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Debunking Myths #2: The wonders of the 4th industrial revolution


This article does not represent Extinction Rebellion’s position, but the opinion of a rebel member of the “Myth Debunkers for XR” group. See how the group drafts and selects articles, on our community forum:

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My name is Capello, I’m 40 and have a degree in geography. My professional activities include consultancy and research in the field of soil and groundwater pollution. To save what can still be saved, I believe in love for life, pedagogy and... rebellion.

With the invention of the steam engine, the first industrial revolution (spread over the whole 19th century, depending on the country and region) tipped the predominantly agrarian and artisanal society towards a commercial and industrial society. The second industrial revolution refers to the mastering of electricity (late 19th century) and its use in industrial production. The third industrial revolution is associated with the advent of information technology in the 1970s, with the invention of the microprocessor. The third is still not over, yet we talk already of a fourth industrial revolution. This would be the digitization of industry ("Industry 4.0")... i.e. the organization of production processes using digital technologies (artificial intelligence, etc.). This would in particular allow to make greater use of "Big data" (the massive collection of data from users and consumers) and digital platforms. Most international organizations (OECD, G20, World Bank, International Labour Organization, etc.) have made this a priority.


Narrow linear vision

This linear vision of four successive revolutions is somewhat reductive. Viewing this evolution according to the transformations of technoscience is more in line with the historical process. Given the complexity of the actual evolution of technosciences, the concept of the "fourth industrial revolution" appears more as a catchy slogan for employers and political decision-makers to encourage investment. In this film available online, the World Economic Forum is calling on a host of experts to explain what the fourth industrial revolution will bring. They assure that the 4th Industrial Revolution aims, among other things, to (i) overcome the industrial civilization that is now based on oil; (ii) raise income levels and improve the quality of life worldwide; (iii) do without economical growth, but maximize welfare; (iv) underline inequalities in order to identify them. So we are promised a little bit of everything! Let's have a look at each of these assertions.

The post-oil era?

The promoters of the 4th industrial revolution sometimes put forward spectacular figures on the expected benefits of the digitization of industry in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. In reality, digital technologies and Industry 4.0 still rely on fossil fuels as they always have. In 2019, the production of energy to power digital networks generated more CO2 emissions than the civil aviation sector. In 2018, there were 7 billion connected objects out there on the planet and estimations for 2020 reach up to 20 billions. With the advent of 5G and the Internet of Things, the trend is therefore towards an increase in CO2 emissions from the digital sector. In addition to the energy consumption of data centers (data storage facilities with a very large number of servers that need to be cooled constantly) and machines and devices connected to the Internet, the CO2 emissions associated with digital technology are primarily generated by the production of these electronic devices. Let's take the example of a 40-inch television: out of a total carbon footprint of 374 kg of CO2 equivalent (manufacturing, shaping, distribution, use, etc.), the production of raw materials and the manufacture of components account for 299 kg, or 80% of the total. As with all electronic devices, most of the environmental and social impacts come from the extraction of metals (including rare earths) and other mineral materials (sand, clay), which also rely mostly on fossil fuels.

Copper mine in Utah (USA). SIPA
Copper mine in Utah (USA). SIPA (source)

Claims of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the digitization of society are based mainly on often tangible gains in energy efficiency. However, if a gain in efficiency actually saves energy for a given use of a given equipment, it does not tell us anything about the total energy consumption (of a given sector). For example, 5G uses less energy per transmitted gigabyte than its predecessors 4G and 3G. The problem is that the growth in data consumption is enormous and results in a higher final energy bill despite the efficiency gain of 5G. This is called the rebound effect. Moreover, approaches that focus on energy efficiency do not pay off in the long term, as they do not challenge anything and maintain a fundamentally unsustainable model.

Raising income?

The increase in income that would result from the 4th industrial revolution is a rather vague statement. It comes close to the promise of job creation advanced to justify, for example, the adoption of 5G. It should be noted that great uncertainties remain about the number of jobs that would be created, destroyed and transformed. According to a 2018 OECD report, the proportion of jobs with a high risk of automation in Belgium is around 15%. From the degree of automation of Amazon-style distribution and its impact on physical commerce, to smartphone assembly factories where only a few engineers are needed to monitor the robots, to supermarkets with no cashiers; we are left with the fear that the 4th Industrial Revolution will destroy more jobs than it creates.

