In his article titled "Fourth Industrial Revolution is another big hoax", Siyabonga Hadebe (SH), an independent commentator on socio-economic, politics and global matters, says we are quick to embrace the “4IR speak” when we haven’t even attempted to address impacts of globalisation and the digital divide.
The HardHat Professional* caught up with him to engage on his views.
THHP: Why do you think Africa is quick to embrace 4IR?
SH: Almost everywhere one turns, the buzzword is the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. This revolution denotes a “tech revolution wave” that will soon sweep humans like never before. Larry Elliot of The Guardian in the United Kingdom says the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) “will be shaped by a fresh wave of innovation in areas such as driverless cars, smart robotics, materials that are lighter and tougher, and a manufacturing process built around 3D printing.” As a result of this ‘revolution’, there are all permutations of how humans will be affected in the new age of the smart machine.
Now to respond to your question, I am not sure if it is accurate at all to suggest that we as Africans have been quick to embrace 4IR. Perhaps the question should have rather focused on Africa’s appetite for and dependence on ideas that are produced by others.
The sore point is that in the absence of what may be considered as genuinely African ideas, we are forced to take whatever is thrown at us. It happens whether these ideas, concepts or products are suitable for us or not. We haven’t embraced 4IR, but we are being fed, so no option(s) were given in this regard as with everything else before. It is more a case of ‘take it or leave it’ due to our weak bargaining position.
THHP: Why is it wrong for AFRICA to embrace the notion of 4IR?
SH: The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution is said to follow on from earlier periods of innovation. Economist Robert Gordon categorised these ‘revolutions’ in as follows: (a) First Industrial Revolution (1750-1830) focused on coal, steam engines, railroads and textiles; (b) Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1900) concerned developments in electricity, internal combustion engines, modern communications, entertainment, petroleum/hydrocarbons and chemicals; and (c) Third Industrial Revolution (1960 to date) had something to do with computing and telecommunications.
Therefore, the 4IR is an idea like any other, and it is not compulsory for everyone to subscribe to it. Also, I am not entirely sure whether it is political, economic, social or a combination of the three. But to me, it appears to be some social re-engineering at a global scale that is sponsored by capital.
It is frightening that we are made to believe somehow that the notion of the 4IR is a natural phenomenon like an earthquake or a volcano. Be that as it may, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Africans, or anyone for that matter, to embrace any idea for as long as it makes sense to them.
THHP: How has technology created a “digital divide?”
SH: The locations where capital is concentrated, namely USA, Western Europe and parts of the Asian Continent, are primary producers of technologies as opposed to Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world. So, it makes sense that these regions will also see a concentration of technology and data volumes in addition to capital.
The combination of these two elements (capital and capacity to produce technologies) puts them in very good stead compared to the rest of the world, including Africa. For example, popular technologies like the internet connection show this variation.
Of course, cellular phone technology is now available widely these days, and one would be inclined to believe that all is good as far as access and usage of technologies. The truth is that this is just a tip of an iceberg. Even with cellphones, data is prohibitively expensive which makes it difficult for the population access whatever they desire on their gadgets, be it music, movies or simple applications. Big data which can be used in some areas remains extremely far away from the majority of Africans.
Technologies needed for producing goods as well as other technologies and applications are still in the hands of developed economies, and China is a newcomer at this stage. It is no wonder when you analyse the balance of payments accounts of African countries that you note the continent imports capital goods (i.e. machinery and equipment), as well as finished goods like cars, TVs, food products, etc. from Europe and elsewhere. It is important to note that capital goods are extremely mechanised or automated and are very costly too.
High-tech dominates production processes, which leaves human labour in a precarious position as opposed to the previous century. As a result, this implies that whoever produces these capital goods will forever stay ahead of the pack in terms of development and wealth.
The African economy still relies on extractive industries and agriculture which are pretty much labour intensive. There is little or no space for the continent to industrialise or move up the global production value chains unless something drastic happens. The ‘divide’ is therefore determined by access and or capacity to produce technologies.
THHP: How is the 4IR similar to the slave trade and colonialism?
