The three areas affected by the fourth industrial revolution

The technical nature of the forth industrial revolution easily makes us forget that we as individuals will be affected in our everyday life by the fourth industrial revolution. More precisely, the fourth industrial revolution will have effects on individuals in three areas: i) individuals as employees; ii) individuals as consumers; iii) individuals as citizens. This is how I imagine my environment in these three areas in the fourth industrial revolution.

As an employee I look forward to the fourth industrial revolution. Burdensome tasks can be offloaded to algorithms, even for white-collar work. This leaves more time for me to spend on creative activities on the job. Rather than being replaced by a machine, I am supported by it. However, now that I am not only competing against fellow humans around the globe on the labor market but also machines and algorithms, I will have to spend even more time and effort trying to stay ahead of the game in my field by constantly improving and broadening my skills. Hence, my workplace has not become less stressful but actually more demanding, especially since my actual productivity is constantly monitored by new surveilance technologies. Of course, I could also become a contractor or even start my own business. The new technologies have opened up previously unknown markets only waiting to be explored by start-ups. However, even after the forth industrial revolution some basics for a successful enterprise remain: I would still need a functioning product/service and customers as well as capital. As many technologies remain highly priced or only become cost-efficient with a big customer base and the regulatory landscape is challenging, most entrepreneurs actually decide to work for the innovation lab of big companies instead of founding their own company.

As a consumer, I will not only benefit from new innovative products but also from customized products as new technologies enable companies to manufacture even small batches efficiently and adapted to the needs of their customers. Hence, I get exactly the product I wanted and I don’t even have to wait for the mail or go to the shopping mall because I can print most of the things at home. However, I have a growing sense of being manipulated by all the personalized advertisements. Sometimes I almost feel that being a consumer is now the most defining aspect of my life as my consumer choices also affect other parts of my life. Also, I am kind of unsettled by the growing monopolies all over the world. Everything I consume is produced and maintained by three companies that span the globe but also push their own set of values on their customers. This, paradoxically, leaves me fewer choices than before unless I want to tinker for myself.

The most significant effect, however, will be on us as citizens. Given that governments are already struggling to deal with the regulatory concerns of the third industrial revolution a rethinking in the general governance model is needed. Even after the forth industrial revolution I am not only a customer but also a citizen of a State and I still expect this State to guarantee my rights, especially privacy, and I also want to hold government and companies accountable. Simply making previously classified information available to the public is a start but not enough. Given that new regulations and government decisions grow ever more complex, I expect governments to do a better job at explaining what they are doing and integrating my point of view from the beginning. Not only do politicians need to put these subjects on the agenda, they also need to exchange know-how with the industry, academia and civil society. The multistakeholder approach, used e.g. in Internet Governance, provides a good example for this kind of cooperation.
What I am really worried about, however, is the welfare state. Already in bad shape today due to demographics and unsustainable financing, most welfare states are set to implode once the forth industrial revolution hits. If politicians start now to devise alternatives and enter into a dialogue with citizens, this could ease some of the stress to come.

For all three areas of a life, I imagine that the forth industrial revolution will have significant effects, both positive and negative. Hence, I would like to make a final point: the forth industrial revolution is not inherently positive or negative. This means that we, having identified an industrial revolution at its beginning, still have the chance to ensure that this revolution creates as much benefit as possible while reducing negative side effects to a minimum. What is needed to this end, is an interdisciplinary and global discussion to which I very much look forward to.