Prophecy and Politics, or What are the Uses of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”?

This post is by Lee Vinsel, an assistant professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech.

Here’s what some people are arguing today: we are facing a massive period of technological change, which we might call a Fourth Industrial Revolution. In this view, the previous industrial revolutions — numbers 1, 2, and 3 — were rooted in specific technological developments. As one recent report describes it, “The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production.”

Now, building on these earlier periods of technological upheaval, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be based on a slew of emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence and robotics, 3D printing, nanotech, biotech, breakthroughs in energy capture, storage, and transmission, blockchain, geoengineering, virtual reality. You name it. The same report claims that the Fourth Industrial Revolution “will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and related to each other,” that in its, “scale, scope, and complexity,” it “will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.”

Our goal in this workshop is to critically examine this notion of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. By ‘critically,’ I do not mean to be critical in the sense of merely negative. Our goal should not be merely to throw mud. Rather, I mean that we should reflect on these ideas, their place in society, what they might achieve, and also what they might ignore or leave out: what blind spots they might have. I am trained as a historian of technology, so my method of reflection will be historical. I will attempt to throw the Fourth Industrial Revolution into relief by talking about what came before it.

I’d like to make three basic points: First, conversation about the Fourth Industrial Revolution is, at least partially, premised on specific predictions about future technological change. However, even simple historical reflection shows that humans are truly terrible at predicting the future, especially technological futures. (And I mean TRULY.) Indeed, we are so bad at foretelling that, if we really want to be rational, we should not put much faith in prediction. Instead, we should relate to talk of the future in a different way.

Second, the habit of naming and numbering industrial revolutions is old. The phrase “Second Industrial Revolution,” for instance, goes back at least to the 1920s. To the degree that numbered industrial revolutions involved predictions, those predictions, too, have been lousy. Moreover, the names are unstable. Their meanings change a great deal over time. At the very least, we should be careful when using these terms.

Finally, if we set aside any faith in prediction, what are we left with? I’ll argue that prediction is useful if it encourages us to deal with problems we’ve been ignoring for generations, and harmful if it encourages us to believe that these problems will solve themselves, or that technology will solve them for us.


The evidence from history that humans are bad at predicting future technological change is massive and overwhelming. One only needs to consult a decent library to find such evidence. Yet, such basic research often appears to escape today’s manic prognosticators. Jeffrey Funk published an article demonstrating that the famed MIT Technology Review typically fails when it comes to technology prediction. Among other things, Funk found that only a four of the technologies chosen by Technology Review as “breakthrough technologies” between 2001 and 2005 have sales greater than $10 billion, while eight technologies NOT predicted by the magazine have sales of that volume. I’ll go ahead and predict that MIT Technology Review will just go on predicting, however, in part because its readers love it.

Such quantitative studies are important and helpful, and then there are others. But perhaps more moving is revisiting past visions of the future, or what some people call the history of the future. Perhaps focusing on the visions that developed after World War II is most fruitful. Visionaries during the period of post-war affluence imagined futures full of flying cars; jetpacks; sleek, clean, wholly new cityscapes covered by glass domes; Jetson-like and ubiquitously easy spaceflight; seemingly unlimited energy and environmental resources. The future sparkled. It also never came to be.

Moreover, some predictions recur again and again, but never arrive. The historian Amy Sue Bix has shown that fears of technological unemployment, or losing jobs to machines, have recurred cyclically since at least the 1930s, and that job loss never turns out to be as great as feared. The idea that artificial intelligence in particular will bring an end to jobs and whole professions has been repeated ad nauseum since at least the late 1950s, including in recent discussions of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. However, these predictions have been little more than fantasies. Of course, the mantra of tech prediction is, “This time is different.”