SH: The mere fact that somebody decided to call the permeation of technology and digitisation a “revolution” and also linked it with the Industrial Revolution that took place in England in the 18th century, it means that he or she understood the overlap between the transatlantic slave trade and the First Industrial Revolution. Both slave trade and colonialism were not acts of nature, but they were initiated by Europeans to create economic advantages for their countries and nothing else.
For the developed world, particularly Europe, the first industrial revolution (circa 1750-1830) was about “harnessing steam power so machines could replace that muscle.” The muscle of Africans generated sufficient capital for finance barons in London, Paris and Brussels.
There is more than enough evidence to suggest that this revolution in England was fuelled by the transatlantic slave trade. This inhumane activity involved removal of thousands, if not millions, of Africans to the New World where slaves were sold at a price to produce products like sugar, coffee and cotton for mass consumer markets. Slavery, therefore, was an integral part of the earliest multinational systems of credit and trade that arose in the 15th and 16th centuries.
What is also least spoken about is slavery’s contribution not only to the earliest phases of capitalist development but also to the economic development of Europe. In this regard, the African slave trade stimulated European shipping, manufacturing and other industries. Port cities like Glasgow, Bristol and Liverpool benefitted handsomely from proceeds of the slave trade.
Clearly and stemming from this brief narration of history, the slave trade produced massive capital that financed Europe’s industrial revolution. Profits from this unfortunate part of our history, according to Trinidadian scholar Eric Williams, “fertilised” many branches of the metropolitan economy and therefore set the scene for England’s industrial revolution.
It is important to note that they may be nothing drastically unique with the 4IR compared to, say, the first industrial revolution. Even at the time of the industrial revolution, some fundamental changes impacted production processes. These changes included: products were made in factories instead of homes; workers used machines instead of working by hand; machines were driven by water or steam power; and production by workers exponentially increased.
The result was all the same: monetary benefits and profits went to powerful nations, which enabled them to launch the large multinational corporations we see today. Perhaps as an outcome of shifting production processes and complex value chains – advantages have remained or even increased in developed nations as well as the strength of multinationals has been heavily enhanced. The digital divide is essentially an outcome of this phenomenon.
My argument is therefore that 4IR is going to have the same outcomes: Europe and other developed nations will stay ahead, and Africa will be trapped in supplying them with materials to perpetuate its peripheral status and dependency.
THHP: Are you suggesting the Europeans and the US have ulterior motives with the “4IR” only to their benefit?
SH: It will be quite naïve of anyone to believe that Europe, US and the rest of the developed world would voluntarily relinquish their dominant political and economic leadership positions for altruistic reasons. There is nothing humanitarian about 4IR. They have dominated global trade, knowledge production and discourses such as human rights, global culture and climate change agenda. It would be surprising if they would come up with an idea like 4IR while knowing fully well that it might reduce their standing in relation to other countries.
THHP: You are also suggesting the Europeans and the US are not bothered who gets left behind by the economic divide brought about by the 4IR but is it their responsibility?
SH: Whether the Europeans and the US think it is their responsibility or not in terms of who gets left behind by the economic divide as an outcome of the 4IR, it does really not matter. But the experiences of the past will continue to judge them.
Think of the example of their preferences for unilateralism when they waged wars and conflicts across the globe. The outcomes of their actions fermented terrorism as well as large-scale migration that both are battling to contain.
The point I am making is that both would be foolish to think that they can be peaceful and wealthy in a sea of poverty and starvation. As things look now, poverty and inequalities are deep within countries and between countries – it will be foolhardy to pretend that those ahead do not have a responsibility to take others along.
If Europeans and the US have anything to learn is their protectionism which has left the world with skewed trading patterns. We supply raw materials that are key inputs to creating technologies, and our economies cough every time the demand for commodities slumps. On the other hand, they use this position to corner African countries to retain their lowly position of a consumer. They sell us technologies and goods, obviously this is not sustainable in the long-term. Hence it is important that Africa also industrialises – this cannot happen without developed countries providing assistance as they did to South Korea and others. Even Europe itself wouldn’t have recovered that quickly after WWII without the US-sponsored Marshall Plan.
