Debunking the myth of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

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University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is all the rage these days.1 In ideological terms, it appears to be hegemonic in its construal of our contemporary socioeconomic context, from our day-to-day interpersonal exchanges to the machinations of the global economic order. We often hear appeals to the supposed “magic”2 of the technology that goes with it, to resolve the economic, political and educational crises and problems of the world (and latterly, its health crises – WEF, 2020). Appeals to a 4IR usually go with a listing of a whole lot of ‘new’, ‘unprecedented’ technologies that sound smart, make us feel outdated, and leave us in awe of the future. Technologies like cyber systems, artificial intelligence, delivery drones, the internet of things, and fully autonomous killer robots.3 But it is around this misleading sense of awe – which I shall later refer to as an ideology – that my argument turns in this paper. None of these technologies necessarily warrants the claim that we are in a technological revolution, let alone a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. I shall examine these and similar technologies, to establish my claim. The argument also runs deeper than that. An industrial revolution, properly conceived, encompasses a complex range of economic, social and cultural transformations, and there is very little evidence to suggest that we are living through a fourth one of these. A careful, deep analysis of the First, Second and Third Industrial Revolutions will make this quite clear. What we discover in these three revolutions, by way of fundamental social transformation, is not taking place in the current context of the digital, networked, information society.
Occasional paper for the Centre for Researching and Educational Labour, Wits (REAL)
Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), Technology, Technological revolutions, Cyber systems