Why are we imagining the fourth industrial revolution into reality?

Omar Sabil

    Scrolling through piles and piles of posts about this notion of a fourth industrial revolution left me wondering about it; a buzzword? and god knows how many others we have in the tech world or is there something about it we're still trying to make sense of?

    What is clear to me though is that we tend to talk about this revolution as a vague set of technologies, barely glued together by their individual potential to change the world; and that is a problem. You know… the AI, IoT, Blockchain, Cloud Computing, and all other panaceas…

    But maybe, just maybe, we are thinking about this whole thing wrong, or at least looking at it from a very small angle. No matter how advanced technologies are, they remain tools, not dissimilar from a hammer or a screwdriver, heck, the wheel is probably the greatest invention of all.

    This made me write this post, far from listing the technologies or predicting the future, just putting a few thoughts out there; though I must admit, these are just bits and pieces of a much bigger puzzle.

    Before diving into any of the big words, the ever-expanding list of technologies, or just how this revolution is supposedly about bridging the physical and cyber spaces, humor me for a moment and let's start with a simple one here. Why are we speaking about a fourth industrial revolution now of all times? Maybe because Klaus Schwab went ahead and uttered the word? Well there's more to it than just the words of a person, even with as great a stage as the World Economic Forum. I think it mattered, because for a reason or another, the idea spoke and made sense to a lot of us. It made sense because of what we read in our history books about the previous industrial revolutions; it made sense because of what we read in our science and engineering books and the potential for these technologies we build and use; and it made sense because of how we socially and technologically experience the world around us, and how this shifts, every year, from one technological advancement to the next.

    Imagining the possible

    Imagining the possible; that, is probably the single most important step in this motion of creating and acting ourselves into this world we live in, including this possibility of a fourth industrial revolution. At times, we are so certain of the possible that we give it no second thought, other times it does not seem to be so clear in our heads: I barely doubt my coffee will taste sweeter adding sugar to it, so much so that I barely think of it; take me grocery shopping, on the other hand, and I will be pondering what I could possibly make with eggs, onions, and a couple of bell peppers. But what is important to understand here is that nothing is possible without this process of imagination. This may seem at best trivial and at worst useless for any of us individually. All I have to do is cozy up to my windowsill with a warm cup of tea and ponder my thoughts away to imagine the feasible and the not so, this makes no difference to the world around me.

    The magic happens when we all get together to do it. It is this collective imagination that creates the world we live in. This might seem like an overcomplicated way of thinking about things, but these abstract thoughts kind of give us an idea about how things work, especially socially and politically.

    The collective imaginary is a set of institutions, laws, values, symbols through which we can imagine our society as a whole.

    Excuse the somewhat inaccurate analogy, but think of this imaginary as a digital twin for a smart factory, where the smart factory is our society. This collective imaginary is the result of a social practice that allows us to live in the same social space, be it as a nation, a civilisation, or just a group of hobbyists adamant on collecting stamps.

    Political scientists have long been wondering about this social practice that is imagination (Benedict Anderson in his classical work, Imagined Communities or Charles Taylor in Modern Social Imaginaries) and the impact it has on creating large political realities, such as our nation states, through continuous processes of narration, remembering and forgetting. But what does this have to do with an industrial revolution you may ask? Well, again, these imaginaries are before anything social practices within concrete social spaces; they may span whole countries just as much as they may a small online community discussing the universe of Harry Potter.

    What happens, though, when we apply this concept to that place where the social and the technological meet?

    One type of these imaginaries bridges into the technologically driven world through what are called sociotechnical imaginaries.

    Sociotechnical imaginaries occupy the theoretically undeveloped space between the idealistic collective imaginations identified by social and political theorists and the hybrid but politically neutered networks or assemblages with which STS (Science and Technologies Studies) scholars often describe reality.