THHP: Is it not to Africa’s advantage to be seeking opportunities that the 4IR is said to be bringing than to focus on conspiracy theories?
SH: I am not sure what you mean about conspiracy theories. Nonetheless, I will try to respond to your question without this distraction. Before we can even think about how Africa could seek opportunities from the 4IR, it is important to address the social structure of the African society to understand who is likely to benefit from this ‘revolution’.
The social structure determines who gets to participate or gain in political and economic systems. I do not doubt that 4IR will create opportunities selectively, and won’t benefit all if indeed it has any benefits.
Drawing from the data presented by Vasu Gounden of the Executive Director of the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) on the “Assessment of conflict trends on the African continent” – he characterises the African society as being made up of the ‘centre’ and the ‘periphery’.
The centre refers to the rich, wealthy and upper classes who usually enjoy good standards of living, who possess skills/education/ knowledge and or who also own the means of production. This group includes those who control capital and those who draw good salaries (middle classes). The ‘periphery’ is self-explanatory, as it stands in direct contrast to the ‘centre’: it consists of the large majority of the population and lives in abject poverty.
Gounden gives interesting figures in this regard. South Africa has 35% of its population in the core and 65% in the periphery. Kenya has 20% core and 80% periphery. The ratio becomes troublesome as you move to other states, e.g. in Burundi it is 5% to 95%. The consequences of this are high levels of unemployment, gripping poverty and inequalities. I hope now it is becoming clearer where I am heading.
The core versus periphery narrative tells you that within Africa, countries resemble the structure of the world, namely concentration of wealth in the hands of the few while the rest of the population are poor.
The core is directly connected with the outside world through education, capital and technology. So, this group is likely to reap benefits from the 4IR. If this group means the entire population, then there is a conspiracy that the continent will be left behind.
If someone can explain in stronger terms how will the 4IR increase the “core” in the populations of our countries, I would be prepared to change my views. Otherwise, the 4IR is the biggest hoax that is claimed to have the potential to change the lives of the majority of the population, while there isn’t any evidence to prove this.
THHP: Can Africa afford not to embrace the 4IR? It does seem that, whether we like it or not, at some point we will be forced to comply if we want to be competitive.
SH: It is unfortunate that when we talk about recalcitrant technology at work and in society as whole, we deliberately downplay the role capital plays in all of this. As capital plays around to minimise costs and to create economic advantages, unsuspecting populations worldwide are taken for a ride.
This ‘revolution’ is defined as “a fundamental shift in how we produce, consume and relate to one another, driven by the convergence of the physical world, the digital world and human beings ourselves.”
Again, at the centre of the 4IR is not at different from all other ‘revolutions’ preceding it – those who are ahead will retain their unassailable lead while others will increasingly eat from the dustbin due to marginalisation.
The structural issues in the world economy have ensured that least developed countries remain in the periphery and only as producers of raw materials. Minerals are being taken out of places like Congo, South Africa and Zambia without possibilities of creating economic advantages and also linking these with digitisation.
If we, as Africa, were quite serious about becoming competitive we would have changed the present situation many moons ago. But we haven’t, and we didn’t. How on earth do we suddenly believe that the 4IR would bring about advantages for the African economy?
Please note that I am not disputing the advances in science and its capabilities. From this point of view, I agree that the 4IR is part of this human achievement. But where I differ concerns the forced SOCIALISATION of science and technology, in what it is referred to as 4IR, by capital.
Capital appears to drive humans and social life upside down. Now we have to be dictated by profit, a small component of lives, about what we can and cannot do. It is fair when technology helps us to travel the world, physically and otherwise. You can speak to people in the US, Japan and Russia in real time. And also get to London the following day.
But the problem starts when we think technology is an alpha and omega - we try to socialise it as if it were humans. It must remain an enabler; it must support us to do things better and not destroy humans.
I think it is possible for humans and technology to coexist without creating conflicts. We sit with billions of poor people around the world. Wealth is in the hands of the few; these people are behind the marauding technology that will bring the Armageddon to human life.
