The new revolution is made possible by breakthroughs in the last 40 years. It is a case of fusion and interaction across the physical, digital and biological domains.

ARECENT book titled Revolutions Without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (2017) accounts the history of the Arab Spring and the history of revolutions, in particular, the Iranian Revolution. Author Asef Bayat begins with reference to his experience as a keen observer of revolutions. The Iranian Revolution that unfolded in 1978 opened a new chapter in world politics.

The Iranian Revolution came to be categorised by scholars and commentators as a social revolution in modern history, preceded by the French Revolution (1789-1799), the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) and the Chinese Revolution (1945-1946). These have impacted the modern era, ushering shifts in ideology and everyday life. We recall the anxiety and dynamics, specifically Malay-Muslim society, in the late 1970s and early 1980s Malaysia.

We inherit previous revolutions. And not forgetting the European Renaissance in the early modern period, the Scientific and the Industrial Revolutions of the late 1700s and early 1800s. And now, a new vocabulary, consciously emerging in our landscape (and mind and soulscapes) is the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In recent times, universities and governments have produced discourse, emanating excitement, concerns and anxieties on what is coming. Much of what appears in popular discourse does not mention the foundational document published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) last year.

I refer to Klaus Schwab’s The Fourth Industrial Revolution. The founder and executive chairman of WEF starts with a call to understand and shape the new technology revolution, which entails a transformation of humankind. In chapter one, Schwab speaks about the various revolutions in human society. He began with the agrarian revolution and fast forwarded to “a series of industrial revolutions that began in the second half of the 18th century” leading to the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. The criteria he used to identify the difference in the agrarian and industrial revolutions are the inherent powers in augmenting human production — from muscle power to mechanical power to cognitive power.

He described the agrarian revolution, around 10,000 years ago, as marked by muscle power (something not entirely correct). While the first industrial revolution, which spanned from about 1760 to around 1840, was triggered by railroads, and the invention of the steam engine ushered in mechanical production.

Schwab differentiates that with the second industrial revolution, from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, which made mass production possible, fostered by the advent of electricity and the assembly line.

Then came the third industrial revolution beginning in the 1960s. In Malaysia, we experienced this with computers, and we sometimes see it labelled as the computer revolution, the information revolution, the Internet revolution or the digital revolution.

Malaysia, especially the Penang Free Trade Zone, was one of the major global suppliers and developers of semi conductors, and subsequently, we saw the coming of mainframe computing, personal computing and the Internet to our shores.

Schwab, while reiterating that he was mindful of the various definitions and academic arguments used to describe the first three industrial revolutions, believed that we are at the beginning of a fourth industrial revolution. He traced this from the beginning of this century, saying it was built on the digital revolution. Notably, this is characterised by a more ubiquitous and mobile Internet, by smaller and more powerful sensors, by artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Since then, “Industry 4.0” and “University 4.0” have entered our vocabulary. The new revolution was made possible by much breakthroughs in the last 30 to 40 years, such as gene sequencing and nanotechnology. It is a case of fusion and interaction across the physical, digital and biological domains, perhaps resonating with Ray Kurzweil’s 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence and many other works. A concern on this fundamental shift from previous revolutions is the reconstruction of man, not of learning or of smart machines, but of man experiencing himself.

We have created the complex web that we are in, and this is now growing exponentially — what Schwab calls velocity. It changes the “how” and “who”, leading to unprecedented paradigm shifts, and it again bashes systems. Schwab reminded: “We are at the beginning of a revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope and complexity, what I consider to be the fourth industrial revolution is unlike anything humankind has experienced before.”

Apart from creating awareness and providing a platform to inspire public-private cooperation and partnership, what is significant is that the document provides a framework for thinking about technological revolutions, pertinently having ramifications to the academic-research-public policy complex. It challenges us, as always, to ask the right questions, to outline core issues and to highlight possible responses. It creates and demands a new narrative with technology endogenous to us, not external to our being. It is no more the simple prosthetic image of technology as extension of man. In the first instance, it changes the very notion of prosthesis.

In its form and spirit, the fourth industrial revolution is our unlearning and relearning of ourselves in our own image. More than 50 years ago, Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media foresaw that image. Interestingly, another book more than 40 years later, titled Infosphere (2015), by Oxford professor Luciano Floridi, explores and extends McLuhan in algorithmic terms. It is about reshaping human reality — the wisdom of ratio, movement, space, place and time. At least we must have the wisdom not to invent an autonomous motorcycle — an oxymoron if we ask the wrong questions.

It is all about wisdom. We have to pay heed to the spirit of Bayat’s Revolutions Without Revolutionaries. For governments and universities, this is about producing revolutionaries in society, bureaucracy and the university system. It is about deconstructing the economy and notions of employment and employability in appropriating the production philosophers, historians, thinkers, artists, writers and visionaries.

Datuk Dr. A Murad Merican is professor with the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia

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