The Fourth Industrial Revolution is not Our Revolution
“New technologies and approaches are merging the physical, digital, and biological worlds in ways that will fundamentally transform humankind.”, affirms Klaus Schwab, economist and founder of the World Economic Forum in Davos. In its extreme, the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR) promises to amplify human capacities through new technologies, up to being able to “cure” ageing, leading us to a new and controversial “post-human” species. Leading this revolution into which we are entering rapidly are the nanotechnology, biotechnology, robots, artificial intelligence, energy storage systems, so-called clean energies, Big Data, drones, virtual and enhanced reality and 3D printing. Parallel to the announcement at the Davos Forum, the Spanish canal #0 provided a platform to José Luis Cordeiro in the Spanish speaking world, who they presented as professor and founder of the Singularity University, “to try to discover how many steps science is from achieving the utopia called immortality”: the death of death, the fabrication of organs, cyronics, the colonization of other planets, exocortex, telepathy, artificial food, quantum computing... A curious line-up of possibilities which appears to have stepped out from science fiction, especially The Tale of the Heechees by Frederik Pohl.
Indeed, in his discourse José Luis Cordeiro not only recreates a classic work of science fiction, but also, he is not recognised by the university to which he claims to belong: a funfair charlatan? Be it as it may, con these credentials it seems telling that his discourse is being legitimised by one of the most rewarded journalists of Spain, Iñaki Gabilondo, broadcasted in the channel of Spains most important telecommunications company Telefónica, whose main shareholder –before Europe’s four major banks– is the most important investment management company of the world, BlackRock. Why do they put such financial, communication and legitimating power at the service of someone of such questionable credibility? Does the tale of the 4IR need a “storyteller”?
ANOTHER MODERN TALE
Even though it has been a recurrent theme since the beginning of this century, it was at the beginning of 2016 when the World Social Forum announced to the world that we will enter the 4IR. Since then its presence in the mass communication media has multiplied to tell us that it is already here, that its impact on our world is inevitable and that we should prepare ourselves for it. In Spain, the government has launched a web platform to promote it and some large companies have launched themselves to proclaim it as the next step of our natural evolution. Nevertheless, even though those who announce it recognise that its implementation will provoke during the next decades a radical change in the social and economic structure of our societies and in the essence of each individual, the great majority of the population and of our institutions do not seem to give it much relevance. The 4IR presents itself as the solution to the global economic crisis, which, since the financial crash, shows series difficulties to continue growing. With the 4IR one would gain in productivity and flexibility –two of the characteristics most impacted by the crisis–, new jobs would be created and, additionally, the productive system would be much more respectful towards the environment. Definitely a change that would help us to transition to an economy of sustainable growth and to a new phase of prosperity to the benefit of future generations. To get there, the 4IR would radically change globalisation as it was formed during the last decade, getting into a new phase where long distance production flows would be replaced by new and more region system. A major macroeconomic change which would happen through the reindustrialisation of the most wealthy countries, which now would look at producing close to the markets of consumption.
RISKS AND THREATS
"The new industry 4.0 would be very automatised and robotised, and it can be anticipated that many jobs linked to the traditional industries would be lost of flexibilised up to never before seen levels."
Nevertheless, the promoters of the 4IR also assume that its implementation could bring with it risks and threats, with the principal one being the increase of inequalities and processes of exclusion, both, within countries and between countries. The new industry 4.0 would be very automatised and robotised, and it can be anticipated that many jobs linked to the traditional industries would be lost of flexibilised up to never before seen levels. At the same time, as men with high qualifications would be most under demand, persons with less qualifications and/or of other genders would continue to be less competitive and would have less professional opportunities. In addition, they tell us that only those countries that would be able to transform themselves with boldness would be able to enjoy growth, which would not be available for the entire population. And who would manage these risks and threats? Societies and their governments? Would they continue to strengthen the use of technology for social control without addressing the precarization of our societies? Can societies which call themselves democratic enter into a revolution of this calibre without even discussing whether this is a direction they want to take?
"The tale of the 4IR responds to the necessity of this global oligarchy to entrench itself given the decline of its old industrial power"
And going even further, in line with a critique of transhumanism and hyperindividualisation, would such a hypothetical “posthuman“ species leave as member of an inferior and useless species those who could not or did not want to incorporate themselves into this revolution? What seems clear is that the 4IR can only be presented as an opportunity if one invisibilises the ecological unstustainability of economic growth –in a context of exhaustion and degradation of material and energy resources– and it social undesirability, taking into account the processes of inequality, social expulsion and exclusion which would accompany it. Phenomena such as the global peak of oil extraction, the massive loss of biodiversity and climate change are already giving us notice of a future without global economic growth caused by the increasing scarcity of these material and energy resources, of strategic importance for the maintenance of the capitalist system and industrial civilisation. In this line of thinking the exploration of space or the exploitation of the seabed, even though they are presented as an alternative in the search for these essential resources, represent more a flight forward or a manoeuvre of massive distraction that a real possibility in the present context of increasing scarcity, given their high technological and energy costs. And even if it would be possible from the point of view of energy and material resources, we can suspect that the 4IR would be in the service, yet again, of an oligarchic minority formed by the industrial, technological, financial, media and political elites that are pushing for it. Many signs point to that it could well be manoeuvre of deception and distraction to assure a certain social peace while other less friendly sociopolitical strategies are being launched (ecofascist governments and wars to conquer the remaining resources) which secure the logic of privileges and exploitation of the present socio-economic order. In fact it seems to be a correct guess to suggest that the tale of the 4IR responds to the necessity of this global oligarchy to entrench itself given the decline of its old industrial power and, with the threat of a society ever more unequal and polarised, and to deploy a strategy which strengthens, in times of uncertainty, its tale of unlimited economic growth. In this way they could maintain their benefits through a more efficient use of material and energy resources and an increase of productivity; it would facilitate the maintenance of the centres of industrial production and eliminate the power of a working class now substituted by robots, and, finally, it would strengthen the control over the population via the incorporation and generalised use of new technologies.
THE IMPORTANCE OF VISIBILIZING THE COLLAPSE
The end of a cycle seems inevitable, however, who is going to lead it and where to is still to be decided. In this it is not the same if a society is conscience of or, to the contrary, continues to be unaware of the collapse of the civilisation into which we are entering. While the first scenario does provide us with the opportunity to open an urgent debate in our democratic societies and to explore new ways to reconstruct the resilience of our territories and populations based on taking care of people and nature, strengthening of the commons and of radical democracy; the second scenario would lead us, at the hand of the 4IR, to the creation and strengthening of ecofascist regimes or, even worse, to eco-suicide. We still have the time to struggle for a desirable and sustainable society: we can still create a basket out of these willows. Let us abandon the dystopic fantasy of unlimited progress. This is not our revolution.