According to Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chair of the World Economic Forum (WEF), the 4-IR follows the first, second, and third Industrial Revolutions—the mechanical, electrical, and digital, respectively.4 The 4-IR builds on the digital revolution, but Schwab sees the 4-IR as an exponential takeoff and convergence of existing and emerging fields, including Big Data; artificial intelligence; machine learning; quantum computing; and genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. The consequence is the merging of the physical, digital, and biological worlds. The blurring of these categories ultimately challenges the very ontologies by which we understand ourselves and the world, including “what it means to be human.”5
The specific applications that make up the 4-R are too numerous and sundry to treat in full, but they include a ubiquitous internet, the internet of things, the internet of bodies, autonomous vehicles, smart cities, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and more.
While Schwab and the WEF promote a particular vision for the 4-IR, the developments he announces are not his brainchildren, and there is nothing original about his formulations. Transhumanists and Singularitarians (or prophets of the technological singularity), such as Ray Kurzweil and many others, forecasted these and more revolutionary developments, long before Schwab heralded them.6 The significance of Schwab and the WEF’s take on the new technological revolution is the attempt to harness it to a particular end, presumably “a fairer, greener future.”7
But if existing 4-IR developments are any indication of the future, then Schwab’s enthusiasm is misplaced, and the 4-IR is misrepresented. These developments already include internet algorithms that feed users prescribed news and advertisements and downrank or exclude banned content; algorithms that censor social media content and consign “dangerous” individuals and organizations to digital gulags; apps that track and trace covid suspects and report violators to the police; robot police with QR code scanners to identify and round up dissenters; and smart cities where everyone is a digital entity to be monitored, surveilled, and recorded, while data on their every move is collected, collated, stored, and attached to a digital identity and social credit score.
That is, 4-IR technologies subject human beings to a technological management that makes the earlier surveillance by the National Security Agency look like child’s play. Schwab lauds future developments that will connect brains directly to the cloud, enabling the “data mining” of thought and memory, a technological mastery over experience that threatens individual autonomy and undermines any semblance of free will. The 4-IR accelerates the merging of humans and machines, resulting in a world in which all information, including genetic information, is shared and every action, thought, and unconscious motivation is known, predicted, and possibly even precluded. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World comes to mind. Yet Schwab touts brain-cloud interfaces as enhancements, as vast improvements over standard human intelligence, thus lending them an appeal not at all imaginable for soma.
Many positive developments may come from the 4-IR, but unless it is taken out of the hands of the corporate-socialist technocrats, it will constitute a virtual prison.