The digital revolution is not (only) the fourth industrial revolution

In 2016, Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum wrote a seminal article called The Fourth Industrial Revolution, where he stated that what [he] consider[s] to be the fourth industrial revolution is unlike anything humankind has experienced before and that there is an ongoing digital revolution [that] combines multiple technologies that are leading to unprecedented paradigm shifts in the economy, business, society, and individually. It is not only changing the “what” and the “how” of doing things but also “who” we are.

I mostly agree not only with Schwab’s former statements, but in what he presents in his work in general. The problem is with its title and the bias that the title itself and people later have put on the concept: that the digital revolution is about the industry, about firms, about productivity, about jobs, about the GDP.

There have been two major revolutions in the history of humankind: the Neolithic Revolution or Agricultural Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. The latter has been divided into three (sub)industrial revolutions. Calling the Digital Revolution not the third major revolution in humankind, but the fourth phase of the Industrial Revolution is, to me, misleading.

Let us see, in Table 1, a summary of some characteristics of the Industrial Revolution and its four sub-revolutions. It does not aim at being a perfect or an unquestionable description, just a general approach to the phenomenon:

Topic / Stage First Second Third Fourth
Working system Factory Division of labour Ford system Kanban Robotics, artificial intelligence
Production Mechanization Mass production, assembly line Electronics, PC, Internet, ICTs Cyber physical systems, nanotechnology,
Energy Water, steam and coal Oil, hydroelectric, electricity Renewables and smart grid Renewables and smart grid
Transportation Steam engine, railroads Internal combustion engine, roads Electric transportation and logistics Autonomous transportation, drones
Communication Steam printing Telephone Communications andcomputing Internet of things

Table 1. The four industrial revolutions.
Adapted by several sources by Ismael Peña-López.

This is not exactly what Schwab describes in The Fourth Industrial Revolution, but it is definitely what most people have in mind when speaking about the also called Industrial Revolution 4.0. Even Schwab’s World Economic Forum’s Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution itself falls into the bias for the industry. Out of the nine areas of focus of the Center (Accelerating Innovation in Production for Small and Medium Enterprises, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, Autonomous Vehicles, Blockchain, Digital Trade and Cross-Border Data Flows, The Future of Drones and Tomorrow’s Airspace, Internet of Things and Connected Devices, A New Vision for the Ocean, Precision Medicine) only the later two are slightly society-centered and not mainly economy-centered.

It is only shocking to speak about a revolution that is going to change “everything” and then only point at issues that, although of the direst importance, only affect a part of our lives. Complementing that approach, we could have a more comprehensive look at what the digital revolution is already changing or has a lot of potential of changing. To do such exercise, we can look at what changed in the former two biggest revolutions: the Agricultural Revolution and the first two Industrial Revolutions. In the table that follows (Table 2) four stages are characterized: the Paleolithic, taken as a starting point for humankind; the Neolithic, as the outcome of the Agricultural Revolution; the Industrial Age, as the outcome of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution(s); and the Information Age, as the outcome of the Digital Revolution. Of course these are just approximate definitions whose purpose is to highlight the importance of the Digital Revolution beyond the boundaries of the industry or even the Economy.

Topic / Age Paleolithic Neolithic Industrial Age Information Age
Relationships of production Recollection Submission of nature Submission of energy Factory Network
Relationships of experience “Biological” Public sphere Institutionalized / intermediated Liquid
Relationships of power Brute force Hierarchies & Nobility Bourgeoisie Digerati
Economy Nature Land Capital Relationships / knowledge
Who supports Diffuse Central knowledge Scientific knowledge Digital commons, AI
Living Nomadic Settlements Cities Ubiquity / No spaces
Culture “Utilitarian” Art Entertainment Artivism / Hacktivism
Work Generic Division, specialization Substitution physical labor Substitution intellectual labor
Learning Informal Centralized Industrialized Self-directed, heutagogic

Table 2. The three main human revolutions.
Source: Ismael Peña-López.

It is obvious that the use of some concepts is far from “correct” (for instance, the row that depicts Culture is more than arguable, among many others). The aim of Table 2 is to move away from the instrumental changes of our society (e.g. whether we will drive our own cars or they will have a high degree of autonomy) and put the focus instead in the changes of paradigm that may come with the Digital Revolution (e.g. will spaces matter at all?). It is, thus, a material for reflection. And a call to put under the spotlight societal changes, not only economic, industrial or production changes.

And, when we look at how humans will relate one with each other, how humans relate with nature, how we produce things, how the balances of power may change, etc. the potential of change is astonishingly high. We may be facing a radical transformation. And we should be driving it, instead of be driven by it.

Related readings

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2017) “The digital revolution is not (only) the fourth industrial revolution” In ICTlogy, #168, September 2017. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from http://ictlogy.net/review/?p=4545

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About Me

    I am Ismael Peña-López.

    I am professor at the School of Law and Political Science of the Open University of Catalonia, and researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute and the eLearn Center of that university. I am also the director of the Open Innovation project at Fundació Jaume Bofill.