PRETORIA – Almost everywhere one turns, the buzzword is the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. This revolution denotes a “tech revolution wave” that will soon sweep humans like never before.
Larry Elliot of The Guardian in the United Kingdom says the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) “will be shaped by a fresh wave of innovation in areas such as driverless cars, smart robotics, materials that are lighter and tougher, and a manufacturing process built around 3D printing.”
As a result of this ‘revolution’, there are all permutations of how humans will be affected in the new age of the smart machine. But what is almost hilarious though is that this new talk comes right after the inconclusive and divisive argument that the world was “globalising” and that technology created a “digital divide”.
The question is then how come are we quick to embrace the “4IR speak” when we haven’t even attempted to address impacts of globalisation and or digital divide?
In this regard, both Britain and the US decided to jump out of the merry-go-round without serving any notice. Yet there is still boldness to insist that the developing world must not only embrace but also internalise all these concepts without questioning.
Whether we speak about ditigal divide or global trade, there have never been any genuine attempts to make sure that they benefit everyone. Much the same as colonialism and slave trade in the past, the end game for European powers (now with new friends in the US and others) has always been to create economic advantages for themselves. They continue to be unbothered who suffers or gets left behind.
With all this experience spanning centuries, digitization is deliberately called a ‘revolution’ for developed world, but no one really says what it is really going to be called in the case of Malawi, Haiti, Honduras and Cambodia. Transatlantic slave trade fueled the (first) industrial revolution in England and Africa was deprived of able-bodied men to grow its economy.
There were smiles in Europe as a result of the first ‘revolution’ but loud cries and pain all over Africa from the same. Same process but different meaning for everyone. We are almost going down this familiar journey once more – 4IR is nothing but another hoax to lure underdeveloped countries to believe that something has changed.
Africa was a launch pad for industrialisation in Europe. Its minerals that are critical components for most technological gadgets equally receive least mentioning like sweat of Africans in sugarcane fields and mines in the New World.
The storyline of digitalisation does not talk about Africa as a supplier of key input materials that make technology possible such as coltan, cobalt, rare earths and others.
Nevertheless, the unevenness of digitization first between countries, sectors and employees is widely accepted as reality and is said to determine how different parts of the world will take advantage of the 4IR. What I find to be an obvious omission though in the 4IR debate is the concentration and behaviour of capital, within and across countries.
The US, Europe and parts of Asia are centres of capital as compared to Africa and Latin America. But also, in countries with huge wealth disparities like South Africa, Brazil and arguably the United States – capital is located in California and Texas and less so in places like Alabama and poorer sections of Atlanta, Georgia. Same in South Africa, Sandton and Alexandra next door show huge variations and inequality.
One can almost say without looking that 4IR (data volumes and technology) tracks this concentration of capital in the world, perhaps that is the reason developed countries are enthusiastic about the so-called revolution. This is yet another project for exploitation to maximise gains at the expense of the majority of the world’s population.
For the developed world, particularly Europe, the first industrial revolution was about “harnessing steam power so that muscle could be replaced by machines.” The muscle of Africans generated sufficient capital for finance barons in London, Paris and Brussels. There is more than enough evidence to suggest that this revolution in England which took place in the 18th century was fuelled by transatlantic slave trade.
This inhumane activity involved removal of thousands, if not millions, of Africans to the New World where slaves were sold at a price in order to produce products like sugar, coffee and cotton for mass consumer markets. Slavery therefore was an integral part of the earliest multinational systems of credit and trade that arose in the 15th and 16th centuries.
What is also least spoken about is slavery’s contribution not only to the earliest phases of capitalist development but also to the economic development of Europe. In this regard, African slave trade stimulated European shipping, manufacturing and other industries. Port cities like Glasgow, Bristol and Liverpool benefitted handsomely from proceeds of slave trade.
Clearly and stemming from this brief narration of history, slave trade produced massive capital that financed Europe’s industrial revolution. Profits from this unfortunate part of our history, according to Trinidadian scholar Eric Williams, “fertilised” many branches of the metropolitan economy and therefore set the scene for England’s industrial revolution.
