should have less in order that others may prosper. But there is no injustice in the greater benefits earned by a few provided that the situations of others not so fortunate is thereby improved.” Work that does just that, through the provision of products and services that serve the global good, is being done everyday, in industries like health care, consumer technology, energy resource management, and even law and finance.

In Anthropology, tool use is considered a defining characteristic of culture. When the right ones are deployed properly, we are fulfilling our unique potential as humans. It is my belief that the tool that will do the most to eradicate injustice in our lifetime is the Internet. A common debate today is whether Internet access should be considered a basic human right. I absolutely believe that it should be. In the next decade, it is expected that 5 billion people will gain a connection to the Internet for the first time. Contemplation of this staggering statistic reminds me of a scene from the movie Good Will Hunting. Will, a self-educated janitor from South Boston, finds himself debating historical interpretations of the 18th century American Southern economy with a Harvard graduated student enrolled in its History Department. Having thoroughly dismantled his counterpart, Will declares “you dropped 150 grand on a [expletive] education you could have gotten for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!”

For thousands of years, an education, and access to a tiny sliver of the world’s information, was reserved for the socioeconomic elite, but widespread access to the Internet will uproot this paradigm. The implications for the development of human capital are boundless. Great thinkers sometimes refer to themselves as dwarves on the shoulders of giants, where the giants are the aggregate of human wisdom. I see no better way to refine institutions, encourage technological breakthroughs, and foster domestic and international goodwill than by giving the “Will Huntings” among the 5 billion currently without Internet equal access to the most comprehensive repository of information in human history.

Regardless of where they are conceived of, though, innovations in medicine, consumer technology, and energy will ultimately benefit all of humanity in a globalized environment. Take, for example, Brink Lindsey’s observation, that “no matter how much money you made in the early 1970s, you could not surf the Internet or use an ATM or listen to an iPod or take ibuprofen for a headache or get an MRI if the headache persisted.” This idea was illuminated recently by an anecdote I came across in a book I am reading for a class on modern China. Eating Bitterness is a collection of narratives about China’s urban poor. Their days are long and anxiety-filled, but even the people who sell vegetables at the local market have a television when they come home at night. Through the television, they are able to immerse themselves in a world beyond their apartment and nearby vegetable stand. The sense of connectivity they feel and the leisure time they are able to enjoy is the product of global markets. That, to me, is globalization. Some might accuse me of being naïve to think that “great products with global reach” alone will make the world a more just place. To such critics, I would point to an observation Bill Gates made in a recent Rolling Stone interview.

“Our modern lifestyle is not a political creation. Before 1700, everyone was poor as hell. Life was short and brutish. It wasn’t because we didn’t have good politicians; we had some really good politicians…Innovation is the real driver of progress.”

Encouraging the development of new and helpful products most often requires investment. This is where the finance industry, much maligned for contributing negatively to economic polarization and injustice, plays an important role. In particular, I have two forms of finance in mind: microfinance and venture capital. Both of them are apart of the fabric of globalization. Those who practice Microfinance extend low-interest loans to low-income individuals in the developing world who otherwise would lack access to financial services. It has empowered marginalized people, especially women, to start their own businesses and gain autonomy from discrimination. If at first they were unable to receive a loan, on account of being too poor, or because they were without a Y chromosome, the practitioners of Microfinance allow these people to enter the market place. Once they have entered it, they face less discrimination, because according to Milton Friedman, people are rarely “discriminated against in their economic activities for reasons that are unrelated to their productivity.”

Venture capital serves the same social end as microfinance. Both provide capital so that people can realize their potential, and they do so understanding that many of their investments will fail. The difference is, the loans are bigger, and the businesses are bolder. According to Chris Dixon, a well-known venture capitalist in technology circles:

“The technology industry is in the business of creating products and services that either enable new activities or make new existing activities less expensive. Venture capitalists are in the business of funding entrepreneurs who run experiments to try to create these new products and services.”

Coursera, Tesla, and 23andMe are the companies responsible for creating products, like the television today, that the world’s population will have access to forty years from now. They are able to do so at such a pace and on such a scale in part because of the venture capital funding they have received.

Globalization’s promise of connectedness is the same promise made by organized religion. I was raised Catholic, and over time, I have grown to appreciate the fact that catholic is also a word for “universal.” Buddhism and other Eastern religions espouse the oneness of all things, as do schools of thought that do not explicitly identify as religions, like Emersonian Transcendentalism and the philosophy of physics presented by Neil DeGrasse Tyson on his show “Cosmos.” But to think that we are a truly globalized people, in the religious sense of the word, is dangerously optimistic. We are far from a global political and economic paradigm that recognizes our shared humanity. In an age where we have managed to manipulate 1’s and 0’s so that those of who have the Internet can watch House of Cards, 969 million people, or 18 percent of the world’s population, continue to live on less than $1 per day. Rawls’ “Veil of Ignorance” and the Judeo-Christian tradition make it clear that this is a tragedy deserving of our attention. To me, that means working with the people who are building the products that will move our world forward, so that knowing the pleasure of elegant and efficient technologies is not limited to where you live. With globalization and the rapid pace of technological development and diffusion, the objective is not so far-fetched.

Robert Galliani

About Rob Galliani

Rob Galliani, a junior from Menlo Park, CA, took over as NBR's Editor-in-Chief last Spring. He's still trying to figure out how the Internet is possible.

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