steam engine

This is an essay in two parts on modern technology and its demise. Part I deals with the history of modern technology starting from the Industrial Revolution (1760-1830) and ending with the 2008 financial meltdown and the birth of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In Part II we will show how this latest industrial revolution is bound to fail.

Part I: Modern Technology in History

‘The First Industrial Revolution, starting from the 1750s, used steam power to mechanise production; the Second advanced this by using electric power to scale up production in the beginning of the 20th century; while the Third deployed electronics and IT to automate production. Now, a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ is building on the Third, the information revolution that has been occurring since the last century.’ (Klaus Schwab, Founder of the World Economic Forum.)1

It is often convenient to describe the history of the modern era in terms of technological innovations as Mr. Schwab does in the context of what he calls ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution.’ Schwab identifies a set of emerging technologies that are driving this change, including Artificial Intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.

In this article, we will take a closer look at the history of modern technologies. We will question this benign narrative about the history of technology. According to it, modern technologies have brought conveniences and happiness to mankind; that it will continue to do so and that its growth and development is ‘natural’ and unstoppable. We will show that this ‘progress’ is at the cost of nature and working classes and today it has reached a limit both in terms of resources of nature and exploitation of working classes. The time has come for it to go and be replaced with more humane and nature friendly technologies.

We must remember that technologies alone don’t change the world. Rather, technological change is also defined by the myriad ways in which they are used by existing economic and political structures and by the emerging new classes. Also, new technologies come into being on the basis of the development of science and earlier technologies. In sum, we may say that profit is the main driving force in the era of capitalism.

Many people think that the present global crises such as global warming, carbon emissions, resource depletion etc. will be solved by technology. ‘They’ (meaning the ruling class or capitalist class) will find a technical solution – the kind the Fourth Industrial Revolution promises. However, technology itself is dependent on non-renewable raw materials, water and availability of energy. There has been an assumption that earth provides an infinite source and an infinite ‘sink’ or place to dump the waste products. However, we have reached the limits of both these processes; of both growth and waste disposal or pollution, of which global warming is yet another form.2 Any proposed technological solution that works within the growth paradigm therefore cannot solve the problem. We will conclude by questioning the Fourth Industrial Revolution and present an alternative scenario.

Marxists maintain that class struggle is the motor of history. Within the modern period capitalism goes through a series of crises due to the struggle between the capitalists (competition) and the struggle between capital and labour (class struggle). In this conception, labour often makes significant gains in their rights through organised struggle, and capital undergoes periodic restructuring, causing many old industries to die and newer classes of capitalists to take over using newer technologies. But this does not happen without tremendous hardship to the masses, so every period of such crisis and restructuring is accompanied by massive protests.

In the early era of mechanisation, French workers threw their wooden clogs into machines and disabled them. These clogs are called ‘sabot’ in French and hence the word sabotage. In the early years of the motor car, workers and peasants threw stones at the new invention. The Luddites in England was an organised rebellion which saw widespread destruction of factory equipment by workers whose livelihoods were threatened by industrial production. In other periods there is always struggle going on through trade unions and through mass protests against government policies that are pro-industry and anti-working people. Thus, we will locate technology in this context.

Modern Era

There are many markers of the modern era. The end of feudalism and the emergence of the bourgeoisie as the ruling class is one. The French Revolution of 1789 and the 1832 reforms in England are important dates. The Industrial Revolution (1760 -1830) and the emergence of factories and the proletariat is yet another development that marks the modern era. In literature, the beginning of secular literature and the novel are considered to be the beginning of modernity. In India, it was ushered in by colonialism, Christian missionaries, and the translation of the Bible into local languages. We note in passing that colonised societies like India were pushed into modernity without abolishing their feudal social structure and culture.

