A new technological gilded age

Increasing poverty, homelessness, and economic struggles, paired with unmatched technological development represents a greater interest in product rather than people


Photo courtesy of Creative Commons "guardians of capitalism" by Mitchell Haindfield is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Exorbitant structures: Located on Lenora Street in Seattle, The Amazon Spheres house plant life and are used for Amazon employees to work and lounge in. The cost of the Seattle campus, including the spheres, was $4 billion in total. “Obviously the whole system of capitalism where we’re stuck in a rich get richer poor get poorer cycle is so messed up,” junior Adeline Janeway said.

The Gilded Age

The gilded age was a period from about 1870 to 1900 in which the United States experienced rapid economic growth and the disparity between laborers and the wealthy increased greatly.

U.S. History and A.P. U.S. History teacher Jason Billingsley described the Gilded Age as a period of rapid growth in luxury and consumption.

“It looks like the United States was flourishing in terms of wealth but really underneath it was not,” Billingsley said.

The rapid urbanization and industrialization of America was spurred on by immigrants arriving in places like New York City and Boston. Immigrants were often in need of work and labored for long hours for little pay.

“Most of the growth was relying on immigrants coming in and working the factories, women working in factories, people in lower socio-economic levels of U.S. society were the ones working making all the money for the people like Andrew Carnegie and Rockefellers. Living in the slums, lots of pollution, crowded parts of the cities where the factories were located,” Billingsley said.

A new technological Gilded Age

graphic created by Hailey Cordell

Rapid technological advancement such as AI, virtual and augmented reality as well as technology used in our day-to-day lives such as cellphones, computers and GPS are just a few examples of the technological wonders of our day.

This new technological gilded age is characterized by almost incomprehensible advancement, paired with increasing poverty, homelessness, and economic instability.

Most students today don’t even blink twice over new space explorations such as the first launch of astronauts into orbit by SpaceX in 2020.

However, an increasing amount of young people are experiencing poverty. Poverty rates for people under 18 increased from around 14 percent in 2019 to 16.1 percent in 2020.

Food insecurity in households with children under 18 has increased drastically due to the COVID pandemic, with an increase of 130 percent from 2018 to 2020.

Advancement is not to blame for economic turmoil, however, what this opulent advancement represents: greater economic investments in product rather than people.

Junior Adeline Janeway described the need for the United States to improve in areas such as the cost of higher education, healthcare, and infrastructure.

“At the same time, I do believe as a general rule that we are moving towards progress as history goes along. I would be unable to live in the past. Now we have so much more progress we absolutely need to make, immediately,” Janeway said.

However, unlike the first gilded age, much progress has been made in terms of labor rights and protections.

Opulence in place of a stable set of social safety nets

The terrarium-like pentagonal structures labeled by Amazon as employee lounges and workplaces.

The beautiful and futuristic construction represents the advancement of society and the modern era we live in. The spheres, located along Lenora Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, are just 6 blocks away from the epicenter of Seattle’s homelessness crisis, referred to as the ‘Blade.’ The “Blade” sees some of Seattle’s most vulnerable, with the area being an epicenter of drug use.

The past few years have seen harsh crackdowns on homeless individuals, with the public upset at the disruption of their desired aesthetic. Seattle has forcibly removed homeless people to the cheers of onlookers.

The almost dystopian nature of this dichotomy is a stark representation of our nation’s value of luxury over humanity, with parts of the Spheres being open to the public for viewing, and most used as a workplace for a small minority of the public.

In 2009, Amazon sought to push Diapers.com out of the online market by dropping prices drastically below that of Diapers.com to the point of losing revenue. Amazon, in an aggressive move, practically forced Diapers.com to sell and announced a new service in 2010 called Amazon Mom which would offer discounts on child supplies such as diapers.

The aggressive tactics of Bezos during the early years of Amazon are similar to those of Rockefeller a century ago.

“Either people would buy out all their competition or would buy specific, like in the case of Rockefeller he would buy every single oil refinery and then close some of the smaller ones and keep the big ones open, eliminating all his competition,” Billingsley explained.

Elon Musk is a stark example of a figure who seems to believe more in technological innovation rather than helping the public. Musk also seems to believe that being an “innovator” should exempt him from paying a new proposed tax that would increase infrastructure and social safety nets.

Tesla, SolarCity Corp, and SpaceX have received an estimated $4.9 billion in government funding as of 2015.
“Musk and his companies’ investors enjoy most of the financial upside of the government support, while taxpayers shoulder the cost,” Los Angeles Times reporter Jerry Hirsch writes.

Technological Innovation does not mean societal progress

Rich men who throw money at aesthetic projects such as Musk’s launching of a Tesa into space, without contributing meaningfully to the public, and in fact take money and resources from them, cannot be called innovators.

Advancement and funding of innovation are important and necessary; however, it means nothing when individuals are left with scraps or not taken care of at all. Those living in poverty and experiencing homelessness or are unable to access higher education are infected by Musk’s latest ‘innovations’.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development‘s 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, 580,466 people experienced homelessness in 2020 which is an increase of 2.2 percent from 2019.

The official poverty rate in 2020 was 11.4%, a one percent increase from 2019.

“This is the first increase in poverty after five consecutive annual declines. In 2020, there were 37.2 million people in poverty, approximately 3.3 million more than in 2019,” The United States Census Bureau reports.

Education and housing are more expensive than ever before. In 2016 it was estimated that the cost of rent was almost four times the inflation rate. The exorbitant cost of higher education has had the consequence of placing millions of young people in about 1.6 trillion in student loan debt collectively.

The crushing cost for even basic necessities means that most Americans will never experience the technological innovations the rich are telling them will change their lives and the world.

If basic needs aren’t met, innovation doesn’t mean societal progress. The gilded nature of this technological age means rapid advancement and decaying social conditions.