Joined up thinking for the Irish Left
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The third industrial revolution is already happening
Sunday January 05, 2014 17:40 by Luke Eastwood
Technology is going to gradually push almost everyone into unemployment...
Many of you might be perplexed by the assertion above, surely there was only one industrial revolution and that was eons ago, right? It’s true that there was an industrial revolution in Europe in the 1800s; it changed the face of Europe and eventually that of North America. Industrialisation is in essence mechanisation, because in reality that is what happened – both man and beast were replaced by machines in a large number of businesses, in what came to be known as Industry. At the time of the 1st I.R. (Industrial Revolution) the majority of businesses were still owned by private individuals or by families, who through their enterprising use of machinery, managed to transform profitable businesses into vastly profitable businesses.
Of course there were inevitable consequences of these decisions, which are well-known: increased poverty, mass migration, decline or disappearance of some professions, social unrest (e.g. the Luddite movement), environmental degradation, new towns and cities etc. The 1st I.R. was not just a financial venture, although that was its main thrust, it became a social venture too, in that it transformed a fairly static European society in ways that had previously been un-thought of.
The arrival of fuel operated machinery (steam mostly) created the first known opportunity for employers to operate the physical aspects of their businesses with fewer or perhaps even no employees and animals. It also facilitated the end of slavery because it soon proved cheaper to use machines than to keep and maintain slaves. Of course moral reasons are usually given for the abolition of slavery, however I do believe that it might perhaps never have happened were it not for the 1st I.R.
This subject of the 1st I.R. is so familiar that I’ll not discuss it any further, and so, what of the 2nd Industrial Revolution, what on earth is that? I would suggest that the 2nd I.R. began after the end of WWII – in Japan. In the aftermath of the nuclear bombing of two Japanese cities and the conventional decimation of most of their other cities, the USA felt obliged to help rebuild what was a completely shattered nation, through re-industrialisation. This was in part in response the worldwide horror instigated by the first ever use of nuclear weapons, but also due to the USA’s desire to remould this crushed former industrial power in its own image whilst also providing a very cheap source military support (Korean war) and imported goods.
Had the American government foreseen what would eventually happen I am sure that they would have allowed Japan to wallow in a new dark age of poverty and deprivation. From about 1954 onwards, Japan began heavy industrialisation with initially USA being the primary recipient of it’s exports. The Japanese were extremely good at copying Western inventions and improving them, yet still were able to sell them at far lower prices.
As everyone is now aware, Japanese goods eventually became immensely popular throughout the world from the 1960s onwards, especially in the Western countries where their goods were relatively cheap. The incredible economic miracle of Japan has two startling effects that probably were not expected – the decline of European and American industry and the birth of Asian ‘copy-cat’ economies.
The rise of other Asian countries, such as South Korea, Taiwan, India and most notably China was, no-doubt, inspired by the run-away success of first Japan and subsequently Hong Kong. This fully fledged 2nd I.R. took some time to get up a head of steam (excuse the pun) but eventually the rise of the Asian Tigers led to further collapse of Western industrial nations and indeed the slow stagnation of it’s instigator – Japan.
Unlike the 1st I.R. which was the work of entrepreneurs, with or without the assistance of commercial banks; the 2nd I.R. was mostly the work of corporations, in most cases funded by venture capital from the financial sector. To mask the truth of what the 2nd I.R. truly is, it has been given a far more appealing name – Globalisation. Promising equality and prosperity throughout the globe, what the 2nd I.R. has really done is transfer the defunct industrial model of USA and Europe to eager non-industrialised nations who have yet to fully destroy their environment or deplete their natural resources.
This process, that can trace its beginnings to the 1950s, is now pretty much complete – most of the formerly ‘poor’ countries with any sizeable population and resources are repeating the same mistakes that began in Europe. These repeated mistakes will inevitably lead to the depletion of all natural resources, environmental devastation and social and economic coercion of the masses while a minority prosper, until there is nothing remaining to plunder.
If you follow my argument, I hope you can see that a fully fledged 2nd I.R. has taken place, although in an entirely different place from the first. So now, this brings us finally to the third and most probably final, industrial revolution. At the beginning of this article it states that the 3rd I.R. has already begun – if you look at what is actually happening then I believe that you will find it difficult to disagree.
With the invention of micro-processors in the early 1970s the potential for vastly accelerating mechanisation became a possibility. If took some time for programming and electronics manufacturing to reach a level of practical application, but by the 1980s robotics was beginning to replace human operated machinery and computers were beginning to replace human administration and management.
Science-fiction writers have visualised a world of leisure where machines do all of the work and humans are free to live a life of recreation and intellectual achievement. It would be wonderful were this utopian vision on the cards, however the emerging reality appears to be somewhat of a dystopia. Instead of just replacing the physical task that humans do, the 3rd I.R. is also about replacing human communication, human skill-sets and human decision making.
This process is still in its infancy right now, but already we are seeing unmanned machines in both military and civil applications, computer management of financial and social activities and replacement of human to human interactions with human-computer interactions in supermarkets, banks and even restaurants.
As the 3rd I.R. begins to gather pace, which it will do so increasingly rapidly, many people, both low and high-skilled, might find themselves being replaced by machines, just as has occurred in the previous industrial revolutions. It seems almost inconceivable that a machine might perform brain surgery in preference to an actual human, but this is very clearly the direction in which we are headed.
Ultimately the success of the 3rd I.R. can only culminate in mass unemployment, and unless there is a major change in our economic and social structures, that will mean a life of poverty for all but the smallest minority on this planet. Huge inequality is already prevalent, however once corporations no longer see human employees as essential, they will inevitably act in the perceived interest of their share-holders by firing most of them.
Continued mechanisation will most likely lead to even worse inequality than we have right now, with even larger corporate profits accruing as a result, until the point is reached where there is no-one left with money to buy the products that keep the wheels of industry going. At this point, where virtually everyone is in poverty, the economic system will completely collapse – leaving all these computers and machines with nothing to do and no purpose for existing.
The founders of the Venus Project have envisioned a different kind of technological revolution – one based on social benefit as opposed to financial/industrial benefit. Their vision is of a technologically advanced society, but one that is without money and operated on altruistic rather than predatory principles. It’s a very ambitious and forward thinking vision of the future – one that I sincerely hope can become a reality, as the road we are currently on can only lead to more poverty and ultimately catastrophe.