Are predictions about future technology harmful or pernicious? It depends. Certainly many are just good fun, or something to talk about at cocktail parties. Yet others suffer from at least two significant problems. First, many technological predictions fall prey to what scholars in my field call the “Technological Fix”: the belief that technology alone will solve our thorniest and most basic social problems. For instance, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek imagined a post-scarcity future, free of want, where socioeconomic classes had disappeared and equality was the rule. The story of how human society gets to classless post-scarcity in the world of Star Trek is complex. One important technological development in the fictional world, though, is the replicator, which allows anyone to make almost anything at the push of a button. This technology means that money becomes unnecessary, a lot of work disappears, and everyone has equal access to material comfort. Now, the replicator might sound silly or far-reaching, but I’ve had students make the exact same argument to me about social problems and 3D printing in the classroom. To the degree that many people buy into — or are excited by — such predictions, they aren’t facing up to the social and economic difficulties that confront us right here, right now.

The second problem is that predictions are often grounded in economic interests. This isn’t always the case, but it’s true often enough. My favorite example is General Motor’s 1958 industrial musical, Design for Dreaming. In it, a husband and wife take a trip to GM’s Motorama to see the cars of tomorrow. While there, they also tour General Electric’s “Kitchen of the Future,” which is full of automated devices that promise a life free of labor. “No need for the bride to feel tragic, when cooking is push-button magic,” the female narrator intones. At the end of the film, the husband and wife duo ride off in a self-driving car on the “Highway of Tomorrow.” (Self-driving vehicles have been repeatedly promised since the first days of automobility.) Design for Dreaming suggests that all of these beautiful things and a society free of poverty and labor will come if we just allow corporations like GM and GE to hum along. Of course, just over a decade after this film was made, the automobile industry hit the skids and has never really fully recovered to its pre-1970 heights. The contemporary reality of people starting urban farms on land covered by houses in Detroit, or of lead poisoning the water systems of Flint, Michigan was simply unimaginable to culture producers at General Motors in the 1950s. Even if imaginable, they certainly wouldn’t have wanted to include such realities in their propaganda.


There is a history of naming, or numbering, industrial revolutions. The Google NGram, a tool that tracks usage of words and phrases over time, suggests that the term “second industrial revolution” goes back to the first years of the 20th century. Numbered industrial revolutions are occasionally used in scholarly contexts, though they are controversial. Many historians doubt, for instance, that there is any single essence underneath waves of technological change; others believe that numbering industrial revolutions obscures the deeper, more fundamental reality, which is the history of capitalism.

I think there are basically two points to keep in mind about the limits of the numbered revolution concept: First, to the degree that numbered revolutions involve predictions, they do lousily. However, more importantly, they often serve specific economic interests. To give one example, today individuals typically use the term “Second Industrial Revolution” to refer to the period between the late 19th century and World War II, which included transformations in electricity, telephone, chemical, automobile, aviation, and other important industries. Yet, if we look at earlier periods, there was no such consensus. Around 1920, for instance, proponents of scientific management and the ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor argued that the First Industrial Revolution was based on the introduction of labor-saving devices. The Second Industrial Revolution was going to be based on . . . scientific management. That is, they would lead — and benefit from — this industrial revolution. We often see this with numbered industrial revolutions: corporations or professions put forward visions that would centrally serve their own bank accounts.

Second, and perhaps an even bigger problem with these naming conventions, is that they are wildly unstable and often incoherent. Today, “Third Industrial Revolution” is often used to refer to transformations in computers and digital technology. In the early 1960s, writers asserted that atomic energy would “inevitably” form a Third Industrial Revolution, though we can now see how off base such “inevitability” can be. But my favorite example is G. Harry Stine’s 1975 book, The Third Industrial Revolution. Stine argued that third industrial revolution had begun when man took his “first halting steps into space. The next century or two will see all of earth’s industry moved into space, where it can pollute to its heart’s content, and earth will once again become the green paradise it was 100,000 years ago.” (emphasis mine) In this way, numbered industrial revolutions involve people believing they live in a special moment and, often unreliably, projecting forward some technological trend that they see as plausible, even if only, as in Stine’s case, after taking a massive bong hit.


