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‘The 4IR super-highway’: A dangerously technocratic utopia


Saleem Badat is Research Professor in Humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is the former vice-chancellor of the university currently called Rhodes.

The first three industrial revolutions have not created a just and humane world, so why do we believe that the 4IR will do any better?

The recent Daily Maverick column by Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, “Covid-19 has forced us into the fast land of the 4IR super-highway” (28 May) prompted the recollection of one of the early 1990s policy debates on higher education. This had to do with Fordism and post-Fordism and their implications for the educational and social purposes and roles of the post-1994 higher education system and its universities.

Professor Bob Jessop notes that Fordism referred to the system of industrial mass production innovated by the car manufacturer Ford in the early 20th century. Fordism was more than just a certain way of producing goods.

It was embedded in a capitalist economic and social order with a global reach and footprint. It shaped and reproduced capitalism in various ways, was accompanied by forms of regulation involving capitalists, businesses, workers, trade unions and the state, and affected consumption, education, media and politics.

Capitalism is a system that is beset by endemic crisis – recall the recent 2008 crisis. And Fordism was no different. From the 1970s, post-Fordism arose on the back of the Fordist accumulation and legitimacy crisis. This resulted in the “knowledge economy”, “network society”, and “informational capitalism”.

The new post-Fordism phase of capitalism during an epoch of globalisation has created a highly integrated and unequal global economy through deploying new information and communication technologies and taking advantage of the rapid increase in the speed of travel and data processing through advances in computer and other technologies.

Critical too has been harnessing science and technology to enhance production and distribute goods, often at great cost to the environment. The new “knowledge economy” has shaped jobs, livelihoods, institutions, society and people in profound ways.

The “knowledge economy” and globalisation have developed largely under the sway of the ideology of neoliberalism – conservative orthodoxies that have created a fetish of privatisation and competition, have sought to extend the market into every domain of social life, and to roll back the state and social welfare policies.

New developments in knowledge, science, technology and ways of economic production are the probable trajectory of the future. But how we engage with 4IR, the decisions that we make as a country, the policies and strategies we adopt are all in the realm of political and social choices. Choices that citizens and societies must make in any democracy worthy of its name.

The impact of post-Fordism on societies, manifest in rampant inequality and the massive accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny minority and is clear to see, as are the consequences for universities and higher education with their marketisation, corporatisation and privatisation of services and support.

When new modes of production arise, they do not always mean a total and sweeping displacement of previous ways of producing, consuming and living. They also affect different parts of the world, countries and people in different ways. Inasmuch as there are changes, there are also continuities with previous ways of producing, consuming and living.

Water and steam were the power sources that from the 18th century fuelled the machines and factories of the First Industrial Revolution and took us from a largely rural agrarian, subsistence and handicraft economy to an increasingly urban economy.

This gave way to the Second Industrial Revolution from the late 19th century, driven by electricity which stimulated industrialisation and mass production on a large scale. From about the 1950s, a Third Industrial Revolution dawned, drawing on advances in science and technology and deploying information and communication technologies in production and various economic activities. Knowledge, in the words of Manuel Castells, became “the electricity of the new informational international economy”.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), according to Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum, draws on developments in such areas as artificial intelligence, robotics, genomics, computing, energy, materials science, nanotechnology and biotechnology. For Prof Marwala it “blurs the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres”. As with previous revolutions, there are great implications for how we live, produce, consume and relate to one another.

It is heartening to learn from Marwala’s article that there are students engaging critically with 4IR and asking deep and searching questions about its promise and limits. Interestingly, one student considers proponents of the 4IR discourse as “preaching” and comments that they are “talking about it as if it’s the magic wand that can solve every problem in the world”. Another student suggests “the whole thing is overhyped, guys”.

Marwala interprets this as “pessimism about the 4IR”. It is not clear to me why he does so. The students display the kind of critical questioning that our universities exist to cultivate and encourage among our students. Given evangelical 4IR proselytising in some quarters, the students are quite right to question whether 4IR will be a “magic wand” and to wonder whether it is “overhyped”.

Marwala says that there are “two camps”: “those who acknowledge the 4IR”, and “those who have dismissed the 4IR as a string of buzzwords whose currency remains largely unknown”. Those who “acknowledge the 4IR” know “that this is a fundamental paradigm shift and that we [are] on the cusp of seeing every facet of society change”.

