A Digital Revolution: This Time its Different!

Technology is creating a digital revolution that threatens to disrupt the economy by separating businesses from those they serve. But is enough being done to minimise the worst effects?

Digital disruption

The last decade demonstrated how quickly waves of technology change the world order for better and worse. Everything from products infused with artificial intelligence to self-driving cars to 3D printed guns are available and there is no limit to what can be achieved in a digital world. Technology drives social media companies to grab obscene profits by selling people’s private information and even influencing the results of democratic elections. Technology is also used to increase levels of polarisation between groups, which has a negative effect on society and the promise of companies to do good work. Data breaches are commonplace and affect the lives of millions of people who trust companies to treat their private details as confidential. New technologies increase the gap between rich and poor, as ownership creates wealth and security for a shrinking few while undermining jobs and security for a growing majority. The resulting chaos stretches beyond normal economic downturns and represent the manifestation of a new industrial revolution.

The digital revolution will have as big an effect as any previous incarnation. On previous occasions economic disruption was driven by steam technology and electricity. In recent decades, from the 1960s the advent of computers drove another revolution, which changed the world. In each case jobs were created as millions of people were lifted out of poverty and into a better life. At times there were recessions but recovery followed to ensure an upward trend of growth and living standards. Each disruption caused pain and the current revolution will do the same for countless people and communities. In previous revolutions however each generation enjoyed a better standard of living, as implicit in the unwritten societal contract was that life would get better.

The next generation

In the current cycle there are already signs that the next generation will be less well off than the last, which breaks the deal between governments and citizens, companies and employees, and even parents and children.

In this context, the current revolution is different, not least because the extent of change is deeply local and global. And technology has to be managed before it evolves to control populations in a way not previously witnessed, not least because artificial and machine intelligence will outpace the ability of humans to determine the future. To address the issue, businesses and governments must agree on acceptable rules of behaviour to limit the capacity of technology to interfere with citizen’s privacy and human rights. Government regulation is vital to control the power of companies with access to the most powerful technologies. At a basic level, employers and employees have to find a balance between job losses and retraining with the skills needed for previously unimagined jobs in the truly digital world.

So, the fourth industrial revolution has begun in earnest and without proper oversight it will threaten the livelihoods of millions of people.