According to Klaus Schwab we are in the process of entering the fourth industrial revolution and this will produce enormous challenges for people in even the most high tech societies. What do we mean by the fourth industrial revolution?
Essentially, Schwab’s term refers to a new age of interconnectivity defined by the integration of biological, sociological, economic, political, and cultural systems under the sign of digital technology which transforms everything into code. In other words, since we can now understand life itself in terms of data (DNA code and so on), new levels of high tech integration are in the process of emerging and it is possible to read across the natural and human sciences in order to understand this new interconnected world.
On the one hand there is nothing new about Schwab’s thesis. Anybody who has studied the work of Karl Marx in any kind of depth knows that the modern, capitalist economy is essentially premised upon working on (exploiting) what Vernadsky called the biosphere (the earth itself) and that there has thus been a high level of integration between natural and social, economic, and political systems since at the very least the emergence of capitalism. However, on the other hand what is different about Schwab’s new industrial revolution is the level of integration allowed by digital technology, and this is where we must be very careful about celebrating these new interconnections.
In order to explain why this is the case, let’s explore the key ideas of the contemporary French writer, Bernard Stiegler. Stiegler starts by returning to perhaps Marx’s key insight about the emergence of capitalism in the original industrial revolution. Marx shows how the original industrial revolution led to the emergence of two new classes – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – from the old feudal landscape of landed aristocracy and peasants and that the struggle between these two new classes would essentially drive history towards its conclusion in a classless communist society. However, what interests me for the moment is less Marx’s theory of dialectical history (though I will return to this later) and the transition from capitalism to communism and more his theory of the proletariat. This is a key idea for Stiegler, so let’s explore what it means.
What is the proletariat? What does it mean to be a proletarian? The answer is that the proletariat is a group of people torn away from their relation to the land and thrown into an entirely new social situation which leaves them completely alienated or estranged from the world. Under these conditions the proletarian is lost and deskilled first, (1) because of their alien situation in the industrial city, ad second, (2) as a result of the form of discipline industrial work imposes upon them. What does this mean?
The answer to this question is that the ‘intelligence’ of industrial work is founded in the machine. The new industrial worker provides labour power – he / she is a cog in the machine – but otherwise he or she is stupid. The industrial worker does not need to think because the machine thinks on the basis of its design. I have experienced this first hand in my own early working life. Working in factories in the North East of England, I did not think, but instead learned to connect the movements of my body – tipping fruit onto conveyor belts, for example – to the movements of the machine in order to make sure I kept up with its movements. The machine – the conveyor belt – called the shots and I worked hard to keep up. The final product of the factory (carefully packed fruit for supermarkets) did not matter to me. All that I cared about was keeping pace with the machine. That was the objective of my role. This is what the term proletarian means beyond signalling a class position. That is to say that proletarian means deskilled, turned into a beast of burden, a labourer who has no idea what they are doing, beyond contributing labour power.
Of course, sociology emerged in the context of 19th century capitalism and grew up on the basis of different attempts to understand this new industrial world. Sociologists wanted to oppose the situation of what Stiegler calls proletarianisation and understand the new modern society. This is what sociology has always done. Thus, following Marx’s epoch of industrial factory work, sociology provided a lens to view more recent transformations in the mode of production – for example, the turn towards computerisation – which resulted in a new wave of proletarianisation. This time the old industrial workers were thrown out of work by computer technology. In this new high society they were left behind, made redundant, and forced to adapt or die. This was, coincidentally, the fate of the older members of my own family who grew up with industrial work and knew nothing else. As I was entering university and working in factories to make ends meet, they were being made redundant by a new society defined by knowledge. They were unable to adapt to this new situation having left school in their early teens and were thus thrown onto the scrap heap of the new computerised society.
However, there is more to this story than a history of class struggle based upon a kind of Darwinian survival of the fittest and most adaptable, because Schwab’s fourth industrial revolution contains the seeds of a much greater existential threat to humanity itself (everybody, even those who might imagine they will come out of this new transformation on top, is now under threat), contained in the way the new integration of coding systems undermines our very ability to think or, in other words, be human. This is Stiegler’s key point that I want to unpack in some more detail below.