My message is simple, contain the impacts of science on human life before it gets too late. Robots will not give birth like humans. Machines might be accurate and all that, but they will never be humans whether we like it or not.
I am no Luddite, but I was glad to read from one source that “one model estimates that 85% of the economic limit of technology has been reached, and is projected to reach 95% by 2038.” Can this obsession with technology end sooner so that we can continue with our lives?
THHP: What do you suggest Africa needs to do to close the “digital divide” brought by the 4IR?
SH: ‘Digital divide’ is not a stand-alone. Thus, we need to understand politics and economic development could be our starting points to move Africa from the periphery of world systems to the centre where we can stand up and be counted, as well as compete on an equal footing with other regions of the world.
Talking technology before we have addressed most of the social indices like access to education, universal health care, reduced poverty and reduced hunger, is more like putting a roof before the foundation.
There are only two elements that I would like to bring forward. First, evidence suggests that no country can develop without consistent economic policies, especially a solid industrial policy. It is fair and good to changing all aspects of economic policy to make countries ‘investor friendly,’ but the industrial policy is an overall catalyst to kick-start economic development. Once we can beneficiate our minerals and also set the price for them, it is possible to industrialise and generate the capital needed to turn our fortunes around.
Secondly, value chains and some production phases of large corporations from richer states in the world must include Africa as a matter of priority to avoid calamity. In any case, South Africa, for example, knows this too well – its trade relations with Germany is heavily reliant on vehicle manufacturing and parts. Spare parts are made in Germany for assembly plants in Roslyn and Uitenhage.
THHP: What is Africa’s role in ensuring that the 4IR benefits all and not just Europeans and the US as you suggest?
SH: First of all, I need to emphasise that in the same way as globalisation, any of the past ‘revolutions’, whether the first, second or third, did not benefit all of humankind and are also said to be responsible for gross inequalities found in the world today.
Unless liberal in one’s belief, liberalism and capitalism have been a disaster for Africa. The 4IR is anchored in the very system that we have failed to break or transform. Africa keeps on stumbling without success – it is a battleground for big economic powers.
Secondly, one of the biggest myths is that spoils “created by the fourth industrial revolution will cascade down from rich to poor and that those displaced will just walk into another job that pays just as well.” Capital and developed countries have not been any generous in the past, so there is no reason to be excited this time around.
Mind you, past ‘revolutions’ have been driven by capital and or developed countries and have always led to some form of change. They also benefitted parts of the world and sections within countries. Many unfortunate people have been left out while others shared the spoils amongst themselves.
Thirdly, the imminent changes may make sense to scientists and others because there may result in huge discoveries and may also lead to reckless altering of social life, but the winner from this process is not the downtrodden. The masses will only play on social media and enjoy Uber rides.
The excitement about the fourth industrial revolution is an indication that capital blows like a kite on a windy day, and that nobody can stop it before it causes more damage to human life. No amount of re-skilling will deter capital from automating production processes and also moving them around to make huge profits.
Fourthly, the 4IR is about capital and innovation. I tend to agree that much has been achieved already using science and technology. Many elements of AI, robotics, biotechnology are not new after all and represent what is already in existence. There is no reason for the 4IR to claim a notable grand entrance like a young bride.
The question you should be asking is: What more can Africa do in terms of technology and innovation at a grand scale as we witnessed with aeroplanes, internet and to add to what is already in existence? My answer is short and simple: Little, if any at all in the short term at least.
Should we be worried about the 4IR or how Africa can save its people from wars, poverty, starvation, diseases and hunger? Fields of medicine and research have covered a lot of ground, but their advances have been equally disappointing, with cures to many diseases such as cancer, HIV/Aids, etc. proving elusive.
Africa’s focus should not be on capitalistic notions like the 4IR. We need to develop technologies and interventions that could provide solutions to social, economic and political problems confronting our continent. What if 4IR will hit Africa worse than the IMF structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s? SAPs were sold as a solution to Africa’s sluggish economy, look at what happened!
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