The current innovation cycle is not new. It was formulated in the 1980s if not before
I do not think there is enough substantive transformation happening right now to be called a fourth industrial revolution (4IR). It has been introduced as an ideological concept to revive a flagging third industrial revolution. The current innovation cycle is not new. The relationship between machine intelligence and robotics was formulated in the 1980s, if not earlier.
I am not saying that technologies cannot be disruptive to the prevailing economic processes; the point is that those processes are deeply rooted in history and were established a long time ago. The ideology is telling us that we have got a revolution on our hands, and this is completely false.
The word disruption is also a little bit overblown. Coined by economic historian Joseph Schumpeter in the 20th century, the idea behind the term was that somehow from within the economy, forces are produced that make the economy disrupt itself.
From the economic point of view, it is an important concept, but when you translate that into a concept that is about the way people live their lives, the world runs into problems. In 2016, when Klaus Schwab introduced the world to the notion of a 4IR, almost immediately, social and economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin published a piece refuting the entire concept.
What is clear is that the past three industrial revolutions have increased socio-economic inequality. Even in the past 10 years, wealth gaps within countries and in between countries have increased radically, and that is going to only increase further, as per all economic statistical accounts.
As fast as technology grows, the wealth gaps grow. The control and benefits of technological innovations in the digital technology universe are in the hands of the elites.
The World Economic Forum argues that the 4IR will lead to job losses because of automation, but a whole bunch of new jobs will also be created by the information technology universe.
If you look at certain employment statistics, you will see that more and more people are being forced into the service sector, and that sector is the domain of unstable precarious work. So the rise in precarious work is what is happening now and will continue to happen in the future as 4IR technologies become available.
There is something interesting in the recent International Labour Organization documents that say most employed people around the world live below the poverty line.
Most people who have jobs are not gaining enough from those forms of employment. During the so-called 4IR, the inequality gaps are growing, and that is unequivocal, whether we talk about the UK, India or Ethiopia.
Ian Moll is professor at the Centre for Researching Education and Labour at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
This was first published in the 1-15 September, 2022 print edition of Down To Earth
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