It’s not the Fourth Industrial Revolution!

Industrie 4.0

klaus-schwab

Klaus Schwab is a clever man. After a rapid ascent through the ranks of German commercial life, he founded the World Economic Foundation (WEF) in 1971. The WEF is best known for organising a five-day annual meeting of the global business and political elite at the ski resort of Davos in Switzerland. He has a list of awards and honorary doctorates as long as your arm.

Schwab has done much to popularise the notion that we are entering a fourth industrial revolution – not least by writing a book of that name. He didn’t invent the phrase: rather he has broadened the term Industrie 4.0, which was adopted by a group of leading German industrialists in 2012 to persuade their government to help the country move towards “smart manufacturing”, in which artificial intelligence and Big Data are deployed to make production processes more efficient and more flexible.

In that limited context the name makes some sense, but the Fourth Industrial Revolution label is expansionist, and has claimed the Internet of Things, among other aspects of our increasingly AI-affected world. It is a misleading and unhelpful label.

The sixth fourth industrial revolution

Smart manufacturing is not the first development to be called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. As this Slate article from January 2016 points out, it is at least the sixth “fourth industrial revolution”. (The others, since you ask, were atomic energy in 1948, ubiquitous electronics in 1955, computers in 1970, the information age in 1984, and finally, nanotechnology.)

Furthermore, if we are in the business of chopping the industrial revolution into pieces, it is by no means clear that there were only three of them before Industrie 4.0 came along. One of the most helpful ways to understand the industrial revolution is to view it as the arrival of four transformative technologies on the following approximate timeline:

newcomes-steam-engine

1712: primitive steam engines, textile manufacturing machines, and canals

1830: mobile steam engines and railways

1875: steel and heavy engineering, the chemicals industry

1910: oil, electricity, mass production, cars, airplanes and mass travel

Labelling the Internet of Things, or even smart manufacturing, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution is both confusing and plain wrong. In fact they are both part of something much bigger than another lap of the industrial revolution, momentous as that process was. They are part of the information revolution.

The information revolution

The information revolution begins as information and knowledge become increasingly important factors of production, alongside capital, labour, and raw materials.  Information acquires economic value in its own right. Services become the mainstay of the overall economy, pushing manufacturing into second place, and agriculture into third. (Some politicians don’t like this idea, but there is not much they can do about it. You can’t wish manufacturing back into pole position, and trying to legislate it would bring ruin.)

fritz-machlup

An Austrian economist named Fritz Machlup calculated that knowledge industries accounted for a third of US GDP in 1959, and argued that this qualified the country as an information society. That seems as good a date as any to pick as the start of the information revolution.

Not just semantics

Why is this important?  Is it just semantics?  No.  First, labels are an important part of language, and language is what allows us to communicate effectively, to kill mammoths, and to build walls and pyramids. When labels point to the wrong things, or point to different things for different people, you get confusion instead of communication.

Secondly, the information revolution is the most important event in our species’ short but dramatic history. It is our third great transformative wave. The first was the agricultural revolution which turned foragers into farmers. That gave us mastery over animals, and generated food surpluses which allowed our population to grow enormously. It made the lives of individual humans considerably less pleasant on average, but it greatly advanced the species.

The second, of course, was the industrial revolution, which in many ways gave us mastery of the planet. Coupled with the enlightenment and the discovery of the scientific method, it ended the perpetual tyranny of famine and starvation, and brought the majority of the species out of the abject poverty which had been the fate of almost every human before. For most people in the developed world it created lifestyles which would have been the envy of kings and queens in previous generations.

The information revolution will do even more. If we survive the two singularities – the economic and the technological ones – it will make us godlike. If we flunk those transitions, we may go extinct, or perhaps just be thrown back to something like the middle ages. Since you are reading this it is likely that you know what I am talking about, and understand the reasoning behind these apparently melodramatic claims. Too few of our fellow humans do, and we need to change that. Muddying the waters of our understanding of the information revolution by calling parts of it the Fourth Industrial Revolution does not help.

starchild-and-earth

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5 thoughts on “It’s not the Fourth Industrial Revolution!

  1. Hi Calum.
    It’s pleasing to see you again helping ‘spread the word’ and trying to get people to wake up to what is happening under their very noses that they seem unwilling or unable to consider on their own. I would hope that many do and take some action to help guide the inevitable tech growth in ways that lessen the chances of approaching human superfluousness.

    While i agree with and applaud your efforts i have to take issue with a couple of things you said here that i must assume you believe as truth?

    Specifically those of the second last para. The Industrial revolution ended the ‘tyranny’ of famine and starvation. Really?? You may wish to qualify that statement and i question the word tyranny. There are groups of (admittedly what we call primitive) humans today who live far happier lives than most westerners do with no understanding of technology or industry and who have no such tyranny, finding sufficient food to sustain their small groups very well. Show the evidence for mass starvation before the invention of farming agriculture please.

    Secondly, the Enlightenment and Scientific method brought the MAJORITY of the species out of abject poverty??? That is not and has never been the case in human history, sir. Possibly and debatably in the Western World, although poverty is highly relativistic – 20% of my countrymen currently are forced to live below the ‘Poverty line’ which is still ludicrously higher than the standards enjoyed by 80% of Chinese or Indians who number a third of the human race.

    And lastly, for most people in the developed world (at least you recognised this discrepancy with the rest (larger part) of humanity) it created lifestyles that would have been the envy of Kings and Queens in previous generations. Since i own a computer may i assume i qualify as one of those ‘most’? I can assure you that no past king or queen would willingly trade places with me in my relative position of ‘wealth’ and lifestyle in this world. There are many times in fact when i would willingly trade my luxurious lifestyle for those of primitives in the Amazon. I might not live as long and face far greater dangers to life and limb but i suspect my life would have much greater purpose and satisfactions.

    Keep up the good work and never stop learning 🙂

    love.

  2. Apparently – according to a local TV show on life beyond 2020 yesterday – the Fourth Industrial Revolution is 3D Printing?? Particularly the one using laser light to harden parts of a liquid substrate, faster than the building up layer upon layer version.

    love.

  3. A three step manifesto for a smarter, fairer economy | The Urban Technologist

  4. Our education system is not fit for the Information Revolution | The Urban Technologist

  5. A second letter to Justine Greening, MP, Secretary of State for Education, arguing for increased funding for Primary Schools | The Funding Crisis in UK Primary Schools

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