Although there are similarities between Stiegler’s thesis and Marx’s original idea of proletarianisation – the worker’s skill and knowledge migrated to the factory machine in such a way that made him or her stupid and disposable – the advantage the old industrial worker retained was the ability to think in his / her free time. The old industrial worker worked with their body. They sold their labour power. Their mind was redundant, but they could at least think in their spare time, which is precisely what I did when I entered university, and my family had always done - thinking and reading when they were not working for money (the lot of the wage slave). Now we know that the proletarian was far from stupid beyond his or her work life, and it was possible for them to reach class consciousness through reading and becoming part of political organisations and this is precisely what they did in opposing capitalism and campaigning for better worker’s rights and so on.
But how would this work in the world of the fourth industrial revolution, code, and cognitive capitalism where the very object of capital is information, what passes for knowledge, and thinking (thinking is now a commodity, a thing that can be estranged, taken away from the person who thinks by virtue of brain mapping systems that know more about our minds than we do) in a vast globalised system spanning natural, social, economic, and digital ecosystems? This is Stiegler’s point. Today, that very space of thinking itself is in the process of being colonised by technologies for codifying information and circulating it at high speed in such a way that undermines human thought which is far too slow to keep up with ‘the system’ (I use this slightly conspiratorial term ‘the system’ to describe the new integrated high tech bio-social-economic globalised order).
The point of Stiegler’s work is, therefore, to suggest that the danger of the fourth industrial revolution resides in the disappearance of the very space of the freedom of human thought itself. Where will this take place in a world where (1) natural metabolic systems are entirely bound up with social systems which rely upon them for survival (we live in a biosphere and civilization built upon fossil fuels and so on that seem to happen to individuals), (2) the connection between nature and society is completely commodified (everything and everybody has a value from the quality of the air we breathe to our social interactions on Facebook which means that we tend to lose our sense of our singular value to a new form of algorithmic power), and (3) all of this is coded within a globalised digital system that materialises everything, including our very brain processes (the mind itself becomes a thing, a network of synaptic connections, which can be controlled, managed, and nudged by experts in behavioural economics, for example)? In other words, how can we think when everything is transformed into transferable data? This is Stiegler’s nightmare.
In this totally integrated system it would be easier to not think – to become un-thinking – because the system is there to think for us, which is precisely what happens today when we need ‘to know’ anything. Who can keep up with the system’s reach and power? In much the same way that it is impossible to predict the weather, the economic system is also beyond our understanding. Who knew what was happening when the 2008 economic crash took hold? The basic point here is that the system knows, while we live in a state of blissful ignorance.
In much the same way that God used to have all the answers (and I would ask my Priest what God thought about this, that, and the other), Google now tells us what we need to know based on the infinite reach of its algorithmic power. Of course, you might respond by saying - ‘what does it matter if Google tells us the answer, we still find out what we need to know’. My response would to say that this is not thinking, but rather to be thought by a system that provides instant informational shortcuts to knowledge, which cut through the need to translate data into lived understandings (processed in the mind of the individual) by virtue of computational speeds that exceed the speed of the human capacity to think. There is no ‘working through’ here, no process towards knowledge, because this is in the machine, which generates pre-digested answers for the tech-no-mind (the unthinking individual) on the basis of the law of averages. What is this but proletarianisation for the fourth industrial revolution?
Let me refer to a basic example to try to capture this more clearly. When the school kid responds to a teacher’s question by cutting and pasting from Google they are essentially behaving in an entirely rational manner in a society where the objective is to move data from here to there as quickly as possible. Of course, they are not learning anything, not thinking (beyond the decision involved in identifying the information to be moved from here to there), and not expanding their own knowledge, but rather simply moving information around. Yet there is clearly a kind of perverse rationality about this behaviour in the world of the fourth industrial revolution where the frictionless ability to move data around is everything. Back to sociology - this is precisely the kind of madness the sociologist Max Weber wrote about in his work on irrationality or hyper-rational systems (see his massive book, ‘Economy and Society’), because what is taking place in this example is the destruction of thought by the acceleration of rational calculation. Here, thinking is taken out of the equation on the basis that it is simply too slow and also potentially too subversive for a system based on the speed of data transfer without the friction of a remainder (the remainder here would be thinking) that somehow resists instant communication and slows the entire process down. Let me explain what I mean.
