The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is a vision of a future in which emerging technologies change “the very essence of our human experience” . It was initially introduced in a book of the same name authored by the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) founder Klaus Schwab and launched at the WEF’s 2016 Davos conference. The idea has since been used to promote a wide range of emerging technologies and has informed discussion in many forums, including within IEEE publications.
The allegation that “this time is different”—that we are experiencing a revolution in tech rather than simply evolution —is at the heart of 4IR’s narrative.
4IR denotes progress and novelty without committing to specifics. The core idea is that “the marriage of physical and digital technologies … [and] their interaction across the physical, digital, and biological domains” [2, p. 2] will result in technology becoming increasingly and inseparably entangled with the human experience. Importantly, it claims that these technologies “will revolutionize everything, making the overused and often ill-used adage ‘this time is different’ apt” [3, p. 9]. The allegation that “this time is different”—that we are experiencing a revolution in tech rather than simply evolution —is at the heart of 4IR’s narrative. It enables visions of what the future could be to be presented instead as visions of what the future will be. It presents 4IR technologies as inevitable and therefore worthy of attention and investment.
Portraying certain technologies as inevitable only serves to close off critique.
We should not uncritically parrot the rhetoric of 4IR. Its core claim—that we are experiencing an abrupt, inevitable, and all-encompassing technological revolution—is tautological and ahistorical. 4IR purports to simply be describing observable technological change, but portraying certain technologies as inevitable only serves to close off critique. 4IR makes useful marketing copy, but if manifested, it promises to amplify global inequalities and disempower those not represented at Davos.
The promise of 4IR is overblown and its perils are underappreciated. There are compelling reasons to reject—and even actively oppose—the 4IR narrative.
If we accept the premise that this time is actually different—that we are experiencing a revolutionary break with the past—then technologies which thrive in this new world must therefore be novel, innovative, and revolutionary. The advancement of these self-described revolutionary technologies is then used by 4IR boosters as evidence that things are now different. The logic is circular and fully dependent on accepting the initial premise. This flawed logic then leads to a dangerous conclusion: in an inevitable future shaped by overwhelming technologies, society must change itself in order to satisfy the needs of 4IR tech.
If manifested, 4IR promises to amplify global inequalities and disempower those not represented at Davos.
To take one of many possible examples, Schwab sees ride-sharing as part of the 4IR future and celebrates that it “provides mobility services without the need to own a vehicle” [3, p. 58]. Note that this service is also offered by older technologies like public transit and walking. But when ride-sharing is processed through the narrative of 4IR, it emerges as novel and revolutionary; it becomes disconnected from the rich history of getting around without a car. Ride-sharing is reborn as a technology with overwhelming potential and therefore overwhelming importance, a part of an inevitable future. Such a revolutionary technology will require “talent and culture to be rethought in light of new skill requirements and the need to attract and retain the right sort of human capital” [3, p. 59]. Public transit was developed to meet the needs of people, but now people must redesign themselves to meet the needs of Uber and Lyft. In this way, the alchemy of 4IR transforms an old idea—mobility without a car—into a new (private) technology that the world has no choice but to embrace.
But is this actually a revolution, a radical break from the past? No, it is not. The claim that things are different now depends on overlooking both the histories of new technologies and the futures of old technologies. 4IR technologies did not simply spring into existence; they are based on and tied to the technologies of the past (car-sharing relies upon centuries of work in automotive and transportation engineering, not to mention the internet and mobile phones). And, old technologies remain part of our world even as new ones emerge (we use Uber but we do not stop walking or taking public transit).
The “revolution” is not a description of how the world is being shaped by technologies. Rather, it is a narrative that sorts technologies into new and old, innovative and irrelevant, in order to promote some technologies over others. It is rhetoric, not explanation. It is a claim by those who wish to determine the future that the future has already been determined in their favor.
There are compelling reasons to reject—and even actively oppose—the 4IR narrative.
It is, therefore, essential that we ask: whose interests does 4IR serve, and who does it leave out? The idea was designed and promoted by the extremely exclusive WEF –. Seen from the perspective of those outside the WEF’s circle, however, the revolution is less appealing. The expansion of the tech sector under 4IR will likely expand the race and gender disparities already present in that industry . And for many developing countries, adopting 4IR technologies means becoming dependent on developed-countries’ tech firms , . Claiming that 4IR is inevitable means claiming that people have no choice but to adopt 4IR technologies. But it is manipulative and unjust to compel communities who did not contribute to designing the 4IR future to nonetheless participate in it.
4IR is built on the discredited logic of technological determinism: the idea that technologies contain futures and that the use of a particular technology implies the inevitability of the future dictated by that technology . This alone is reason enough to reject the whole concept. But 4IR is also inherently inequitable in its determinism. For some—the WEF, the male-dominated tech industry, and developed countries—4IR is a promise that the future can be determined through technology. For others—developing countries, marginalized groups, and those of us without “the right sort of human capital”—4IR is a threat that our futures will be determined by technology.
Adopting the 4IR narrative means relinquishing our stake in the future. It’s not worth it.
Chris J. Barton received the B.S. degree in sustainability from Arizona State University (ASU), Tempe, AZ, USA, in 2015 and the M.A. degree in global affairs and management from Thunderbird School of Global Management, Glandale, AZ, USA, in 2018. He is currently pursuing the Ph.D. in Innovation in Global Development at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at ASU. He currently works as a Senior Research Associate in the Office of the President at ASU.