Have terms like revolution or epoch lost their meaning? Is the 4th industrial revolution a real thing or just marketing language - has the emperor clothes on?
We have political revolutions and social revolutions. We describe even minor changes in social systems, in culture, in philosophy and technology as revolutionary. We may also use other terms like age, society or wave to describe different phases of history. We have the information age, the post-industrial society or the third wave by futurologist Alvin Toffler. We use those words often when the societal change happens in a more peaceful way - or the process has a glacial speed. Revolution is a more drastic change in the social, economic or technological system.
Back to my first question. The most recent revolution, which in my view may earn its term “revolution”, is the 4th industrial revolution - the carrying theme of this blog. The fourth industrial revolution sits on top or side of other huge, big, small or quasi-revolutions. The term criteria are a moving target, and they are always somewhat fuzzy. The fuzzy or blurred boundaries of large-scale social changes make definite statements difficult.
One example. Third industrial revolution often refers to the digital revolution, which is the change from mechanical and analog technology to digital electronics.
Have internet of things, robotics, artificial intelligence or other significant building-blocks of information society factors reached a new quantitative or qualitative level which separates it from third industrial revolution? Do we speak about the second phase of the digital revolution and call it the 4th industrial revolution? I believe so, and I will prove my point in the upcoming blog articles. We have reached a watershed in the recent years in software and network impacts at all societal levels.
Political and commercial language cultivate quasi-revolution terms. More noise and less information is a case often in those communications. Advertisers like to describe most of new products life changing and industry shaking in nature, "revolutionary". Take for example the next generation of smartphones. They may be revolutionary in ads, when they are in practice just a continuation of previous models - and far from any actual technological revolution. It does not mean that the total impact of smartphone technology could not be revolutionary.
Then we have those very long term changes in history and want to describe them as concisely as possible with few words. Some fifty years ago we used often same concepts as today, words like agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution. In these cases, the speak about revolutions is justified. It is as justified when we talk today about global changes of information or digital revolution.
It is physical
The physical impact of those revolutions is real, even if revolutions are immaterial ideas and exist just in language and symbols. The human impact on our home planet has become huge. Homo sapiens is now a geological factor. Our activities have become “the number one driver of most of the major changes in Earth's topography and climate”, has Dr. Andrew Gale from the University of Portsmouth stated.
Human dominance has physically altered the earth so much that it ended the latest geological era, the Holocene. We have entered a new epoch - the Anthropocene. The word combines two Greek words: “anthropo”, meaning human and “cene”, meaning a period of geological time. The term is still unofficial.
Forefathers of our species saw the light of the day some two million years ago. First civilizations with the ability to write rose some 5200 years ago, a blink in Earth’s 4.5 billion years long timescale.
The age of technological revolutions from the age of steam engine to artificial intelligence and internet of things is like a blink in astronomical and geological perspective. One can compare it as a single lightning strike in a long night.
Our various societal revolutions or "lightning strikes" are following each other with breathtaking speed in this timeline. The first electronic computers with vacuum tubes became into use in the middle of 1950s. Those mainframe computers were the start of the information age and third industrial revolution.
Agricultural and industrial revolutions have brought us a massive influx of innovations - but they have also generated the population explosion. We have today unprecedented amount of well-educated people. We have millions of people with massive computing power and high-speed global networks to create even smarter products and disseminate information in nanoseconds. Thus, the time to following large scale system level change is shortening continuously.
We have plenty of reasons to expect that the 4th industrial revolution is not the end of revolutions - although it is still in its infancy.
How will the future look?
Maybe it is finally a comforting thought that predicting the future of complex social systems like industrial societies is in practice impossible. We must aim and hope the best, but it is entirely unknown what kind of utopia, dystopia or just a peaceful plateau we will reach in coming years. One thing is quite probable; there will come revolutions also in the future as long as our species survives.
I sincerely wish that in this new phase of technological development we are at the beginning of something great. We have the knowledge. We have the resources. It is ours to choose.