Leave no man behind: let’s talk about the fourth industrial revolution

By Jelmer Herms

It is probably a truism at this point, but we are not living the same way we did 20 years ago. Technology and innovation are changing our lives at a pace they have never really done before. CNBC News aptly put it in perspective like this: It took 75 years for 100 million people to adopt the telephone. The video game Pokémon GO reached that number of users in about one month.[1] The impact of technology is felt quicker and to a greater extent than ever before as a result of our globalized and interconnected world. But of course, more than just video games and telecommunications are developing at a rapid pace. Family Guy, at the end of its episode “The Peter Principal”, manages to point out in just a very short dialogue exchange how technology revolutionized the way we think about delivery services like Amazon, but also how hard it is to truly experience such change as remarkable or otherwise noteworthy:

Stewie: Oh, I bet he’s delivering those marmalade jars we ordered.

Brian: Doesn’t that feel like a million years ago? Yeah, we don’t need those anymore.

Stewie [To Delivery Guy]: Sorry, just send them back.

Brian: You can just do that?

Stewie: Oh, yeah, you can just refuse delivery.

Stewie: You’ve never done that?

Brian: I-I genuinely did not know you could do that.

Stewie: Well, you can. Anything you order. If you don’t sign for it, it has to go back. Everyone does it.

Stewie: Most of what America is now is just boxes going back and forth.[2]

As rapid innovation is becoming a new normal, it is also becoming a new kind of mundanity, and I think we should be wary of accepting the rapid pace of technological change as normal, even though you could make a strong case that almost nothing has changed in the ways that matter most. In fact, considering the quantity of global crises over the last years, I would expect nothing less than a sceptical view on our development, or the idea of a teleology of human progress. I agree that in most of the ways that matter, humans have not changed at all. Looking at the last 20 years or so, issues of social justice and socio-economic inequality remain, global terrorism has become more prevalent, man-made climate change is an unrelenting cause for distress, and civil war in the Middle East, famine in Africa, or the recent fires in the Amazon have traumatized, displaced or in the worst cases ravaged entire cultures. So of course, humans haven’t really changed as a species, but the technology we wield has. And this has had (and still can have into the future) undoubtedly positive effects as well.

Because over the last twenty years we have also, for better or for worse, connected billions of people to each other through the power of the internet, forging new transnational networks and alliances that have greatly contributed to the wellbeing of many across the planet. We now have entirely automated vehicles driving around, and they drive better than any human ever could. We have developed self-learning AI that can not only beat us at turn-based games like chess or checkers, but also at much more complex real time games, such as the classic RTS Starcraft II. [3] Computers can help us save lives and identify dangerous criminals, but they can also help us make entirely new forms of art, like this programme that writes (admittedly pretty bad) music by itself [4]. That is, in my view, nothing less than extraordinary: all of us here are alive in the period being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.[5]

But can we say that as active citizens, we are asking ourselves the right questions on how to deal with the fact that we are in the middle of an Industrial Revolution? Are we directing our attention to making sure we are investing time and effort into the technologies that could help us the most? Are we structurally modernizing our democracies, our cultures, and our discourse to adapt to this revolutionary time? I’m not always so sure. It seems to me that the public sphere is not particularly on board with this idea of an Industrial Revolution, except for when Apple comes out with the ‘revolutionary’ new iPhone, which features a marginally improved camera and some new software updates.

To me, it seems that the actual revolution of innovation is being led by an exploding technocratic billionaire class. And many within this small group of people are mostly concerned with keeping their customers satisfied. But I think there is a massive difference between designing a product for a consumer, and designing a tool for a democratic citizen. I think it is fair to say that, as one example, social media has not been designed with the idea of existing within the framework of an inclusive liberal democracy: Facebook has caused extreme views getting disproportionate attention, and led to rampant misinformation that swayed election results because of its click-based monetization model, which rewards the loudest and most controversial voices.

In those cases where we design technology for the broader public, we should think more carefully about who benefits from innovation and technological advances, and to make sure that we don’t create systems that favour groups of people by design. And let me just add that my problem is not that people are getting rich by developing new technologies. I am not trying be some kind of neo-Marxist, urging you to eliminate class struggle by killing the wealthy, or to destroy any of the processes driving our technological innovation.

What I see is a technical operational challenge to the capitalist economy. Both innovators and citizens could play a much more active role in driving solutions to what I see is the major issue of this moment: the challenge of economic inclusivity. The problem as I see it, is that less and less people can participate on equal terms in this labour market. Of course, some skills or educations will always be more desirable than other kinds depending on the market and the environment, and I see no real issue with that dynamic continuing into the future. But we are reaching a point where technology is so efficient and innovation has accelerated so much, that it is very likely there will eventually not be enough labour to perform for entire segments of populations. Think of not only “low-skilled” labour, even though they will be hit the hardest, but also middle management positions, doctors, or all kinds of support staff eventually being overtaken by automation and artificial intelligence. The issue of keeping people included in the labour market cuts across class lines, and I think it is not central enough to our understanding of national politics.

While some answers to this issue have been presented in politics, they have come only from across the Atlantic, in the US. The American Democrat Andrew Yang is running for President of the United States on a platform attempting to tackle exactly the issue of automation and the increasingly exclusive labour market, and he has gathered a surprising amount of bipartisan support. [6] But his chances of winning are still minimal compared to mainstream top dogs like Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or the guaranteed Republican nominee, Donald Trump. Here in Europe, I have not heard of any running national public official looking to address the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or even mentioning the issues I have talked about here (and I hope, of course, that anyone can prove me wrong on this: I don’t speak every European language). This, I think, speaks for the need for a change in perspective more than anything else.

If we want to manifest political change that strives for a more inclusive society not only in terms of social justice, but also in terms of economic stability and employment, then framing that discussion in an accessible and appropriate manner should be considered essential. By popularizing the idea of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, by making people think about our current moment not as mundane, but as extraordinary, we can help make people aware that the neoliberal logic of radical personal responsibility with regards to your employment can be successfully contested or suspended. It could help us reframe how we view unemployment and eliminate the stigma on it, which in turn could help us think in more positive terms about how to find people new jobs, if we even want to continue with striving towards full employment at all. Talking about a new Industrial Revolution can also help us kickstart a broader conversation about new and exciting technologies that we could feasibly incorporate into our societal structures. Finally, talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution as an explicit operational issue can help us become more willing to let go of the economic and political models of the past, and to instead embrace new and innovative technologies and models for organizing our society.

We need to do more than just reform: it’s about time we revolutionize.

Picture: joshsdh, Flickr

Sources:
[1] ‘’What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?’’ CNBC News. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9rZOa3CUC8

[2] Family Guy S15E18, The Peter Principal.
https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=family-guy&episode=s15e18

[3] RTS, Meaning Real-Time Strategy. For more on Starcraft II AI, see: https://deepmind.com/blog/article/alphastar-mastering-real-time-strategy-game-starcraft-ii

[4] http://computoser.com/

[5] https://www.weforum.org/about/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-by-klaus-schwab

[6] https://www.yang2020.com/

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.