If we are so bad at prediction, why do we do it? I think we must first recognize that one reason that people continue to make predictions is because they so enjoy them. They are pleasurable. Young people in my classrooms are in ecstasy while spelling out the most implausible scenarios, such as Bitcoin saving the world (while it destroys the environment). But another view holds that, functionally, prophecy is not really about foretelling, whether accurate or inaccurate. Biblical scholars realized this long ago when studying Jewish prophets, like Amos and Jeremiah. These prophets were oracular — they predicted future occurrences — but their predictions were meant to influence behavior around them. Often, they focused on inequality and how the wealthy treated the poor. In this way, prophetic stories about the future are actually aimed at shaping the present. More specifically, prophecy tries to call the community back to values that the prophet worries have been lost.

The question before us is: how are proponents of the 4th IR idea seeking to shape our present? What are they calling us to? In his paper for this workshop, Cyrus Mody describes an interesting function that the concept of a 4th IR does for businesses — that the term acts as a “bat signal” — and we can likely think of others. We see another common function of the 4th IR idea playing out at the national level. Here, Korea is a good example. This year, Park Ky-Young published the book The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Competitiveness in Science and Technology. The book tries to move business and government in Korea to pour resources into developing these technologies and hopefully taking a leadership role on the global stage. In this way, fantasies like the 4th IR are often caught up with national worries about competitiveness and future economic health.

What makes discussions around the 4th Industrial Revolution more interesting than many other such discussions, though, is that they are so focused on risk. McAffee and Brynjolffson’s Second Machine Age, which is optimistic in many ways, also warns that artificial intelligence and robots could lead to technological unemployment and increased inequality between the robot-owning rich and the jobless masses. The World Economic Forum’s 2016 meeting focused not only on the risks to jobs and of inequality in our current economic system but examined how such problems were exacerbating populism throughout the world, as witnessed in Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. While I laud this focus on social problems, I think our past experiences with technological predictions means that we should not be overly confident about where technology or our economies are headed. Instead, we should focus on creating policies that work in a variety of different futures.

Prediction should lead us to take actions that address a range of possibilities. Moreover, historical and social scientific studies have demonstrated for decades that technology involves both people and things. We sometimes speak of “sociotechnical systems.” Predictions, either optimistic or grim, often focus too much on things, and not enough on people and their relations. The ideology of the technological fix encourages us to think this way. Our inability or unwillingness to confront the social aspect of the future in as much detail as the technical is one big reason why predictions are often so wrong. Finally, because so much of prediction serves the predictors’ interests, and attempts to get us to buy things and ideas, we must be very cautious about whose interests a given prediction is serving.

What’s remarkable about discussions for the 4th Industrial Revolution is that it allows good capitalists to put forward socialist policies without blinking. It’s amazing how much coverage the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI), which guarantees unconditional payment to all citizens, has gotten in the last few years. I am not necessarily a proponent of UBI, though I will closely watch current experiments with it. The point is, however, that, if UBI policies make sense, they don’t only make sense in situations where 4th IR visions come to fruition. They make sense in our ordinary and often crummy reality. They make sense today. This is the reality that many visions of technological utopianism often ignore. The United States (and other Western nations) have faced slow growth rates and small gains in productivity since the 1970s.

The result of these factors and others is a declining middle class, increasing inequality, and sense of hopelessness. The simple fact is that most mainstream political parties are not offering any solutions or viable visions for escaping this profound basket of problems. It seems like one benefit of the 4th IR is that it can — though doesn’t necessarily — lead us to face them by suggesting that they will only grow worse. Whether we are speaking about multi-generational poverty or climate change, there are social (as opposed to merely technical) experiments we should try out now, rather than waiting for AI or robots to come and eat our lunch, or some magic bullet technology to come along and save our butts.

If prognostication encourages us to deal with problems we’ve been ignoring for generations, it is a great benefit. If it encourages us to kick those cans still further down the road, it is one of the greatest enemies of justice. The goal should be not to argue that some technological future is inevitable or that THIS TIME IS DIFFERENT; it should be to act wisely and provide for the future, regardless of whether the robot horde finally appears.

What’s at Stake in a Fourth Industrial Revolution?

A collection of papers from a workshop on the 4th Industrial Revolution

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