Opinionista Peter Vale 10 September 2018

The Fourth Industrial Revolution’s Biggest Impact will be on people – It’s time to talk about this

For South Africa, so far at least, public debate and analysis on the impact and meaning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has focused almost exclusively on the new products, machinery, and industrial processes – and very little on what it will all mean for people. That must change.

While the idea to the Fourth Industrial Revolution has taken root in South Africa, few have questioned what this will mean for social relationships.

This seems to be an anomaly, because analysing what big ideas – similar to the Fourth Industrial Revolution – have meant for South Africa’s people has informed political struggle.

It is certainly so that there has been talk on what the Fourth Industrial Revolution will mean for one important corner of our political economy, the future of work.

This talk has raised questions on how it is that in the past two decades, jobs have been emptied of content, purpose and offer no security – either social or tenure.

The social theorist, David Graeber, has called these “bullshit jobs”.

This suggests that local conversations on the Fourth Industrial Revolution have drawn on ideas from elsewhere. But, in truth, there is little evidence of local thinking and writing on the deeper issues around the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its underlying purpose and politics.

This is a pity because although the transformative power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is global, the final local form we experience will have to be distinctively South African.

Despite the promise of the global, for the average citizen, local is everything.

A plausible explanation for the lack of attention to the local implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is that the chattering class are wholly absorbed with the everyday vagaries of the local politics. But however pressing these appear to be, to ignore the transformative force of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the country is to court tragedy.

So, here are four optics which South Africans might use to view the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and to keep a local perspective on its unfolding.

First, we need to grasp how it is that the message of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is coming to us.

Essentially, it is bring delivered through two self-reinforcing discourses – the urgency of economic language and eternal promise of science.

Like the performance around the presentation of market statistics, economic language is a call to action. If numbers are bad, a kind of state of emergency is declared and all other social relationships are deemed to be of a lesser importance to the crisis in the economy.

The latter discourse assumes that everything within scientific rationality must be seen as beneficial to humankind. So Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and algorithms – concepts which are largely unintelligible to most citizens – must be seen as forces for progress.

Recognising that these discourses are techniques of public persuasion does not mean that the country should not take the Fourth Industrial Revolution seriously – to repeat a central point, it must.

But it is essential to understand that the Fourth Industrial Revolution jostles with other discourses in our national life – it cannot be given the sole rights to determine the future.

Second, and this follows the promise of science, we must not believe that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will provide the proverbial silver-bullet that will resolve all of South Africa’s problems.

It is instructive here to draw loosely from the work of another social theorist, Jürgen Habermas. He has argued that modern societies have resorted to technical solutions to overcome intense political and social differences. So, bureaucrats, administrative procedures (and the like) are called upon to provide outcomes which minimise conflict.

Likewise, protagonists of the Fourth Industrial Revolution suggest that series of ready-made outcomes to social issues is buried in numbers.

The hard truth is this: conflicts over land, the wealth gap, identity politics – and many, many more – will continue notwithstanding the promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Indeed, the revolution may exacerbate the structural unfairness in our society.

So, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will not preclude the need to talk about persistent social and political relationships – not only will this save our democracy, but it will draw the country together.

Understanding this suggests, third, that embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution will not enable the country to leapfrog into a new stage of economic prosperity and political harmony.

South Africans have always lived in several centuries at the same time, as economic theorist Karl Polanyi said of the development of the world economy. Whatever the Fourth Industrial Revolution promises, life will remain precarious for most people in South Africa.

Credence is added to this by recognising that while the total number of people living in absolute poverty across the world has decreased in the past few decades, the social and economic divides in countries like South Africa have increased.

At the base of this particular issue is the core question in all critical thinking, quo bono – who will benefit from the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Of course these are the forces that are driving the global economy.

The final optic is the issue of Fourth Industrial Revolution as an instrument of social control.

Its very techniques rest on the collection of data and on surveillance which can be used for regulation. As we have witnessed in the global embrace of “fake news”, an Orwellian nightmare is ever close at hand across the world.

Despite such reservations, there is an inevitability about the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

As was claimed around nuclear weapons: you may not be interested in them, but they are interested in you! So it is with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

How we should think about the Fourth Industrial Revolution – as a transformative idea – is as important as how practically the country prepares for it. DM

Peter Vale is Director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS), and Professor of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg. His research interests include Social Theory, Intellectual History and Disciplinary Histories.

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