THE FOURTH INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE DEMOCRATIC
BY BENJAMIN MERCER
Of all the issues on which politicians are demonstrably ill-suited to pronounce (and there are many), technology is the great leveller. From the President of the United States, who wants to ‘close that internet up in some ways’ in order to combat terrorism, to minor British MP Claire Perry’s amusingly unlettered attempts to rid the internet of porn, there is no known instance of a politician speaking sense about the internet, let alone the rest.
Much has been said of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It featured prominently at this year’s Labour Party conference, with Shadow cabinet members like John McDonnell and Rebecca Long-Bailey bandying about terms like ‘bioscience’, ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘automation’, and such like. These, they say, are revolutionary technologies poised to change the world and ‘leave [us] feeling dizzy.’
Yet nothing at all was said about the how or why or what-to-do.
This ought to alarm us, and for two reasons. Both are rooted in history.
The first is that, when faced with what one might call techno-democratic revolutions, the creation of technologies – like the printing press – which are cheap, available to all, and which operate beyond the scope of existing legislation, the response of politicians (of all colours) has always been to impose manageable (and often anti-democratic) models upon them.
When censorship failed to disrupt the presses, politicians decided to capitalise them, turning print media into an inconvenient but manageable system of feudal baronies. Far easier to deal with one or two Murdochs than attempt to control a truly free and democratic press. The repeated attempts by government to force social media sites to take on the role of publishers, with editorial powers and liability for published materials, is the modern equivalent.
The second is that, as Orwell noted in his wonderfully prescient essay ‘You and the Atomic Bomb’, technological advancement, which renders development and production more expensive, and reliant upon specialist knowledge, invariably transfers power from the poor to the rich, from the ruled to the rulers.
In the context of weapons, Orwell wrote ‘that ages in which the dominant weapons is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance. Thus, for example, tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long -bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon – so long as there is no answer to it – gives claws to the weak.’
It is not hard to apply this logic to modern technology. In doing so, we find that we may already have passed the democratic pinnacle of the technological age.
Whilst individual hackers, in some ways the minutemen of our day, retain the ability to do great damage even to large institutions by exploiting flaws in outdated software, significant state sponsorship is needed in order to prosecute a cyber-war, or to conduct large-scale attacks on the most modern and secure cyber-defences. As software improves, and as ever more money is spent by the giants who make it, the power of the citizen hacker diminishes.
Similarly, whilst a citizen programmer may find a hobby in building a limited artificial intelligence, serious research and development requires such enormous human and financial resources that the field of research is already being divided up between the handful of corporations – Facebook, Google, Baidu, Microsoft, Apple – that are able to fund it.
Whilst the laws of economics determine that the price of the end product will inevitably drop, practical considerations place true ownership of any significantly advanced program beyond the reach of many. Algorithms may condense huge complexity into tiny spaces, but the processing power required to make use of them remains significant.
What examples of high-end computer intelligence that do exist – used, for example, in both the running and the playing of stock exchanges – require investment either in vast processing units or access to the same, which is prohibitively expensive.
One could go on. Strikes over driver-only trains foreshadow and are symptomatic of a disconnect between the potential economic benefits of automated systems and the actual economic realities of workers. Neither the government nor the opposition have given (or at any rate published) much thought to the fact that the productivity and efficiency afforded by automation must by necessity – based on current plans for driverless lorries and such like – come at the cost of human jobs. Economics has long viewed humans as an unfortunate necessity; the Fourth Industrial Revolution may free it of this terribly inefficient burden.
Which begs the question: who is being served by whom?
For now it will suffice to say that grave doubts exist about the democratic implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Orwell predicted that the development of nuclear weapons would lead to a world comprised of two or three super-states. He was right.
But nuclear warfare is a nationalised industry, whilst the Fourth Industrial Revolution is being made in a digital world which, despite President Trump’s protestations, does not heed national borders and boundaries.
If I were to make my own prediction, it would be that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will impose analogous borders on the digital world, which will be divided up between a small number of cyber-super-states. As smaller and weaker countries were assimilated into the Cold War by the Russian and American empires, so innovative start-ups and rogue technology companies will be subsumed by the tech giants. It already happens.
The implications are vast. They are not all negative. Our lives may well be made a good deal easier and more comfortable by these dizzying technological innovations. But I will be surprised if any of these improvements transfer power to the people. Democracy is and has always been an inconvenience; will it have a place in the Brave New World?