There Is No Single History

A Short Review of Klaus Schwab’s The Fourth Industrial Revolution (2016)

I don’t like this book. Foremost among my issues is that it does not set forth its theoretical framework. This tells me that the discussion will not proceed from a philosophically or at least politically stable position but will be the result of an unruly mass of observations. Without a philosophical foundation, which will allow the reader to take for granted the metaphysical assumptions that necessarily come with writing from a particular worldview (questions such as what is good, what is bad, and even in these cases how time works and what politics should be about), the meaning and substance of this work become limited. Certain arguments also do not benefit from the ideas and insights of existing traditions, obscuring the way it views the past, muddying the way it views the present, and curtailing its view of the future. 
In short, the observations made in this book are short-sighted because the observations are not made in service of an already-existing set of ideas about how the world works or should work (a theory). The observations are made out of nothing, for nothing. In the end, we have a list of nothing — and indeed the book is an aggregation of trivia, and should function not as a stand-alone work but as a white paper for thinkers who have more substantial plans. But it is certainly not an important treatment of the subject of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


I have many issues with this book that I think I will delineate at another time, but I will content myself with several of my most important objections. The first of which is that this book views history as a movement towards some kind of metaphysical goal or telos. Because we are not presented with a theoretical framework, we are not given an idea beforehand of how this book views history, but it is revealed through the discussion that the author views history as teleological: History, according to the author, is mankind’s journey towards progress through technological advancement. Thus, the author says, “the extent to which society embraces technological innovation is a major determinant of progress” (p. 13). This principle is embodied throughout the book as well. The idea is that there is an end-goal, and we are moving linearly towards it, and the book explains the things that we should expect as we inch further on that line we call history.
But we also see the flaws of this viewpoint whenever the author discusses upcoming innovations and the way individuals, businesses, government, and non-state actors are supposed to relate to them: Although this innovation is taking place somewhere, it is certainly not taking place everywhere. That is to say that while physical time is linear (time as the passage of seconds, days, years), historical time is non-linear. Physical time moves unabated from the past to the future, from then, to now, to what is to come, but historical time is the result of political-economic processes. It can halt, it can go backwards, and it can go forwards. This is why in some parts of the world, the calendar reads August 5, 2017, while the people who use that calendar remain unable to obtain clean drinking water (despite water and sewage systems already existing), unable to obtain a steady source of food (despite advances in agriculture and husbandry as well as the delivery of consumer goods), and/or live in abject poverty (despite advances in economics and governance). Humans do not only experience time and space in terms of their physical manifestations, in seconds and kilometers; we also experience time and space in terms of the political and the economic.

John Gast, American Progress, circa 1872

We do not move along a timeline from lack-of-progress to progress. This is a liberal myth with its roots in the Enlightenment and is itself the result of the eschatological worldview espoused by medieval philosophers (I trace it back to Augustine’s City of God). Rather, we may separate the world into different parts, or systems (I have in mind Wallerstein’s world-system theory), which do not only move through history at different rates (therefore maintaining the linearity of time, only that some move through it faster than others) but by themselves experience their own versions of history.

These histories interact with each other. They may intersect and merge, and they dynamics of the “histories” produce emergent effects that may only arise through their interactions. Is the proliferation of radical Islam not an example of two histories colliding, for example? A history of technological advancement and a history of religious extremism have collided and interacted, but they have not merged: The developments of the collision are experienced differently by an American (who continues to consume the products of the free market while emphasizing his or her individuality) and a Syrian (who has been forced to be migratory as a result of the war).

There is no “meta-history” because history is based on material reality (specifically the relations that emerge out of our own relationship with the means of production), and throughout humanity’s past/s material resources have always been distributed unevenly, and it is continuing to become uneven at faster rates so that our histories diverge even further. There is, however, something I would call a “phantasmic meta-history” of humanity, although this has (1) Always been a tool of propaganda by dominant powers; (2) A projection of the values of the dominant powers; (3) A method of suppressing the uneven nature of political-economic reality. And this is what this book is. Although it supposedly divines the future from current technological trends, it is in fact a phantasmic meta-history.

A representation of the organic or stable regions of the core, periphery, and semiperiphery between 1975–2002. Countries depicted are those consistently classified in a particular zone throughout the 27-year period. Salvatore J. Babones, “The country-level income structure of the world-economy,” Journal of World-Systems Research 11, no. 1 (2005): 29–55. (via Wikipedia)

The book notes the negative results of technologies such as sharing platforms producing a new “precariat” class, automation widening inequality gaps, &c., &c., but does not emphasize that such progress can in fact be halted and is not the inevitable result of technological advancement. One only needs to consider China’s Internet censorship policies or the impending threat of losing net neutrality under the Trump administration. What is being taken for granted here is that the neo-liberal world order holds to allow the continuing emphasis on innovation, expression, individuality, and freedom. But the book does not take into account the complementary/contradictory force of nationalism/rightist politics/totalitarianism that is also ever-present and is also developing at the same pace.

I will definitely develop these ideas further later. But in general there are important problems in this book that may lead us to false optimism for the future, which always happens when we accept the phantasmic meta-history of the dominant power. The danger is not simply that this phantasmic meta-history is imaginary; more than that, it obscures the fact that there are in fact many histories, many timelines, and these histories and timelines interact with each other to produce effects we will not otherwise foresee. All of the developments in the book may possibly be wiped out, given the existence of the concurrent histories of right-wing nationalism or Islamic extremism, but these very important possibilities are not given sufficient discussion in the book. Instead, there is speculation about a very narrow area of a single history that serves only to validate a phantasmic meta-history and exalt the supposed virtues of a single history among many.