50 Years of Warnings About the Next Industrial Revolution. Are We Ready?

Summary:  Today we look at three early predictions about the 3rd Industrial Revolution, now upon us. We have sufficient warning (and the experience from the first two industrial revolutions), and should be able to navigate through it without massive suffering — to a prosperous future. This is the latest in a long series about what might be the major economic event of the 21st century (links to earlier posts at the end).

On September 23 {William the Conqueror’s} fleet hove in sight, and all came safely to anchor in Pevensey Bay. There was no opposition to the landing. The local fyrd had been called out this year 4 times already to watch the coast, and having, in true English style, come to the conclusion that the danger was past because it had not yet arrived had gone back to their homes.

— From History of the English Speaking People by Winston Churchill

Danger, Construction AheadThere is a safe path to the future.
“Danger, Construction Ahead” by Kay Sage (1940)

Contents

  1. Preparing by closing our eyes
  2. James Blish: science fiction warning
  3. Jeremy Rifkin’s bleak forecast warns us
  4. David Noble looks at the politics of the 3rd industrial revolution
  5. For More Information

(1)  Preparing by closing our eyes

As our world has grown richer and our technology more powerful, our ability to anticipate troubles increases. Yet that’s so only if we make the effort to do so.  Too often we fail to even try. Extreme weather (i.e., hundred-year events), climate change, peak oil, and the next Industrial Revolution all show this sloth at work.

All of these are visible problems, long forecast. Yet rather than make use of this warning time, which allows gradual, careful preparation, we interpret failure of the event to arrive as evidence that it will not come.

In the past we could not well anticipate, mitigate, or avoid large-scale changes in the world. Plagues, droughts, floods were the natural course of life, often devastating regions — even destroying civilizations. Social and economic changes, like the first two Industrial Revolutions, brought greater wealth — but its poor distribution created massive suffering from pollution and poverty.

That was then, but need not be so today. We can do better. Too often in America we’re not.

Coastal cities such as New York should have defenses against typical storms like Sandy (details here), as do many of the great cities of Europe. Sea levels have been rising for thousands of years, and the world has been warming for two centuries (until roughly 1950 largely from natural causes), with obvious effects that should shape public policy.  Building cities in the desert without assured water supplies courts disaster. Developing new energy sources prepares us for Peak Oil and It’s a long list.

Too often we squander the time provided by advance warnings for the most feckless of reasons: the problems are coming but not yet arrived.

Which brings us to our issue for today: the 3rd Industrial Revolution is upon us. Below are some of the earlier forecasts of its effects during the past half-century. We have no excuse for being caught unaware, destabilizing our society and causing widespread suffering. With modest planning we should enjoy it fantastic benefits without pain. As with driving, reacting without planning might mean more pain than gain.

A Life for  the Stars

(2)  Science fiction then, but fact for the future

The effects of automation have been visible to some people many years. Such as science fiction authors An early example is in this from James Blish’s A Life for the Stars (1962, second of his Cities in Flight series):

The cab came floating down out of the sky at the intersection and maneuvered itself to rest at the curb next to them with a finicky precision.  There was, of course, nobody in it; like everything else in the world requiring an I.Q. of less than 150, it was computer-controlled.

The world-wide dominance of such machines, Chris’s father had often said, had been one of the chief contributors to the present and apparently permanent depression”  the coming of semi-intelligent machines into business and technology had created a second Industrial Revolution, in which only the most highly creative human beings, and those most fitted at administration, found themselves with any skills to sell which were worth the world’s money to buy.

(3) Jeremy Rifkin’s bleak forecast warns us to prepare

The End of Work

The End of Work by Jeremy Rifkin (1995) — From the Introduction:

The Information Age has arrived. In the years ahead, new, more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilization ever closer to a near-workerless world. In the agricultural, manufacturing, and service sectors, machines are quickly replacing human labor and promise an economy of near automated production by the middecades of the twenty-first century.

The wholesale substitution of machines for workers is going to force every nation to rethink the role of human beings in the social process. Redefining opportunities and responsibilities for millions of people in a society absent of mass formal employment is likely to be the single most pressing social issue of the coming century.