In the world of hyper-integration information is everything. We know this today. We are buried by metrics, but we know nothing. Who knows what any of this information means? There is no space for knowledge in this situation because knowledge relies on the individual processing information (thinking) and translating it into something they understand on their own terms (i.e., through their own individual experiences). The problem of this is, of course, that this process of individualisation, this process of thinking, corrupts the identity of informational code (who knows what the individual will make of information when they process it on their own terms, but it won’t be absolutely objective – absolutely transferable to anybody) because knowledge breaks the coherence of the hyper-rational system which has become the central objective of information processing today.
This is why in the contemporary school system exams rely on the repetition of information, rather than knowledge-based responses founded in individual interpretation. There is no space for this in a system fixated on the reproduction of its own coherence, rather than individuals that possess knowledge and can think for themselves, outside of the coordinates of the system.
But surely this is madness in an education system set up to produce ‘knowledgeable’ people who can make a difference in the future? The entire point of the person who possesses knowledge is that they might think differently, they might process information in a particular way that transgresses the taken for granted models of the present, and solve problems that others have not been able to solve. Surely this is what education is about, rather than the production of ever more information proletarians? The danger of the new industrial revolution is that it will lead to this – the emergence of an education system that produces ever more techno proletarians and completely blocks the development of individuals. Why is this the case? The reason the new industrial revolution threatens to cause this disaster is because it essentially industrialises thought in technology and takes it away from people. This is what Stiegler calls proletarianisation.
Let’s restate this key point - the precise danger of Schwab’s fourth industrial revolution resides in the short-circuiting of the process of the individualisation of information in new knowledge and the emergence of a system of endless repetition based upon the relentless circulation of information which becomes increasingly less valuable the more widely it circulates until it is essentially worth nothing (a commodity which is absolutely available has no value). Thus we reach the conclusion of the system of totally transparent information. This system, which we might imagine would make us more intelligent and more knowledgeable, ends up transforming into a factory for (1) producing worthless information that nobody wants because everybody already has it and that (2) prohibits anybody from knowing anything since the very process of knowing involves breaking the rules of a system committed to the frictionless commensurability and transparency of everything. The headline here is ‘no thought allowed’.
Although Schwab’s idea has only recently come to the fore in educational debate, the problem of the industrial digitisation of knowledge in the form of colourless information (colourless, meaning absolutely transparent and transferable) has troubled me for many years in my role of teacher. In the early part of my career there was a sense in which everybody understood the need to process information in order to create knowledge. One would read difficult books and struggle to understand them in the name of advancing one’s own knowledge of a particular topic.
In the early days of the internet I was convinced that we would only benefit from the democratisation of knowledge (I could access the world’s library online), but what has happened in the period since the late 1990s is that the industrial digitisation of knowledge in the form of endless information has undermined processes of thinking to the extent where every type of knowledge (reduced to simple information) seems somehow equal and commensurate. Plato, Hobbes, Darwin, and Einstein – from the point of view of the internet it’s essentially all the same. There is nothing ‘to know’ here, but only information to be blindly and unthinkingly consumed without the intervention of reason or critique. Why would this prove difficult? If all information is essentially the same, learning the classics is more or less the same as learning a nursery rhyme or a shopping list. What, then, can we do about this situation?
Stiegler’s answer to this question explains why we should be opposed to any educational systems that puts the student in the position of passive consumer. This should not and must not happen. Let me explain this position, providing my own take on what Stiegler calls ‘contribution’. Before Marx wrote about the proletarian whose ability to think had been alienated in the machine, the German philosopher Georg Hegel imagined the emergence of society itself from the struggle between primitive humans. Hegel’s proto-Darwinian idea was that the natural battle for survival between these primitive humans – think chimpanzees fighting for supremacy - would establish a class system upon masters and slaves. This would be the first society.
But while Hegel’s philosophical version of ‘The Planet of the Apes’ explained the emergence of society, the irony of his class system made up of masters wallowing in luxury and slaves working themselves into the ground to keep their masters happy is that the slaves overtook the masters precisely because of their work which saw them learn, progress, and become more human. Thus Hegel’s key point - the negativity of the slave’s original position – his or her slavery – thus becomes the source of his escape into positivity – his or her humanisation. Work is everything, but this is ‘active work’, learning through engagement, rather than mindless labour or passive consumption, which is, of course, how the master lives.
