An ultra- modern householder in 1914 probably purchased recently invented gadgets powered by electricity like toasters, vacuum cleaners, ovens and telephones. These, and subsequent, inventions are the disruptive technology of our era. For example by 1954, 1.75 million domestic servant jobs had evaporated due mainly to labour saving devices. Moving from ‘novelties’ to lives based on constant access to electricity is the stuff of science fiction. Disruptive technologies shatter social assumptions. Every aspect of life is shifted: work being a prime example. Notwithstanding the challenges, there is every reason to be confident that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will end beneficially.
Living after an industrial revolution is very pleasant. The disruption has happened and the fruits are harvested. Luddites*, for example, were trying to protect their skill- based livelihoods that look quaint to the modern eye. Their entire way of life was swept away during their industrial revolution. Their hopes and aspirations were destroyed in an era when social welfare meant the workhouse. How well equipped are we to cope with the irresistible impact of our industrial revolution?
Disruptive technology is now hitting the middle- classes. Teachers are challenged by pupils instant access to Google. High street lawyers have irretrievably lost business to instant access legal forms and expertise. A more spectacular example could be the replacement of pilots by planes equipped with fully automated equipment**. A highly paid middle- class ‘profession’ is becoming extinct like working- class London Underground drivers. Smart toilets linked to diagnostic medical units could constantly monitor well- being and replace your GP, probably providing a better (and certainly more immediate) service. Is it possible to make a ‘right’ career choice now?
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is both similar and dissimilar to the previous three. Entire industries are destroyed alongside human and investment capital as in previous industrial revolutions. On the other hand, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is accelerated in its effects. This industrial revolution is revolutionary because of the immediacy of its impacts. Additionally, this industrial revolution is impacting on the entire world in what is tantamount to real time***. For workers this is a dismaying prospect. Retraining and developing new skills virtually overnight, demands flexibility and commitment. Yet it must be done.
Social conservatism during an industrial revolution is futile. The attributes required for the post Fourth Industrial Revolution are unknowable. Even apparently essential ‘human’ jobs are at risk. Personal care might be provided by robot ‘carers’. Knowledge based jobs are threatened as knowledge is democraticised. The implications are, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, unknown unknowns. What is known is that humanity will continue and humanity’s endless capacity for adaptation will further enhance the quality of life.
Disruptive technology is normal in human affairs. Our lives are based on the benefits of disruptive technologies from the past, which once embraced, become the New Normal. Despite the fact the disruptive technologies do indeed disrupt, human experience says this time is no different than any previous time except in one important way. We are better educated, richer and have greater capacities to deal with the challenges that these events will inevitably bring.
*Luddites (circa 1811-17) a period of intense social distress expressed in violence against machines and factories.
**Passengers may well object to this as they have the false belief that routine activities, like flying, are better done by humans.
***Mobile (cell) phone use has leapfrogged fixed line telephones in most of Africa. In other words, they have by- passed an entire technological era embracing the new immediately.