4th Industrial Revolution: the underlying question

Posted on March 24, 2018


It rather worrying that so many of the arguments about the fourth industrial revolution are so simplistic and often crude. This is especially so, given the amount of readily available information and analysis.

As a result, the major problem facing the global community because of the rapid development and introduction of new technologies, is, for the most part, seldom debated. It is a problem that was summed up clearly in 1949 by the “father of cybernetics”, the mathematician, Norbert Wiener.

With computing and automation becoming talking points, he looked to the future and noted that it would be possible to “live a good life with the aid of the machines”. These, he pointed out, could ultimately carry out most labour more efficiently and effectively than humans can.

But Wiener went on to warn that the same machines could usher in “an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty”. He added: “These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price.”

Wiener was not alone in assessments of this kind, but, like others, he was largely ignored. Even today, with the exponential growth of artificial intelligence, with self-drive vehicles already a reality and with robots dispensing financial advice (in 19 languages) in Japanese banks, there is widespread denial of what this reality means.

The tiny minority who control most of the world’s productive capital, along with the governments that manage branches of our global system, are clearly at a loss. They recognise that massive and permanent unemployment means instability — even revolutionary potential — but they will not face what Wiener implied: that the existing economic system can only cope with modern technological advances by means of “incredible cruelty”.

This is something the labour movement is becoming increasingly aware of, arguing that automation or any technical advances should make life better for the majority, not worse. The loss of jobs, reduction of wages and conditions of work are all, obviously, to the detriment of the community as a whole. They are contributory factors to Wiener’s “incredible cruelty”.

Which is why supporters of the existing system are often at pains to claim that a new, bright, technological era is dawning; one that will be to the benefit of all. To justify this sophistry they trot out various supposed and vague remedies: better education, reskilling, changing national cultures from “event time” to “clock time” and so on.

All of this is said to be aimed at generating greater economic growth which will therefore be to the benefit of all. But recent history has shown that greater growth has merely widened the wage and welfare gap; that growth is no silver bullet — and certainly not in a world that currently possesses surplus productive capacity of just about every necessity.

This is the background to the court interdict brought by South Africa’s National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) that last week stopped the signing of renewable energy contracts with 27 independent power producers (IPPs). Numsa were promptly castigated as “Luddites” after the 19th Century English textile workers who protested by smashing the machines on which they worked.

But Numsa — as the Luddites were — is not opposed to technology and, in the case of the union, especially not renewable energy. Numsa is, in fact, one of the few unions committed by congress resolution to support wind and solar power generation. The core of its membership also work in the highly automated vehicle manufacturing industry.

The Luddites of 1811 who worked on what were then the most modern of machines, started their protest for more jobs, better wages and working conditions. It was only when the government sent in troops to smash their strike, that machine smashing began.

Unfortunately, most of the argument that wrongly painted Numsa members as energy reactionaries focussed on potential job losses in coal mines and at coal fired power stations. This is a factor, but the main point is that Numsa opposes the proposed private ownership and control of renewable sources of energy. As such, it is a human rights issue.

The labour movement in general regards utilities such power, water and sanitation as resources that should not be profit driven; that the priority should be the public good. As such, they should be kept in public ownership.

Government and the IPPs argue that renewables and competition will reduce energy costs to the benefit of all. But experience has shown that when utilities are privately owned and operated, prices tend to rise to allow the maximisation of shareholder profits.

The unions argue that whatever the price levels, power generation should not once again profit the few at the expense of the many. As Wiener said, it would be possible to “live a good life with the aid of the machines”. And that good life should be shared by all. That this debate came to the fore in the week when Human Rights Day (March 21) is celebrated in South Africa seems appropriate.

A good life for all could be achieved. But this would require a system in which “the machines” — the robots, the algorythms, AI — function in the interests of all and not for the profit of the few. What system and how to achieve it is the question that underlies all the current noise about the 4th industrial revolution.