The Coming Digital Revolutions

Beware the promises of the third industrial revolution – the first phase may be a real revolution

It has become exceedingly fashionable in certain circles to wax lyrical about the virtues and endless possibilities of what is being termed “The Third Industrial Revolution” (TIR). While the term itself is still nebulous, it broadly refers to an assumed new paradigm in the global economy, where the rapid spread of knowledge and communications via the internet and electronic devices, is fundamentally transforming the nature of the global economy.

For many this phase is spoken of as a hallmark of human success. Whether it be through promises such as the delivery of free internet access to millions via Facebook drones, taxi-services through driverless vehicles, advanced systems that monitor weather patterns and instruct farming machinery when and where to plant, or health systems which notify their user when they are unwell before symptoms occur, the possibilities are seemingly endless. Leading this recent wave of exuberance has been the rise of AR/VR technology and advanced robotics. Augmented Reality (AR) such as Pokemon Go and Virtual Reality (such as vTime), are the innovations that are bringing digital into the real world. These innovations can revolutionise the education and health sectors, removing the need for people to be physically present and allowing for constant access to these services irrespective of ones location or time-zone.

But while the TIR undoubtedly offers a glimpse of a new reality, its visionaries have been woeful at looking at its darker consequences. In the first industrial revolution, the term “luddite” was coined and today it is commonly understood to represent those who reject technological change. However, the term is too simple. The Luddites were indeed upset with technological innovations, but not because they could not see its potential or the benefits to society, but rather they didn’t see the benefits to them. The First Industrial Revolution transformed society by creating mass unemployment and by forcing entire families and communities to uproot, re-train and re-establish their place in the new economy that was transforming around them. It is perhaps hardly surprising therefore that the first and second industrial revolutions witnessed widespread rioting, periods of extreme localised unemployment and the explosion of new ideas about society, how people should live and how people should be governed.

This re-drawing of national economies had profound implications for national wealth and power, which resulted in a fundamental change in the very structure of society. Consequently, the innovations and their associated changes were fought bitterly and by many. These industrial revolutions re-wrote the concept of “The Sovereign” nation and spawned the birth of new ideas such as Nationalism, Socialism and Communism. These new ideas, driven by the new power elite “The Merchant Class”, destroyed the traditional pillars of the pre-industrial state: The Nobility, the Church and the Sovereign (Whether King, Emperor, Sultan or other), as a vital pre-cursor to make way for the new societal power – the merchants themselves. This process was not entirely unpredicted, with a certain German philosopher adroitly predicting the process of power transformation in society as a result of the new technological changes, and he had already created a term for this new rising class, “The Bourgeoisie”.

Today the Third Industrial Revolution is seen as distinct from the challenges facing society. It is in fact, the source of many of the problems. As yet the new rising power is society are poorly understood and the losers of this new wave of change cannot yet understand or associate the challenges facing their personal circumstances, with the wider melee of changes circling them on the global stage. But while details are limited, we do already know some characteristics of the winners and of the losers, which are worth further study.

The new elite are international in a manner that is unfathomable in any other epoch of human history. The easy transfer of wealth, ideas and the ease of travel globally has created the environment which allows individuals to transcend the constraints which may be imposed on them by their country of origin. Members of this class recognise no barriers as legitimate and many see even the concept of national identity as an outdated relic, to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Leading this charge are the technology gurus, the programmers, the start-up founders, the VC backers, all of whom represent the new and rising elite. These are the “Digerati”.

Standing opposed to the digerati are those who have been left behind in this great wave of human advancement. They are the sullen, disposed, disenfranchised citizens of the 20th and early 21st century, who have been cast aside in the maelstrom of economic change that is occurring. These groups think locally, not internationally and view technological innovation as a source of instability that threatens their livelihoods, their communities, their sources of income and their very identity. These are the “Digitally Dispossessed”.

These two groups hold ideologies that are implacably opposed to the other. The Digerati resent the actions of the state, displaying a profoundly free market ideology that rejects national boundaries, taxation systems, societal attitudes towards social issues and in many cases, even intellectual property rights and democratic processes more generally. Consider the bankruptcy of the gossip site Gawker by Peter Tiel, the actions of PirateBay, Napster & Wikileaks or the aggressive tax evasion methods of Facebook, Google and Uber. The new elite reject the state as the lead actor in international and domestic affairs. By contrast, for the Digitally Disposed it is the state who remain the last line of defence against the free market’s radicalism and it’s focus on individualism, which drives the Digerati. Identity based on location and traditional values holds huge importance for the Digitally Dispossed, in a way which the Digerati cannot fathom. Freedom of expression v.s. safety of individuals in particular, is a vast dividing line in the digital debate.

Fault lines are already being drawn. Whether it is the EU’s actions against US tech giants, Brazilian judges against Whatsapp, the FBI v.s. Apple or the battles raging against China’s “Great Digital wall”, the digital revolutions are coming. In 2011 people saw the power of social media vividly re-write the political landscape of the Middle East, in a region with low mobile and internet penetration. Between 2015 and 2016, Donald Trump secured the Republican party nomination, ISIS recruited 1,000’s of foreign fighters and two photos secured refugee access for circa 1 million people into Germany. This is just the beginning.

Technological innovation is not inherently bad, just as the NRA’s old slogan goes: “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, it is perfectly fair to argue that technology alone is not responsible for societies troubles. But it certainly is a catalyst. In short those who pursue innovation and those who regulate society have reached a fork in the road: Is innovation always good and worth pursuing, with the consequences being addressable later? Or should innovation be closely controlled and channelled, to ensure its affects on society are managed and the vulnerable are protected?

This is the battleground space of the Third Industrial Revolution, and it has only just begun.

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