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From the Printing Press to the 4th Industrial Revolution

What we can learn from the past to inform our decisions about the future

Every industrial revolution has been driven by the link between the needs of society and the level of technology available at that time. They have always been disruptive to jobs – consider the reactions of the ‘Luddites’ (home-based weavers) to the introduction of mechanical looms and textile factories in nineteenth century UK for example. In any revolution, there have always been those who flourish in the new reality and those who lose out.

The first major transition in society began about 10,000 years ago as the early hunter-gatherer societies started to domesticate animals and develop organised techniques for farming and food production.

  • The first industrial (as opposed to agrarian) revolution began towards the end of the 18th Century. Mechanical production developed via the invention of the steam engine and industrial activity became centred in urban areas.

  • The second industrial revolution started in the late 19th century as the invention of electricity powered mass production and the factory assembly line.

  • The third industrial revolution began in the 1960s as mainframe computing emerged and quickly developed into personal computing and then the World Wide Web.

  • The fourth industrial revolution since the turn of this century takes the digital world to a new level as the mobile web evolves via artificial intelligence and machine learning. Digital businesses have low marginal costs, and many trade in information which requires little in the way of physical infrastructure or investment in human capital.

The UK Government’s Industrial Strategy 2017 notes that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is combining a number of technologies and therefore blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological worlds. It can be distinguished from what has gone before by the potential for the physical, digital and biological domains to interact in innovative ways that can create something greater than the sum of the parts.

Although the speed of change increases with each “revolution”, in practice there has been significant overlap each time, and the extent of change may well not be obvious to those who are in the midst of it. Only hindsight allows us to draw the clear distinctions between the stages that are labelled above.

It is also important to remember that not everyone experiences these revolutions together – even today Internet World Stats shows that 10.5% of the world’s population still lack access to electricity, and 38% have no Internet access at all.

© University of Exeter
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