Going without growth?

The financing and purpose of the 4th Industrial Revolution are based on economic growth. There is no chance that a post-growth society or a society maximizing well-being will emerge from this industrial evolution wanted by the World Economic Forum.

In fact, most of the innovations of the digital era are based on speculative capitalism: the loans raised by companies are largely based on faith in the value of future technological developments - 5G for example. It therefore becomes crucial to artificially create the needs that justify these new technologies.

However - and focusing for a moment on the climate problem alone - if some countries have been able in recent years to combine economic growth with a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, it is mainly due to a relocation of the most polluting activities. At the global level, there is no evidence of a decoupling of economic growth from CO2 emissions. Moreover, even if renewable energies are on the upswing, the prevailing logic is the stacking one: new energy sources are added to the existing energy mix and do not replace fossil fuels in any way. It is therefore feared that, in addition to the associated social and environmental impacts, sustained economic growth will necessarily lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, thereby aggravating global warming.

Global energy consumption from 1800 to 2018
Global energy consumption from 1800 to 2018. (source)

Highlighting inequalities?

In recent years, the increase in inequality has been such that it has become a serious matter of concern for the political and economic elites, to the point of threatening the "moral" foundations of capitalism, which are based on the promise of a better life for a majority of citizens. As such, it is difficult to imagine how the fourth industrial revolution could reverse the trend, or how it could better reveal these inequalities. In the so-called developed economies, recent developments in digital platforms (such as Uber, Deliveroo) are characterised above all by a precarious status of workers, as shown by the recent example of Uber having dismissed 3,500 employees by videoconference or the development of the clickworker market.

At the global level, there seems to be a huge gap between the technophile discourse of "Industry 4.0" and the predominant place of the informal economy (small jobs, resourcefulness and non-market) in the countries of the South. If the digital revolution is to have an impact on the economy of the latter, it is likely to be mainly through the extraction of more resources (mineral and other) that enable the development of the digital infrastructure and the manufacture of related consumer goods. However, we know that this extractivism is generally accompanied by destructive effects for the peoples, biodiversity and territories thus "sacrificed". Congolese children working and dying in the mines to extract coltan for our cell phones and laptops are just one example.

A child separates ore from rock and sand
A child separates ore from rock and sand near the Mudere mine, Rubaya region, DRC, 28 May 2013. Picture : Getty Images/AFP/Junior D. Kannah (source)


In fact, the most enlightening moment from the World Economic Forum film mentioned above is in this quote: « History tells us that a value shift is triggered by creation of a new story about how we want to live. »

Is this not an eloquent admission on the part of those who praise the fourth industrial revolution? We are told a new story (= the 4th industrial revolution and its promised wonders), telling us "how we want to live". When this story is being told over and over, we find the 4th industrial revolution "natural" or "inevitable", or even call it what we want. However, at no time are we asked how we want to live.

A vision

Do we really want our refrigerators to register our food reserves so that they can order directly for us? Do we want to be geolocated continuously so that we receive suggestions where to wander? Do we want to let our social interactions be monitored (under a health pretext, for example?)? Do we want all screens to know what we are watching and with whom, what makes us laugh or cry, that they measure how many milliseconds it takes us to react to a given ad? Do we want to live in cities with 1 million connected objects per square kilometer? More importantly, are we willing to continue killing for these things? Are we ready to plunder non-renewable resources at an ever-increasing rate to manufacture them?

How about instead we tell our own story? Is it not time to speak up, rather than let the financial elites dictate the future they imagine for us? Wouldn't it be emancipating to start by filling out our Cahiers de doléances, in order to identify the major orientations we want to give to society? Should we not stand up and say what is acceptable and what is not?

There is an urgent need to reinvest politics. Let's start by opposing this 4th industrial revolution wherever we can ("smart" cities, 5G, digital school...), to remain human in our jobs and in our lives. Let us call for the abandonment of technological developments that we consider harmful. Let us set up democratic citizens' assemblies with real decision-making power on these issues.

Further reading (FR)

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