Converting Heat into Mechanical Energy

The Industrial Revolution is commonly associated with machines. But as Jean Gimpel has shown in his book ‘The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages’3 most of the machines were already in use in the medieval era. So, what was new? It is the new invention of converting heat into mechanical energy that was the real marker of the change. The story of James Watt (1736-1819) watching a boiling kettle and his discovery of this principle is well known. Thus, the steam engine was born in 1765 ushering in the first industrial revolution. It ushered in an era where an unprecedented amount of energy was made available technologically. However, it took nearly a hundred years for this new development to come of age in the form railways and steamships. Why?

While the invention was ready, the source of heat was not. Initially, it was wood and they cut down large swathes of forests to fuel the new mechanical devices in the large textile mills that had come up in England and elsewhere in Europe. Soon, wood was replaced by coal, which was found to hugely increase the availability of energy for two reasons; one, coal has a much higher density of energy than wood; and secondly, no one objected to coal mines initially. The energy obtained from coal could itself be used for mining coal. Today we know that in terms of pollution, coal is one of the dirtiest of industries starting from the mining process itself. This was the beginning of large-scale industrial pollution.

Converting Mechanical Energy into Electrical Energy

The electrochemical phenomenon of electrical cells, as well as the photovoltaic phenomenon was known early on. However, it was only with Faraday’s enunciation of the laws of Electromagnetic Induction, the invention of the electromagnetic generator, and the discovery that an electromotive force results when a conductor is placed in a varying magnetic field (or when a conductor is moved in a stationary magnetic field), that large-scale power generation was made possible. Electricity made the transport of power easy and contributed to the second industrial revolution.

Two other developments occurred around the same time. The first was the discovery of petroleum. At first it was used mainly for lighting. The second was the invention of the Internal Combustion (IC) Engine, through which a revolution in transport occurred. In theory, this was not a big advancement. Petroleum merely replaced coal as a source of heat. But it is a much denser source of energy and carries more energy by weight, making its transport much easier and cheaper. Also, its fluid form offered enormous advantages over a solid fuel like coal, namely ease of handling and transport, and better control of combustion. The source of heat became portable. Automobiles, trucks, and airplanes became possible. Railways too changed over from coal to diesel gradually. Today, of course, railways are changing over to electricity but in spite of electric cars and electric motorcycles, road transport is still heavily dependent on oil. For airplanes, there is no foreseeable alternative to oil.

Parallel to these developments, politically capitalism ‘advanced’ into ‘imperialism’ or international capitalism. This opened up a huge market of colonies and semi-colonies and industrial production increased by leaps and bounds. However, the ongoing competition between capitalist countries, and particularly the struggle for control of oil fields in West Asian fields eventually became the main cause of World War I.5 After the War, boundaries in West Asia were redrawn and the victors, primarily USA and England, gained control over the oil fields. Now on, access and control of oil began to be the main motor of world events and it eventually led to World War II.

Converting Information to Electricity

A new class of products, called transducers, were invented and became available after WWI. They converted signals (like voice) into electrical currents. Similarly, the electrical signals could be converted back to voice through earphones and loudspeakers. Thus, electricity in addition to being a carrier of energy became a carrier of information. Electronics, defined as the ‘electrical processing of signals,’ was thus born. Special components like vacuum tubes were also invented and the radio came into being, making long-distance communication possible. A whole new industry of entertainment came into being through radio, gramophone records, talking moving images or talkies, and television. This field continued to grow in step with the later developments in electronics.

Another development that occurred was the development of the chemical industry and particularly chemical fertilisers and pesticides. This chemical agriculture over the next hundred years increased food production and consequently the world population rose from 2 billion to 7.3 billion today. It also poisoned soil and water and introduced another level of health problems. The American marine biologist Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring’4 was the first to raise critical questions about the effects of chemical pollution, bringing the term ecology into popular use and giving birth to the modern environmental movement.

