Posted on Apr 10, 2022Read on

Epistemic Inequality

Five years ago, I graduated from my public high school in rural Pennsylvania where there wasn’t much of anything except for trees. And when I went to college that fall, I found myself surrounded by people who went to high schools with full-fledged software engineering departments, extracurriculars that sent satellites into space, group theory and quantum physics courses, intricate knowledge of how the American university system works, and more.

And that pissed me off. But it’s not because I didn’t have material access to those things. See, the really annoying part of that was, when I talked to them, there really wasn’t much to it from a material standpoint. If I really wanted to, I could have done most of that stuff on my own (well, except for the satellite thing). I had a decent laptop and an internet connection. I could have learned all of the stuff that they learned, and more.

But I still felt like I’d been duped. I felt like the city slickers were “in” on something big and I wasn’t told about it. I detested the idea of returning home - I grew deeply frustrated that my parents chose to raise me in Pennsyltucky instead of NYC or the suburbs outside Washington DC.

But despite how much I stewed over it, it wasn’t until very recently that I could come to terms with this and finally grok what exactly it was I was upset over - something I’ve come to call epistemic inequality, which can be understood by considering the following:

  1. If you have an opportunity, you can’t take it if you don’t know it exists.
  2. If you have an opportunity, and you know it exists, you won’t take it unless you know that it’s a good opportunity for you.

The first point seems quite obvious, but give yourself a moment to really think about what that means. It applies to all free content on the web. It doesn’t matter how many free books or learning resources exist on the web - they’re useless to someone if they don’t know to look for it in the first place. And this is far more common than you might think.

The second point is less obvious, but at least as sinister - it has to do with the fact that many individuals live inside a “knowledge bubble” (arguably they all do, but that’s a separate topic). A poor and intelligent child of two Indian immigrants is more likely to learn advanced math and computer science at a young age if they live in San Francisco than they would if they’d lived in the middle of Kansas.

Why? Because tech is literally everywhere in SF. The idea of studying CS and becoming a software engineer encouraged to the point of it becoming toxic. Almost every public high school has CS classes. And if they don’t (or they’re bad), there’s probably 10 free or cheap programming workshops happening somewhere in the bay at any given moment.

Compare to rural Kansas, where literally nobody knows how to do it. They know about those crazy lizard people in California who pay completely alien rent prices and ludicrous taxes, and they know that if you’re good at it you can get rich, but they’re not quite sure how. There’s no CS classes at the public high school, let alone enough buses to carry students on their hour-long bus ride to school and salary for teachers to put any effort into teaching at all. Even if that smart indian kid was interesting in learning to code, all of their friends were busy driving dirt bikes through corn fields or helping their families sell their crop at the local farmer’s market. And if it’s a good public school, they’re probably pushing people to become plumbers and auto-mechanics instead.

Or another example - say they live in East Harlem, NYC and the dad’s a heroin addict while the mom resorts to prostitution to put food on the table. All the kid’s ever going to be exposed to is drugs, crime, and turmoil. Even if they knew they had the opportunity to become a software engineer, there’s no way in hell they’ll be fully convinced it’s a good opportunity for them.

When you’re surrounded by people doing and saying something else, it’s much harder to be convinced that the thing you’re interested in is the right thing. That’s what the second point is saying.

Together, they form a barrier to real “equality of opportunity”, which I have called epistemic inequality. We could have very strong “equality of opportunity” from a material standpoint (access to courses, learning resources, etc), but at the same time not have “equality of opportunity” from an epistemic standpoint. No matter how materially accessible an opportunity is, if it’s not epistemically accessible to someone, it’s not accessible to them.

So if we want “equality of opportunity”, we really ought to think more about improving epistemic access. It doesn’t matter how many free coding bootcamps or learn-to-earn quests or ISA-platforms we create - they’re only accessible to those that know they exist and know they can participate.