… We are entering a new phase in world history-one in which fewer and fewer workers will be needed to produce the goods and services for the global population. The End of Work examines the technological innovations and market-directed forces that are moving us to the edge of a near workerless world. We will explore the promises and perils of the Third Industrial Revolution and begin to address the complex problems that will accompany the transition into a post-market era.

… In the past, when new technologies have replaced workers in a given sector, new sectors have always emerged to absorb the displaced laborers. Today, all three of the traditional sectors of the economy agriculture, manufacturing, and service — are experiencing technological displacement, forcing millions onto the unemployment rolls.

The only new sector emerging is the knowledge sector, made up of a small elite of entrepreneurs, scientists, technicians, computer programmers, professionals, educators, and consultants. While this sector is growing, it is not expected to absorb more than a fraction of the hundreds of millions who will be eliminated in the next several decades in the wake of revolutionary advances in the information and communication sciences.

… The restructuring of production practices and the permanent replacement of machines for human laborers has begun to take a tragic toll on the lives of millions of workers.

(4)  Politics of the next industrial revolution

Progress Without People

Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance by David F. Noble (1995). See his Wikipedia bio. The opening chapters are from his 1983 series of articles in Democracyabout “Present Tense Technology”:

  • Part 1:  “Technology’s Politics“, Spring 1983
  • Part 2:  “Explorations”, Summer 1983
  • Part 3:  Fall 1983

The series opens with this stark warning:

“There is a war on, but only one side is armed: this is the essence of the technology question today. On the one side is private capital, scientized and subsidized, mobile and global, and now heavily armed with military spawned command, control, and communication technologies. Empowered by the second industrial revolution, capital is moving decisively now to enlarge and consolidate the social domination it secured in the first.

… Thus, with the new technology as a weapon, they steadily advance upon all remaining vestiges of worker autonomy, skill, organization, and power in the quest for more potent vehicles of investment and exploitation. And, with the new technology as their symbol, they launch a multi-media cultural offensive designed to rekindle confidence in “progress.”

On the other side, those under assault hastily abandon the field for lack of an agenda, an arsenal or an army. Their own comprehension and critical abilities confounded by the cultural barrage, they take refuge in alternating strategies of appeasement and accommodation, denial and delusion, and reel in desperate disarray before this seemingly inexorable onslaught —- which is known in polite circles as “technological change.

What is it that accounts for this apparent helplessness on the part of those whose very survival, it would seem, depends upon resisting this systematic degradation of humanity into mere disposable factors of production and accumulation?

For More Information about the 3rd Industrial Revolution

These posts link to a wealth of information and speculation, helping you to prepare for what is to come.

(a)   Preparing for the future: should we be precautionary or proactionary?.
Robot hand holding the 21st Century world

(b) Dynamics of the robot revolution

  1. The coming big increase in structural unemployment, August 2010
  2. The coming Robotic Nation, 28 August 2010
  3. The coming of the robots, reshaping our society in ways difficult to foresee, 22 September 2010
  4. Economists grapple with the first stage of the robot revolution, September 2012
  5. The coming big inequality. Was Marx just early?, 27 November 2012

(c) First signs of the robot revolution appear

  1. The Robot Revolution arrives & the world changes, Apr 2012
  2. In Friday’s job report you’ll see early signs of the robot revolution!, 5 December 2012
  3. Krugman discovers the Robot Revolution!, 9 December 2012
  4. How do we respond to the Robot Revolution?, 11 December 2012
  5. 2012: the year people began to realize the robots are coming, 3 January 2013
  6. Journalists reporting the end of journalism as a profession, 19 March 2013
  7. The next step of computer evolution: becoming bloggers, 20 March 2013
  8. A book about one of the trends shaping the 21st century: the next industrial revolution (robots), 29 December 2013
  9. The promise and peril of automation, 6 January 2014
  10. Looking at America’s future: economic stagnation, or will computers take our jobs?, 7 January 2014

This piece is cross-posted from Fabius Maximus with permission.