    Sheila Jasanoff, Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power

    Unlike ideas or fads, these imaginaries are resilient, durable, and find themselves at the nexus of the imagination of the social, the tangible of the technological, and the wilful of the political. Bear with me on the philosophical for a moment, but I feel this to be a framing of how we should think about this fourth revolution without getting lost in the multitude of buzzwords flooding our social feeds. So without diving further into the details, these imaginaries are formulated and forgotten alongside three main spheres; the social, the technological, and the political.

    The social imagination

    This happens through time and space, from individual to collective and back. We build this imagination of the fourth industrial revolution based on how close we are to the space where it is being narrated, executed, and imagined; in twitter feeds of IoT focused news outlets, ground floors of factories executing on cutting edge technologies, or academic circles discussing the latest AI algorithms. Think of this spatial dimension, not in terms of geographic distances, but more generally in terms of cost for information to travel the distances. A tightly connected community on the internet may be socially closer to you nowadays than someone living in your neighbourhood.

    Time, on the other hand, the familiar past of the first three industrial revolutions and the potential future of what could be achieved with what we now know, have, and build, is the greatest narrative for what the fourth industrial revolution is. So time, in our individual experience, acts as our most stable reference understanding the past and making a guess about the future in ways that would make sense to most of us collectively.

    The touch of technology

    The latest advances in technological development, the creation of a cyber space that is ever converging towards the physical space, the increased efficiency of computations, improvement in communication ubiquity and speed, harnessing of cheaper sensors and better actuators, all open the door for this imagination of a fourth industrial revolution and what it could actually be.

    Unlike the intangibility of socially imagining things, every technological advancement, not only proves itself concretely in a way that we can touch and see, but opens the door to the potential for a greater achievement in the future, better optimisation, faster execution, cheaper products, smarter decisions…

    The will of the political

    None is more at stake in a revolution than the fragile balance of power dictated by technological advancements. Be it for economic or security reasons, technological advancements have a way with shifting how things are done, and none is more interested in promoting/hindering these imaginaries than the political forces that facilitated/inhibited their existence. If you are unconvinced, browse the twitter feed searching for the fourth industrial revolution. I hope not to sound conspiracist here, I am just pointing out that political will is a necessary ingredient in the creation of this sociotechnical imaginary.

    This political will is both the result of the social imagination and its guiding force. We tend to pass laws to regulate technological advancements, barring the doors perceived to lead us down dystopia, and building legal and political highways to those seen ascending with us to a possible utopia.

    This imaginary that is the Fourth Industrial Revolution

    Enough with the philosophical jargon, though with one last reminder; the fourth industrial revolution, much like any other is not just a set of technologies, it is about the way we interact and perceive these technologies. If we are to look beyond the technological, industrial revolutions are moments of change that disrupt the societal fabric, the geopolitical balances of power, and the outlook to a potential future.

    So what is this fourth industrial revolution you may ask? It is the potential for a future, possibly with higher income, potentially with greater inequalities, but definitely in the direction of what is being collectively imagined right now, using and advancing the technological tools we most believe in. It is not a question of rationally thinking about which technology deserves to be part of this revolution; it is a matter of pursuing the beliefs of those vested in it (which is all of us, albeit at different levels) and weeding out those beliefs that fail to adhere to technological possibilities, business realities, or political imperatives.

    At this point, it becomes tempting to concretely look at how we think about this revolution and what seems to be the imaginary guiding its technologies.

    A cloud of technologies

    We have discussed this idea of a sociotechnical imaginary in kind of an abstract way, but how does that translate into concrete examples around us? Consider the following work by Benjamin Meindl and Joana Mendonça, extracting technical terms around Industry 4.0 from research articles into a visualised graph. Effectively speaking, this concretely draws the sociotechnical imaginary around the fourth industrial revolution with a specific social space - the research and academic space.

