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  • Terry White

The Fourth Industrial Revolution isn't...

It’s been bothering me for a while that we’re talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) as if it is only about industry. It is much more than that, and Industry 4.0 covers the industrial changes we can expect. Generally, 4IR is regarded as a pending revolution in nanotechnologies, alternative fuel and energy systems, biotechnologies, genetic engineering, and connectivity. Other views are that it is about a merging between hardware, software, and biology – cyber-physical systems, according to Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum. Throw in AI, IoT, RPA, 5G, virtual reality, and any number of breakthrough technological advances, and we have a wildly broad domain to consider. And industry is but a small portion of it, usually the technologies mentioned above.


To think this through, I went back to basics. Revolutions can be political, economic, cultural, religious, and intellectual, and of course, industrial. Either way, revolutions seek a fundamental change – usually to power and organization, and definitely in thinking. Some revolutions result in relatively sudden change, and some take generations to take effect. Usually, revolutions affect more than the immediate subject of the revolution –the agricultural revolution transformed agriculture yes, but also changed society, health, the environment, religion, politics, trade, and the way people worked. We haven’t had an economic “revolution” since Adam Smith in 1776 when he considered aspects of supply, demand, and absolute advantage. I would argue that it’s time for a new economic theory, as the digital economy changes the nature of supply and demand, and AI and RPA change the nature of absolute advantage – the digital cost of supply is radically different from industrial production, the digital cost of demand changed with the long-tail, and absolute advantage (the most productive country has the advantage) is fundamentally changed, with AI and RPA providing productivity but not jobs.


So we’re probably agreed that to qualify as a revolution, there must be a fundamental change to life as we know it. And 4IR certainly ticks the boxes. But it’s about much more than industry. So let’s simplify and remove “revolution” from the equation, then look at the changes wrought rather than the event. If we do this, we can talk about four ages of man: The hunter-gather age, the agricultural age, the industrial age, and the information age. Each age changes the way we live, how we work, who does the work, and the environment in which we live and work. Arguably the agricultural age created settlements, the industrial age created mega-cities, and the information age changed the world from analog to digital. So what age will 4IR usher in? Things will get smaller, cleverer, communicate more, and will combine in ways we haven’t thought of yet. I’m going to coin a term here. I think the Fourth Industrial Revolution will create a nano-synthesis age. I think the term covers most of the anticipated results of 4IR.


What worries me is the place of humans in the nano-synthesis age. In his book, The Glass Cage, Nicholas Carr argues that technology robs people of critical thinking, disempowers them, short-circuits their journey through life, and to some extent, reduces free-will. Sounds dire, and probably it’s not as serious as that. Yet... The nano-synthesis age will intensify these effects. While 4IR has undoubted benefits for humans, I believe that never before has the down-side been more intense for people. Always-on, always-connected, and immersed in technology enough that virtual reality might become its own reality.


In the nano-synthesis age, we need a series of revolutions. We need an economic revolution to bring economic thinking in line with digital economics. We need an organizational revolution, as the current organizations are founded on unworkable, out-of-date (by 200 years), and frankly despotic principles. We need a political revolution, as recent elections and referenda have delivered poor decisions and incompetent and out-of-touch people in office. We need an intellectual revolution to cope with the negative effects of technology. And above all, we need an environmental revolution, because we are destroying the planet rapidly. Notice I don’t say we need an industrial revolution – the first two industrial revolutions have done enough damage to our people and planet by increasing production and consumption to unsustainable levels.


So the nano-synthesis age needs at least five revolutions if we are going to benefit from 4IR. And 4IR doesn’t need to be industrial.

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