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30 October 2019

The Fourth Industrial Revolution: revolution, evolution, or heuristic?

Andrea Teagle

The term ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ or ‘4IR’ suggests that widespread change– from how we live to how we conceive of ourselves is inevitable. In a recent HSRC seminar, Interrogating the Fourth Industrial Revolution Discourse, Professor Mokong Mapadimeng argued that the “adapt or die” discourse around the so-called industrial revolution precludes thoughtful response, and that policy should be informed by a clearer understanding of the phenomenon, grounded in historical context. By Andrea Teagle

That the world is entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or 4IR, is often presented as fact. For developing countries, the imagined outcomes span the utopian-dystopian spectrum: technological acceleration might propel us towards a new, welfare-centred, inclusive space, or it might leave us on the wrong side of a deepening technological divide. The notion of the 4IR suggests both opportunity and danger. To grasp opportunities, policy makers at every level of government are scrambling to embrace this new, albeit vaguely-defined reality.

It’s “adapt or die”, said Prof Mokong Mapadimeng, a research director of the HSRC’s Education and Skills Development (ESD) unit, at a recent seminar. “[This discourse] is in my view extremely disabling to labour particularly.” By presenting 4IR as inevitable, the dialogue removes the agency of academia and policy makers, he argued.

The term 4IR emerged from the World Economic Forum, in a document which, said HSRC BRICS researcher Krish Chetty, was essentially an appeal to corporations to adapt to technological change because profits were under threat. Agreeing that the technological disruption referred to by the 4IR is neither a revolution, nor industrial, Dr Michael Gastrow, also of the ESD unit, pointed to the importance of asking who benefits from this framing. “Why is it being latched onto by a class of people that essentially controls most of the world’s economy and most of the world’s money?”

Taking a step back away from the rhetoric, and placing the 4IR within its historical context, or at the very least questioning the assumptions underpinning the language, allows room to respond in a more meaningful and considered way.

To this end, Mapadimeng noted uncertainty about where the world is situated in relation to the 4IR: scholars have variously proclaimed that we’re already in 4IR, and that we’re still in the third industrial revolution. Part of this difficulty is in understanding the historical positioning or periodisation: does it mark a new era, as its name suggests, or is it occurring within, and as a function of, the current societal order?

Long wave theory originally referred to the idea that historic economic chapters happen in cycles characterised by fast and slow growth periods. The political researcher Professor Ulrich Hilpert of the Friedrich Schiller University in Germany writes: “Long wave theories that stipulate the recurrence of economic phenomena have a heuristic value through providing a structure with which regularity can be assessed and uniqueness of historical development can be fully valued.”

Critically, the previous revolutions, which Mapadimeng calls “long waves of change” were marked by an upset in the socio-economic order – for example, the historical shift from feudalism to capitalism.

“The question is, in the end, are we moving out of capitalism, or are we still within capitalism, which is evolving to actually sustain itself?” Mapadimeng said, noting that, historically, such societal transitions could last up to a hundred years or more. Drawing from Karl Marx, he argued that the technological changes and disruptions of the 4IR are in fact a means for capitalism to sustain itself.

“Within industrial capitalism, the changes that happen in the form of technological revolutions today mark what [Marx] calls the internal revolutionising of the means and the forces and the modes of production, so that profits are maximised.” Thus, Mapadimeng argues that the changes referred to by the 4IR are better conceptualised as “short waves of change” or, changes within the current self-sustaining socio-economic order .

Gastrow suggested that technological change might be more usefully conceptualised as many waves of various sizes intersecting and clashing, like the surface of the ocean. Whether long or short, Gastrow said, there were some big waves rippling through our social and economic fabric. “This is the process of creative disruption,” he said. However, he agreed, the assumption of a major societal shift does not seem to be borne out by the 4IR: the current socio-economic order remains very much in place, with various forms of industrial capitalism dominating the global economy.

In this context, Chetty argued that, rather than chasing disruptive technologies like robotics or blockchain, the government should focus on crafting a pro-poor policy response that prioritises digital inclusion. Relevant issues include access to data, the prohibitive price of smaller data bundles – that effectively penalises the poor – digital skills, and participatory innovation that seeks to solve local problems from the bottom up.

Speaking at another recent seminar on the implications of the 4IR, HSRC research specialist Dr Rachel Adams pointed to the importance of approaching policy responses through a gendered lens because of the reproduction of biases in our technology.

“If the 4IR is radically changing the world and society and our relationships, we need to look critically at who’s designing this new world, and who does it benefit?” Adams said.

Andrea Teagle

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