Even at the time of the industrial revolution, there are some fundamental changes that impact production processes like it happened during globalisation as well as in what is foreseen under the fourth industrial revolution. These changes included: products were made in factories instead of home; workers used machines instead of working by hand; machines were driven by water or steam power; and production by workers exponentially increased.
The end result was all the same, monetary benefits and profits went to powerful nations, which enabled them to launch the large multinational corporations we see today.
The second wave was “driven by electricity and a cluster of inventions from the late 19th century onwards – including the internal combustion engine, the aeroplane and moving pictures.” This was followed by another wave that is said to have begun in the 1960s, which was “based on digital technology, personal computing and the development of the internet.”
It is therefore important to note that even under both the second and third ‘revolutions’, the advantage was skewed in favour of the wealthier nations. After all these countries and multinationals had amassed sufficient capital and resources that facilitated their dominance in the world.
Globalisation therefore came as a result of this when production was relocated to other countries and trade artificially boomed as a result. But control and capital stayed in developed world. Africa’s relevance continued to be that of a glorified spectator or sperm donor with its resources but with no positive returns.
Clearly, what is lacking in the new discourses is a full understanding of capital and how it behaves in the international system. Capital determines and leads in changing ways society is evolving.
Perhaps as an outcome of shifting production processes and complex value chains – advantages have remained or even increased in developed nations as well as the strength of multinationals has been heavily enhanced. The digital divide is essentially an outcome of this phenomenon.
The notion of a “global digital divide” is as abhorred as any statistical measure which shows economic disparities between the countries of the Developed North versus the Global South. The divide is sometimes seen in the same lens together as globalisation, which critics berate for the creation of unequal benefits in the world.
Commenting on globalisation, WEF’s Professor Klaus Schwab argues, “Today, we face a backlash against that system and the elites who are considered to be its unilateral beneficiaries.” It will not come as a surprise in future to hear similar comments about 4IR, which directly piggybacks on processes that have already proven to be extremely flawed.
One imagines that the digital gap would would have been narrowed before anyone decided to promote the fourth industrial revolution spoof. Digital divide and the 4IR are directly linked, if not overlapping.
The talk about recalcitrant technology at work, it also refers to the fourth industrial revolution. As capital plays around to mininimise costs and to create economic advantages, unsuspecting populations worldwide are taken for a ride. This ‘revolution’ is defined as a “a fundamental shift in how we produce, consume and relate to one another, driven by the convergence of the physical world, the digital world and human beings ourselves.”
Again, at the centre of the 4IR is not at different from all other ‘revolutions’ preceeding it – those who are ahead will retain their unassailable lead while others will increasingly eat from the dustbin due to marginalisation.
The structural issues in the world economy have ensured that least developed countries remain in the periphery and only as producers of raw materials. Minerals are being taken out of places like Congo, South Africa and Zambia without possibilities of creating economic advantages and also linking these with digitization.
Thus, my concern is that the developing world is still seen like it was in the era of slave trade. It remains a producer of inputs to create wealth for others. Also, the production of the technologies that are now said to be, a game-changer cannot be unfortunately divorced from the political realities of the world.
I need to emphasise that in the same way as globalisation, any of the past ‘revolutions’, whether it is the first, second or third – they did not benefit all of human kind and are also said to be responsible for gross inequalities found in the world today.
One of the biggest myths is that spoils “created by the fourth industrial revolution will cascade down from rich to poor, and that those displaced will just walk into another job that pays just as well.” Capital and developed countries have not been any generous in the past, so there is no reason to be excited this time around.
Past ‘revolutions’ have been driven by capital or developed countries and have always led to some form of change. They also benefitted parts of the world, and sections within countries. Many people and unfortunate have also been left out while others shared the spoils amongst themselves.
The imminent changes may make sense to scientists and others because there will huge discoveries and also reckless altering of social life, but the winner from this process is definitely not the downtrodden. The poor will only play on social media and enjoy Uber rides…
The excitement about the fourth industrial revolution is an indication that capital blows like a kite on a windy day, and that nobody can stop it before it causes more damage to human life. No amount of re-skilling will deter capital from automating production processes and also moving them around in order to make huge profits.
Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economic, politics and global matters based in Pretoria.
The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.