What does this have to do with the future of the humanities and social sciences today (the topic of this post)? The answer is that I think that Hegel’s theory is a model for the future of knowledge, education, and the human sciences (the humanities and social sciences) in the fourth industrial revolution by virtue of the way in which it shows how it is possible to translate negativity (the endless useless information circulating around Google) into positivity (lived knowledge, skills, and centrally understanding how to learn) in the service of humanisation. We cannot allow information to wash over us, to transform us into techno proletarians, but must work on it, and transform it into knowledge that makes us more human.
Of course, a key question remains – how can we achieve this in a system that is about the rapid, passive processing of information? My answer is that this easy passivity is precisely what we must oppose by moving away from models of learning and teaching that position students as passive consumers because this is, in the long run, to cheat them of the possibilities for humanisation set out by Hegel. We know that we possess the long established techniques to realise Hegel’s theory – the entire point of the dialectical model which he adapted from Plato’s dialogic method was to move thought forward or in the context of the student, to essay, to carefully (and I emphasise the idea, ‘carefully’ here) compare, to contrast, and to weigh alternatives in such a way that required critical thought and the translation of information into knowledge in the name of the development of reason (where reason means the ability to find a middle way) – but it is absolutely essential that these methods are not estranged into technologies that end up thinking for us.
Although it may seem easier to let machines think for us in a consumer society where everything is for sale, it is impossible to buy knowledge. Information is everywhere today - in fact, there is so much of it that it is virtually worthless – but I repeat: it is not possible to buy and passively consume knowledge. Knowledge is never for sale. As Hegel and then Marx taught, it takes time, effort, and work to learn, to become skilled in a particular field, and become more human. This is Stiegler’s key message. Under these conditions, the problem of passivity, of surrendering ‘know how’ to the machine, is that it leads to proletarianisation. It is precisely this situation that I think Schwab’s fourth industrial revolution threatens simply by virtue of the totally integrated system – the biological, the social, the economic, the political, and the cultural – that thinks and processes everything and leaves no space for humans to translate information into knowledge, ‘know how’, and skill.
I think that we must oppose this situation for a number of reasons. First, consider the ethical disaster of this form of proletarianisation. Since the individual is essentially no longer human, but rather a cog in a vast information transfer machine, they are objectified and only valuable so long as they are functional for the wider system. The moment they no longer function, they are redundant and should be thrown on the scrap heap. Of course, this is what capitalism does, and has always done, but the current situation is more problematic than previous waves of redundancy precisely because it impacts upon the general human ability to think in toto, rather than in a particular workspace (i.e., the factory where the machine thought and the labourer provided power).
But under conditions of the globalisation of the digital system, there is no escape from the reach of capitalist processes that translate everything into data. There is no outside. There is no place and no time where we are free to think since our smart phones connect us to work 24 / 7 in an entirely networked world. According to Jonathan Crary, even sleep offers no escape today, since information has even abolished our ability to dream! How, then, can we think inside this maelstrom of information? How can we process information in order to create knowledge in order to understand our world where we are drowning in so much information produced at such an accelerated rate? The answer is that we cannot, which is why we see the shift from deep attention to hyper attention taking place today.
This is the second problem of the fourth industrial revolution which we can talk about in terms of a kind of psychological disaster. This new form of hyper attentiveness, though this mode of ‘paying attention’ is not really worthy of the name, is reflected in the behaviour of people who scan several screens at once in order to try to keep up with everything that is happening around them. Of course, they can only do this by dividing their attention, not really paying attention to anything in any kind of depth, and not really processing anything. Although this individual possesses high tech attention, and there is a kind of futurism about this, it is also paradoxically a base, animal form of attentiveness that undermines the achievements of civilization that make us human.
In a survival situation – and there is no other situation in the natural world – the animal must be hyper-aware of threats that may come from any direction. The animal must be prepared to ‘fight’ or ‘take flight’ at a moment’s notice. Is this not precisely how we feel sat before our various screens, bombarded by events hitting us from every angle, unable to keep up with the pace of events, permanently on the edge of falling behind, struggling to survive?
