MARCH 10 — For nearly 300 years, the “industrial revolutions” have gradually transformed industrial production mode and, together with it, the societal fabrics. Each subsequent revolution can be defined by the utilisation of a radically new central technology or a cluster of such technologies.
The following graph summarises the major techno-economic paradigm shifts starting with the steam engine (1IR), electricity (2IR), information and computing technology (3IR), and, finally, cyber-physical systems or “smart networks” capable of functioning without human intervention (4IR) (Klaus Schwab, 2017).
These shifts are often pictured, as in this graph, in the form of waves. The formation of each wave starts around the formation of a revolutionary technology cluster. However, we can also notice that each wave starts to rapidly accelerate after a so-called “turning point”, in the terminology of Charlota Perez, a British-Venezuelan researcher who studied the link between technological revolutions and financial crises or recessions. According to Perez, these “turning points” often coincide with great recessionary periods.
Following Perez terminology, we can view Covid-19 induced economic recession as an example of such a turning point (marked on the graph above). We should be excited then, as we are just at the beginning of a “golden age” technology deployment period of 4IR tech that should bring us to greater economic prosperity. However, are we not missing out on an important point in the picture above?
It is a well-documented fact that there are drastic disparities in the outcomes and the shares of the industrialisation progress by nations around the world.
As the above graph also depicts, IRs run parallel with the colonisation evolution from its most implicit (imperial) form to its more subtle (technocratic) manifestations. Physical and political colonisation are undoubtedly the most apparent forms of colonisation and most talked about. However, less obvious, financial colonisation has started with the end of the gold standard, while the digital form of colonisation, the most subtle of all, was greatly enabled by the invention of the Internet.
Shahid Alam’s (2019) rigorous and robust empirical results for a large sample of countries land strong support to an important proposition turning it into a scientific fact — integration into industrialisation worked substantially better for countries with greater domestic control over their social and economic policies.
Under the physical, political, and financial colonisation, the sovereign and industrially developed, countries either forced using various means (treaties, trade agreements, IMF conditions etc.) or convinced their colonial or quasi-colonial developing counterparts, using “comparative advantage” tale, to remain mere primary producers — remain at the upstream of the global supply chain for decades.
As developing countries have slowly started to regain their sovereign consciousness and try to catch up with the industrialisation train, the rules of the game were changed.
Lagging in their adoption of even 3IR, and more so 4IR tech, most developing countries were pushed now to the downstream of the global supply chain towards becoming mere adopters and consumers of 4IR technologies rather than its active creators. And this is where colonisation took its most sophisticated and profound forms.
Since the 3IR and especially with the onset of 4IR, the technology presence has become pervasive and ubiquitous not only across the industries but in our personal life.
Not many realise this — we appear to live while being simply surrounded by what we can call a “technology layer” (Brett King, 2018) that is 24/7/365 aware of and reactive to our behaviour. However, few things should cause our concern with relation to this technology layer.
First is the extent of our reliance on the technology layer. Whenever we encounter a problem, we seek a solution within this smart technology layer. Our smartphones are swift to provide the interface to it. Ask from the technology layer, and you shall receive is increasingly becoming an expectation across the generation but particularly so for the youngest ones.
This level of reliance should naturally raise the question about what would happen if those who own the technology layer decide to pull the plug off? No one would dispute that technology carries a powerful potential of control.
However, the part that should be of greatest concern to us is that this technology layer is mainly owned by the giant tech companies concentrated at the very top of the Forbes 100 list. Thus, our data collected 24/7/365 is not even stored on our country’s premises but mainly on servers in some foreign lands.
According to the figures provided by Forbes’ “The World’s most valuable brands” list, the big tech corporations that own the technology layer have made an astonishing fortune out of the Covid-19 pandemic: Netflix saw 72 per cent 1-Yr increase in company value, Amazon — 40 per cent increase, Microsoft — 30 per cent increase, Google — 24 per cent (about US$128 Billion increase in value in total for these tech giants). For comparison, the rest of the “most powerful brands” in the same list on average saw an increase in their value of about 5 per cent to 6 per cent from 2019 to 2020.
Wealth generation for these few giant companies is wealth extraction for the rest of the world dependent on them. If the rest of the world is dependent on these tech monopolists as mere technology users, we see quite a familiar scheme. Forget not that at the time of the 1IR, the East India Company, one of the most powerful corporations of its time, have been running the Indian colony on behalf of Great Britain.
However, the digital colonisation effect does not just end there. All the previous colonisation forces were aimed at making countries lose control over their social and economic policies. The push-button of the digital colonisation became the intricate social structures and fabrics, which now can be directly manipulated via the technology layer.
These social structures now can be disturbed and redefined, creating a new socio-economic order, or rather in many circumstances chaos, keeping nations from focusing on what they need to do the most — figure our 4IR for themselves and start taking control over the technology layer in their own hands and thus safeguarding their sovereignty.
It is really about time for all the countries to realise that 4IR, unlike other industrial revolutions, has unprecedented equalising power. 4IR makes concepts such as economies of scale and comparative advantage clear artefacts of the past. The overarching themes of 4IR, such as circularity, self-sufficiency, balance, and moderation, make it a perfect tool in the hands of every nation to restore its self-sufficiency and sovereignty. Remember, the danger of not doing this is becoming someone’s else digital colony.
The “digital colony” is not something that you can easily fight back. If you are a physical colony, you can still deploy your army and force the enemy out of your territory; however, if you want to fight digital colonisation, you would not even know where to start—an enemy is invisible, ubiquitous and pervasive. 4IR reality already erases the physical boundaries between continents, between individuals and even between the physical and biological spheres.
Attempts at merging physical and biological spheres already transpire in 4IR and are prophesied to become a central feature of 5IR. That is something massive that is nearly impossible to counteract if we miss an opportunity right now and do not start immediately as a sovereign nation gaining greater control of the technology layer from the data to infrastructure to applications.
While some may see the Covid-19 pandemic as a “narrow window of opportunity” to instate their total undisputed tech hegemony over the world, every nation must look at it as a last resort to restore and protect their national sovereignty. Every country must start building its own technology layer!
4IR and soon 5IR are here to stay. Therefore, sovereign nations should take precautionary and proactive measures to ensure that their nations are closer to the creative end on the continuum between mere technology users and technology creators.
* Dr Rais Hussin and Dr Margarita Peredaryenko are part of the research team at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.