Rather than viewing it as a “fourth industrial revolution (4IR)”, as Sipho Maseko does (“Summit starts imagining all facets of SA’s future in the digital economy”, July 9), we should view contemporary times as the fourth phase of the industrial revolution, the first having been the coming of mechanical power (water and steam), the second the arrival of Big Science (machines and high-voltage), and the third brought on by computers (electronics and microchips).

Thus seen, it is apparent that the fourth phase, being the information age (artificial intelligence and big-data), arises chronologically from the foregoing periods. You cannot have the fourth without the others: the phases are compounding and concurrent. Yet SA has been deindustrialising as mineral extraction shifts from corporates to zama zamas and formal manufacturing comes down to 13% of GDP. In fact, without electricity or Eskom we would be set back to phase one.

So the challenge is not only to mitigate the consequences of the fourth phase but to keep its predecessors in place. As for the negative consequences raised by 4IRSA, namely automation, income disparities, consumerism and so on, they belong firmly to phase three and are very much with us already.

The real future awaiting us is a global cybereconomy where money is cryptocurrency, massively undermining nations to manage their economies; where production is a corporate and global function of pulling together components made in distant lands. It will be a time when even human judgments, including driving, are replaced by software programs, such as Watson the algorithm that replaced all clerical staff at Japan’s Fukuoka Life Assurance has already done.

It is an age where bureaucracy and rules are no longer forced on us by lazy officials but by centralised and unyielding databases, as any applicant for a visa, licence or planning permission long since knows. These dystopian consequences go well beyond social problems. They will strike every one of us, including the employed, at a deeply psychological level in a way humanity has never before experienced.

How does one mitigate that? That is the challenge of the “fourth industrial revolution”.

Jens Kuhn
Cape Town