Though we might have seen technological development and innovation revolutionizing the way we live and interact with the world we live in, it seems like we have accepted it as a way of life. We would never have painted a picture of our future and thought about how it would actually impact our lives, our goods, and this world. ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’, the book by economist and Founder Chairman of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, paints the picture of our future for us by giving his views and expectations of this period he calls ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’ — a period marked by rampant digitization and diffusion of technology into our daily lives.
Written in a lucid manner, the main content of the book is divided into three main subsections. The first section touches upon the history of the first three revolutions, triggered by different inventions such as the steam engine, the assembly line and the semiconductors. He also talks about how different they are from these revolutions, in terms of velocity, depth and impact. In the second section, he talks about different drivers of this revolution, and also about some innovations such as 3D printing, blockchain and genetic engineering and how they will change the physical, digital and biological spheres of the world. The third and the most important section talks about its impact on the Economy, Business, Society and the Individual.
His optimism shows in the way he paints the picture of our future with emerging concepts such as additive manufacturing and on-demand economy and giving a time frame on how they would occur in a 50-page long appendix. Though many of them are still in their nascent stages, the time frame definitely shows an achievable path towards the same. Recent developments show a somewhat similar trend. For example, research was being conducted in the University of Maine in 2019 and a patrol boat built using 3D printers using the concept of additive manufacturing. It took only 72 hours to build it, thus giving hope for the viability of 3D printing and additive manufacturing techniques. He might miss the target of 2025 by some years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, though.
One thing that should be appreciated about this book is the fact that the author tries to present two sides of the same coin. While he talks optimistically about the future that awaits us, he takes time to acknowledge the repercussions of the same. While he talks about revolutionary technologies that change the way we produce, consume and interact with the world, he also warns us about its negative impact, especially in terms of employment, gender inequality and possible repercussions on the developing countries, especially since he predicts the future of production to be driven by innovation, and not by cheap labour.
I would like to criticize this book for the following reasons. Firstly, this book talks about the impacts of these developments mostly from the producer’s and the working population’s perspective. It doesn’t focus much on the consumer’s perspective. For example, he touches upon the topic of inequality but only lays emphasis upon the producer’s perspective, since he believes that competition driven by technology and innovation, with no significant marginal costs, in an extremely competitive market, will automatically bring the prices down, making it more accessible to many people. While this is, to a large extent, true, we do see everyday examples of many people losing out on opportunities due to gross inequalities in incomes, especially in times of lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, recently, a father sold his cow, his sole source of income, to buy his two children a smartphone to attend online classes, and a girl from Kerala committed suicide as she was not able to attend her online classes.
Secondly, he agrees that many of the countries have still not reaped the benefits of the previous industrial revolutions, such as complete coverage of electricity. He stresses on improving the human development indexes in these countries to fully leverage the benefits of this revolution through intervention from the government, producers and the civil society. Unfortunately, this is a long and a tough road ahead. An example of this phenomenon is Finland. In 1800, its average annual income was $827 and its child mortality rate was 42%. In 2017, however, its average income stood at $40,586 and its child mortality rate stood at 0.23% — a feat that almost took 217 years to achieve. While it’s possible for other countries to achieve the same, chances are that by the time other countries with bad human development indicators catch up, other developed countries would have reaped the benefits of this revolution, leading to more inequality. He does say that technological innovation can reduce this time period. But he leaves it to the readers to ponder more over this. Given the scope of this ambitious book, the ways to do this could have been further elaborated upon.
Finally, more attention can be given on other impacts such as on education and internal security. While international security and the evolution of weapons are widely discussed, other important implications such as what Fareed Zakaria in his book ‘The Future Of Freedom’ calls the ‘democratization of violence’, which is the dissemination of information about dangerous weapons that can be accessed by anyone through technology, were never discussed in the book. This book is, indeed, ambitious, and it delivers to an extent. It talks about the future and how it will dramatically change the way we live. It raises many important questions, but falls short in answering many of them, given the scope of this book.
Siddharth G. is an undergraduate student at Ashoka University with a keen interest in Economics and Political Science.