I am seeing an increasing number of otherwise thoughtful people in Canadian university and research circles going around talking about the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. They need to stop.
There is no such thing as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is a catch-phrase made us by Klaus Schwab, head of the World Economic Forum (the Davos folks), which he developed in an eponymous book released in late 2015. I read it. It’s dreadful. Seriously, seriously awful. No redeeming characteristics whatsoever.
The argument lies in the same kind of shallow “Digital! Clean Tech! Woo!” analysis that seems to animate Navdeep Bains, our Minister for pro-IT Industrial Policy. Essentially what it comes down to is that after a long China-driven commodities super-cycle, everyone is interested in more knowledge-intensive industries. And a bunch of these seem to be (emphasis on seem) to be on the tipping point of some interesting transformations that might have deep economic ramifications: autonomous vehicles, AI, nanotech, quantum computing, materials science, energy storage, etc. But all of this does not a revolution make.
Generally, economic historians posit that there was one starting in Northern England built around textiles in the eighteenth century, one around mechanical mass production starting in and around Detroit in the early 20th century, and – maybe, this is still disputed – one based around computers and information technology starting in the 1960s/70s/80s (depending on who is telling the story). The question is really whether all these new technologies that Schwab is so excited about are really new or just extensions of the It revolution of the late twentieth century. Schwab claims it is because of three factors: “velocity” (change is happening more quickly), “breadth and depth” (some handwaving about “unprecedented paradigm shifts”) and “systems impact” (something about transformation across industries that also looks like a lot of handwaving). But as several articles noted at the time (see here, here and here), this is fundamentally unconvincing. All of these new showy technologies are children of the information revolution, and there’s no sign of any radical break in the economy or the pace of technological change that would make us think that there’s been some “revolutionary” break. Is change occurring? Of course. But change has been occurring for decades, even centuries, sometimes at a much faster pace than today.
Now, sure, some might point to the huge amounts of money now being poured into alleged growth industries, like “Clean Tech” (or the “Green Economy” as its sometimes called). Our Minster for Shaking Hands with Tech Executives, for instance, likes to talk about Clean Tech being a “$3 trillion industry”. But a lot of that has to do with creative re-labelling of existing economic activities. So, for instance, one major study which hyped the value of this economy includes in its definition of green tech large swathes of the construction industry (energy efficiency!), the automobile industry (lower emissions!), sewage collection (it’s about waste!)….you get the picture. Important? Yes. But improvements in these areas are mostly about slow transformation of the economy, not some kind of big break with the past. Not, in other words, revolutionary.
And of course, a lot of the hype about these new technologies is just that: hype. Everyone is talking about driverless automobiles, but there’s no certainty that the legal issues surrounding them will allow them on the road in major numbers for at least a decade (who is at fault if a driverless car gets into an accident? Who will insure cars if there is ambiguity about this?) AI sounds like a huge market, but a lot of it has to do with re-classifying what used to be called “software” as AI. Nanotechnology has been the tech of the future for at least 15 years; biotech for 30. Etc, etc. There’s lots of groovy science out there, but turning it into industrial or consumer products at scale is tricky and doesn’t come quickly. And because modern capitalism isn’t patient, that means a lot of money for product development is going into things which fundamentally don’t raise productivity. As Peter Thiel once said, “we dreamed of flying cars, we got 140 characters”.
And even if some of these do manage to make it to market, there are some real questions about how much they will change living standards. If you’re in any way inclined to call yourself a techno-optimist, I really urge you to read Robert Gordon’s The Rise and fall of American Growth, which painstakingly reconstructs the last 150 years of American economic history (it works equally well for Canada, though), and suggests both that a) the high growth rates of the mid-twentieth century were a one-off, never to return and b) that most of the major changes to the workplace due to the It revolution have already happened.
So in any case, if you’re tempted to try to join the Davos buzzword crowd and throw the term “Fourth Industrial Revolution” into a conversation, just don’t. In a few years, when that term has been properly consigned to the dustbin of history, you’ll thank me