The 4th Industrial Revolution Narrative

We should be skeptical of in-progress narratives occurring over long timespans. One such narrative is the so-called fourth industrial revolution.

The story goes that humanity has industrialized human production through three fundamental shifts, and is presently entering the fourth major era. Those turning points are:

  • The first industrial revolution, which began in 18th century Europe. Workers during this time witnessed a dramatic trend toward urbanization, accompanied by a rise in the iron and textile industries, all driven by the invention of the steam engine.
  • The second industrial revolution occurred in the late 19th century with the rise of steel, oil, and electricity, leading to innovations such as the telephone, the light bulb, and the internal combustion engine.
  • The third industrial revolution was achieved at the end of the 20th century and is characterized by the rise of digital technologies, including the personal computer and the internet.
  • The fourth industrial revolution builds on the most recent “digital revolution,” and is marked by emerging technologies, including robotics, AI, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, connected sensors, 3D printing, and autonomous vehicles. Combined with the communications infrastructure necessary to connect all of humanity to these breakthroughs, the result is the potential for a truly global society.

All tied up with a 300-year-long bow, right? This narrative undeniably fits the facts of history, but it also runs the risk of missing the forest for the trees. It focuses on the minutiae of exciting new technologies—precisely because they are exciting and new—without observing the meaning of the larger trends behind these shifts.

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