Converting Electricity to Numbers: The Birth of Digital Electronics

Digital electronics was born when Claude Shannon (1916-2001), one of the most brilliant figures in the history of electronics, applied a 19th-century mathematical development called Boolean algebra to switching circuits. Shannon also formulated an important theory of electronic communication which formed the foundation of modern information technology. With digital electronics first computers were invented and later it was applied to every field of electronics. Particularly in the field of the entertainment business, it created a revolution with music, photography, and finally cinema. Car electronics and electronics applied to warfare were also a major development. Finally, the mobile phone was invented in the nineties in Finland.

Self-Learning by Electrical Machines: The Birth of Artificial Intelligence

The work of the great mathematician and philosopher Alan Turing (1912 -1954) can be regarded as the foundation of modern computing. He is considered the ‘father of Artificial Intelligence’ or AI, a phenomenon he defined thus: if there is a partition between you and the computer, you are unable to tell if the response you get is from a human or computer. Since then, it slowly developed. However, it took nearly half a century after Turing’s death for AI technologies to make a breakthrough in terms of practical application (most famously illustrated when on May 11, 1997, IBM’s AI supercomputer Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov, reigning world chess champion and one of the greatest chess players in history). Not surprisingly, AI is now one of the most crucial components of the wave of technological advancements collectively dubbed the ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’ or ‘Industry 4.0.’

The World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab describes it as being “characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.” However, unlike previous industrial revolutions, it is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. “The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent,” writes Schwab, and it is leading to “a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.” Schwab identifies a set of emerging technologies that are driving this change, including Artificial Intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.

Since this technological shift in production is “disrupting almost every industry in every country,” it also entails a paradigm shift in terms of logistics, trade, and exchange, which Schwab calls ‘Globalisation 4.0’. It refers to new frameworks for international cooperation that he says are needed to manage and adapt to the unprecedented pace and breadth of technological change unleashed by Industry 4.0. Announcing the theme of the WEF’s 2019 meeting as “Globalization 4.0: Shaping a New Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, Schwab declared, “Ready or not, a new world is upon us.”6

This ongoing techno-economic shift has been the subject of a huge propaganda campaign by the World Economic Forum and global corporate consultancies and industry lobby groups, who are actively promoting it and pressurising governments to change policies to facilitate it. Its evangelists claim that it will solve the problems of global warming by creating new sources of energy from solar and wind power, and at the same time, it will reduce the amount of energy required through more efficient technologies. It is these claims that we will examine critically in the second and concluding part of this essay.

References

  1. Jose, Sajai, 2021, Three-part series on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Great Reset on Countercurrents.org  https://countercurrents.org/2021/06/when-the-fourth-industrial-revolution-comes-knocking/
  2. Meadows, Dennis et al., 1972, Club of Rome Limits to Growth.
  3. Gimpel, Jean, 1977, Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, Penguin.
  4. Carson, Rachel, 1961, Silent Spring,

5.      Yergin, Daniel, 2008, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power

  1. Jose, Sajai, 2021, Three-part series on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Great Reset on Countercurrents.org  https://countercurrents.org/2021/06/when-the-fourth-industrial-revolution-comes-knocking/

T. Vijayendra (1943- ) was born in Mysore, grew in Indore and went to IIT Kharagpur to get a B. Tech. in Electronics (1966). After a year’s stint at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, he got drawn into the whirlwind times of the late 60s. Since then, he has always been some kind of political-social activist. His brief for himself is the education of Left wing cadres and so he almost exclusively publishes in the Left wing journal Frontier, published from Kolkata. For the last nine years, he has been active in the field of ‘Peak Oil’ and is a founder member of Peak Oil India and Ecologise. Since 2015 he has been involved in Ecologise! Camps and in 2016 he initiated Ecologise Hyderabad. He divides his time between an organic farm at the foothills of Western Ghats, watching birds, writing fiction and Hyderabad. He has published a book dealing with resource depletions, three books of essays, two collections of short stories, a novella and an autobiography. Vijayendra has been a ‘dedicated’ cyclist all his life, meaning, he neither took a driving licence nor did he ever drive a fossil fuel based vehicle. Email: t.vijayendra@gmail.com


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