    Benjamin Meindl and Joana Mendonça's work is an aggregation of close to 15000 research articles dealing with the various pretending technologies that might shape the fourth industrial revolution's horizon. A technology map is drawn from the extraction of technology terms in the corpus (the abstract of said articles) using natural language processing, connecting nodes/terms based on their co-occurence in each document or sentence, and clustering using Gephi's modularity analysis tools et voilà…

    Map of technologies occurrences in academic articles

    4IR - Map of technologies occurrences in academic articles.
    CAM: Computer-Aided Manufacturing;
    IIoT: Industrial Internet of Things.
    Source: Mapping Industry 4.0 Technologies: From Cyber-Physical Systems to Artificial Intelligence.

    There are evidently other realms where the creation of this imaginary of a fourth industrial revolution happens; academia is just one such place. But I feel that, beyond the question of where we are looking, traces of what we collectively imagine can be found everywhere.

    There is clearly a certain centrality of IIoT amongst all other clusters, probably given the concept condenses a great number of the principles guiding this fourth industrial revolution, from interoperability to modularity, decentralisation, or virtualisation. My guess is that: it is both the bridging of the gap between the physical and the digital spaces, as well as a focus on communication technologies that makes it so central to all other aspects.

    The other seven clusters delineate between a focus on information technology focus (Algorithms, Cloud Platforms, Managements Systems and Sensor Systems) and manufacturing processes (Computer-Aided Manufacturing, Additive Manufacturing, and Human Robot Systems). For those curious to explore further, you can check: https://bmeindl.github.io/technology_network/

    Their analysis ranks each of the cluster’s nodes, taking weighed degrees and Eigenvector centrality (ranking for connectedness) as a metric for the importance of each node in a given cluster. The following are the most important technologies by cluster and their EV centrality value:

    Technology centrality within respective clusters
    IIoT Internet of Things (1) Cyber Physical Systems (.84) Internet (.82)
    Sensor Systems RFID (.35) Wireless Sensor Network (.34)
    Algorithms Artificial Intelligence (.52) Machine Learning (.30) Blockchain (.18)
    Management Systems Manufacturing Execution System (.26) Enterprise Resource Planning (.23) Product Lifecycle Management (.14)
    Cloud Platforms Cloud Computing (.66) OPC Unified Architecture (.27) Edge Computing (.07)
    Additive Manufacturing Additive Manufacturing (.38) 3D Printing (.27)
    Computer-Aided Manufacturing Industrial Control System (.16) Computerised Numerical Tool (.09) Computer-Aided Design (0.05)
    Human-Robot Systems Robotics (.29) Augmented Reality (.26) Virtual Reality (.19)

    The table shows, not just a list of relevant technologies, but also the concrete way this collective imagination is setting precedence of one technology over another when it comes to Industry 4.0. For instance, it seems that certain technologies or conceptual buckets take centre stage, IoT, CPS, AI, Cloud Computing, while others are less relevant. It remains that this is an example of what Industry 4.0 is for the research and academic field and the imaginaries created in that space; I have no doubt that a mapping in other spaces would yield different results: Just a sentiment here, but Blockchain, technology aside, is a popular buzzword part of the social movement around NFTs and Cryptocurrencies and would probably rank much higher if we were to look in the popular or financial spaces.

    What do we want?

    Yet at the end of the day and regardless of which space we are part of, if there is one thing we all want, it is a better tomorrow; whatever better means. So what is it that we collectively think of when we say that, if there is any collective agreement of course?

    Allow me to reiterate on one point as a last thought; technology is a tool. I think we should refuse to make our industrial revolution, if we believe in one - the dream of lifting us from poverty, improving our everyday lives, and building a better tomorrow - be just about a list of technologies. It should, at the core of it all, be about how we want to use these technologies to build a sustainable, prosperous, and better world for ourselves and our children. Collectively imagining it.

    If there is one thing I hope to have achieved in this post, it is just to put another perspective on the table. This is not about the listing of cutting edge technologies, or the prediction of a potential future, it is just about looking at our past, present, and future, with a different lens.