The notion that there are “two camps” is much too simplistic. There are probably many camps. At least one of these camps, far from being intellectual or technological luddites, would wish to pose and engage on many questions about the seemingly glorious utopia that 4IR promises.

We must be cautious that a hyper advocacy around 4IR and its supposed benefits does not lead to critical engagement being drowned out by a hackneyed and tired TINA – “there is no alternative”, “we have no choice” but to embrace the developments that are constitutive of 4IR.

With regard to “every facet of society (changing)” we must want to know whether this change will benefit the majority of humanity – women, the poor, workers, black people, refugees – or the usual beneficiaries: the rich, the middle classes, whites, men and city dwellers. The first three industrial revolutions have not created a just and humane world; why do we imagine and believe that the 4IR will do any better?

Marwala suggests that in the Covid-19 pandemic “the dilemma of keeping economies functioning while curbing the spread of the virus has hastened the shift towards the 4IR”.

If during this difficult and dangerous period the “shift” has saved lives, made lives more secure, comfortable and productive that must, of course, be welcomed.

But we must question whether the shift that he refers to positively should become the “new normal” post the pandemic and with what consequences. There has to be great caution to not use the pandemic to initiate and institutionalise reorganisation, restructuring and changes that are desired by proponents of the 4IR without open debate about their desirability.

Marwala, however, goes further: 4IR “is poised to be vital to finding solutions to some of our most deep-rooted problems”, of which “detractors” are seemingly unaware.

Far from unaware, the camp that is neither intellectual nor technological Luddites is acutely mindful of the grave problems that confront the majority of humanity – inequality, poverty, unemployment, lack of healthcare and educational opportunities, lack of clean air, lack of clean and safe drinking water, insecurity, inadequate housing, insecure access to food, and lack of access to stable and renewable energy. Indeed, this camp includes many who have a history of working to eliminate such problems. 

4IR is viewed as an entirely scientific and technological matter, not as a social or human matter.

When Marwala enthusiastically exemplifies the numerous benefits that could arise in the wake of a 4IR, this camp will not disagree that 5G and other developments can potentially enrich people’s lives. But here is the rub: which people, disaggregated by “race”, class, gender, disability, age, geography and nationality?

This camp would also observe that, disconcertingly, humans do not feature in his discourse on 4IR. It is all rather technocratic: all about technology and the new world about to be created. But in whose name, at what possible costs and for whose benefit?

New developments in knowledge, science, technology and ways of economic production are the probable trajectory of the future. But how we engage with 4IR, the decisions that we make as a country, the policies and strategies we adopt are all in the realm of political and social choices. Choices that citizens and societies must make in any democracy worthy of its name.

The late sociologist C Wright Mills reminds us “freedom is the chance to formulate the available choices, to argue over them – and then, the opportunity to choose. That is why freedom cannot exist without an enlarged role of human reason in human affairs.”

He adds that “the future of human affairs is not merely some set of variables to be predicted. The future is what is to be decided – within the limits, to be sure, of historical possibility. But this possibility is not fixed. Beyond this, the problem of freedom is how decisions about the future of human affairs are to be made and who is to make them.”

In this context, the terms of reference of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution are a matter of great concern. They are entirely technical. The “integrated national strategy” that is to be developed is concerned entirely and narrowly with competitiveness, the economy and science technology and innovation.

4IR is viewed as an entirely scientific and technological matter, not as a social or human matter.

There are no recognised humanities or social science scholars on the Presidential Commission, which is dominated by people from engineering, science and technology, and commerce.

The humanities and social sciences, at their best, ask awkward and critical questions about humans and human flourishing and about ideas on progress and development. Perhaps the commission does not wish to be bogged down with such questions. But they must be brought to the fore and not effaced at the altar of a future designed by technocrats in which people feature as an addendum.

For all his emphasis on “science and technology” in the “new economy”, Castells also stresses the importance of “the humanities”. The outstanding late scholar, Thandika Mkandawire, urged that it was “vital that the social sciences and humanities are granted their rightful place if Africa’s development challenges are to be fully and properly addressed”. And he implored that the concern with “development” should not ignore other aspects of our people’s lives’ connected to “their spiritual concerns, their history, their sense of identity, [and] their intellectual and aesthetic aspirations”.’ DM


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