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A reflection on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a critical framing

- Ruth Castel-Branco, Seipati Mokhema and Hannah Dawson

The first in the dialogue policy series hosted by The Future of Work(ers) Research Group at SCIS.

The Future of Work(ers) Research Group at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS) based at Wits, hosted the first policy dialogue in series that will take place over the course of the year. The topic for the webinar was “The Fourth Industrial Revolution, A critical framing.”

The speakers included Nanjala Nyabola, Dr Trevor Ngwane, Dr Ian Moll and the discussant was Tessa Dooms.

The speakers took on a Marxist critique in the framing of the Forth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and reflected on how past industrial revolutions saw countries in the Global South become sights of extractivism and exploitation, leading these countries down the path of large scale social inequalities, marginalization and political instabilities.

The World Economic Forum described the Fourth Industrial Revolution as technology driven change that has changed how people live, work and relate to each other. What makes the 4IR distinct from other industrial revolutions is the unprecedented speed at which it had occurred and impacted global systems. Unlike previous industrial revolutions, the 4IR has evolved at an exponential rather than a linear pace and has disrupted and transformed almost every industry across the globe. Systems of production, management, and governance have had to adapt accordingly as they were being transformed by web-based technologies. The Fourth Industrial Revolution has also been defined as process that has blurred the boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological worlds through technological developments such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, genetic engineering, quantum computing, and other technologies.

Nanjala Nyabola kicked off the conversation by framing 4IR as a narrative. She indicated that 4IR signifies the rebirth of past inequalities, exploitation and extractivism that were the bedrock of colonial conquest and imperialism, whereby countries in the Global North benefitted at the expense of economic and social development of countries in the Global South. She further warned that adopting technological advancements framed as the 4IR would be leapfrogging through various stages of development without having properly addressed prevailing socio-economic challenges caused by past industrial revolutions such as social inequalities and environmental disasters.

Dr Trevor Ngwane’s framed his argument around advocating for interests of the working class in the midst of technological innovations and warned that adopting the 4IR paradigm in labour markets would benefit the capitalist class. Dr Ngwane indicated that even though technological innovations promise advancements in the way that the working class engage and think about their work, it also threatens their worker rights and puts them in the hands of the tech-driven exploitative and oppressive capitalist system.

Dr Ian Moll stated that the 4IR is a myth and an ideology which serves to deepen marginalization, inequality and social injustices of countries located in the Global South. He indicated that the 4IR narrative seeks to re-enforce exploitative and extractivist practices that countries in the Global South were subjected to during the Third Industrial Revolution. He argued that in historical terms, any socioeconomic transformation to be considered an Industrial Revolution would need to encompass 1)a technological revolution, 2) transformations in the labour process, 3) fundamental changes in workplace relations, 4) new forms of community and social relationships, and lastly, global socioeconomic transformations. The current tech-advancements framed as 4IR do not offer any of the aforementioned revolutionary pre-requisites across social, political, cultural and economic institutions.

Tessa Dooms rounded up the discussion by indicating that there needs to be a human-centred approach to adopting technology-driven changes in the Global South. She further expressed that these innovations offer an opportunity for social and economic institutions to tackle high rates of inequality and employment. The adoption of technological innovations should not threaten people’s livelihoods, but rather serve as an extension of their capabilities and afford people an opportunity to do more meaningful work. Lastly, technological innovations should be used in a manner that allows people to create inclusive and just societies in the global South.

Policy Dialogues Series

The SCIS Future of Work(ers) Group will be hosting a Policy Dialogues Series throughout the year to generate public debate at the intersection of technological innovation, the world of work(ers) and inequality. The next dialogue will be on the topic “Digitization and algorithmic management: the implications for the world of work(ers)”. The dialogue is scheduled for 21 June 2022 from 3:30 to 5:00pm, SAST.

Schedule for upcoming policy dialogues:

  • July 19th: Automation and the implications for the labour market
  • August 16th: Emerging forms of worker power in the digital economy
  • September 20th: The reorganization of capital in the digital economy
  • October 18th: The regulatory role of the state in the digital economy
  • November 15th: The redistributive role of the state in a digital economy