No wonder anxiety is the dominant mental health condition for the new age, because the anxious person is in a constant state of hyper-awareness to the extent that their nerves are destroyed and they can no longer cope with normal events that might tip them over the edge. Of course, anxiety is closely followed by depression in the new landscape of the contemporary mental health catastrophe we are currently living through. What is depression if it is not the condition of people who are completely exhausted, burnt out, and unable to see a way out of a situation that seems completely hopeless? My point is obviously not to say that all individual cases of anxiety and depression are entirely brought about by these broader social conditions (there are individual circumstances), but this situation forms the cultural backdrop that makes these pathologies more likely to take hold in ever greater numbers, simply because of the stress it causes people to experience.
We might argue that hyper attention has value today because it allows us to try to survive the maelstrom of information we must endure, but we must also see Stiegler’s point - that this storm of information proletarianises and prevents individuals from really thinking about their situation simply because it prevents them from developing symbolic structures and narratives to make sense of their world. Instead, they survive by responding and reacting to events, in much the same way that a wild animal might respond or react to a particular situation. There is no time to think. One must react. But where is the long term future in reaction?
There is, of course, a sense in which thinking is passé, old fashioned, a relic of the past in the contemporary world. We want the adrenaline of explosive events. We want things to happen because we are essentially addicted to hyper-activity. In a way we love the violence of the informational maelstrom, even though it leaves us sleepless and in a state of exhaustion. By contrast thinking is boring because it requires us to carefully connect ideas and think our way through a situation. This is extremely difficult in our fast paced world because it requires time, concentration, and deep attention, but this is exactly what we must try to do if we are to overcome the problem of proletarianisation threatened by the fourth industrial revolution. We need to take our time, slow down, log off, sit in silence, and think.
I was taught to think by a sociology professor, John O’Neill, who provided me with a mental framework (reason, a system for thinking, and a series of tools to develop this system) to understand and interpret the world around me. He turned me into a craftsman, able to carefully connect ideas and make sense of situations, and I am committed to sticking to this approach through thick and thin. However, I must confess that in my darkest days I struggle to think, struggle to manage the kind of cognitive overload caused by the new informational capitalism, and struggle to make sense. The stress and strain brought about by the attempt to take the time to think my way through the contemporary vortex of information leaves me with pounding headaches which I think are probably symbolic of the effort to try to make sense of a world which is becoming increasingly senseless.
In the end I suppose this is where I think the real value of the humanities and social sciences resides today. Despite people wondering about their value today (what is their precise instrumental, economic value?), they are actually more important than ever before simply because the potential fall into senselessness (the inability to think in a vortex of information) is the fall into proletarianisation, what Stiegler calls systemic stupidity, and animality, with all its consequences for a civilized society (increased violence and so on). This is precisely what we must resist by maintaining our human ability to think beyond information. Against this potential catastrophe, a disaster which various thinkers, including Stiegler, have seen coming in the mental health crisis impacting so many people today, what the humanities and social sciences can teach is a system of first, mental self-defence and second, a model of human thought to better understand the world. They can provide an ethical lens to make sense of events and narrow the bandwidth of our connection to the new digital leviathan so that we are better able to manage the storm of information that surrounds us today.
The natural sciences achieve this through the laboratory method which creates a methodological boundary in order to limit the number of variables the scientist must consider, and they are no doubt at the frontier of knowledge. However the humanities and social sciences represent a different kind of epistemological frontierism because their object of knowledge is the human world, which is currently under siege by new technological convergences that appear spatially and temporally boundless and for this reason threaten to destroy processes of knowledge production in storms of information. In response to this situation that threatens to destroy the human as a thinking being, I think that the humanities and social sciences can teach models for making sense of the new world and what we might call following Peter Sloterdijk ‘spheres of tolerable cognitive operation’ (in the past we might have used a German word to capture this idea, bildung). On the basis of my reading of Stiegler’s work, I think this is the ethical and political challenge of the human sciences today – to save the human from a post-human future where we will become so many objects circulating around the vast global bio-economic system produced by Schwab’s fourth industrial revolution.