The 4th Industrial Revolution… really?

As I’ve posted earlier, questioning whether rising tides do, in fact, lift all boats, I find this article by a couple of South African academics to be compelling. We really must think critically about the narratives and ideological frames that are espoused in the halls of leadership and management thinking – and look more aspirationally at what innovations can (and should) mean for ALL people.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution: a seductive idea requiring critical engagement

Technological innovation can indeed be beneficial for the working class. Photo by JNS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Ruth Castel-Branco, University of the Witwatersrand and Hannah J. Dawson, University of the Witwatersrand

Narrative frames are fundamental to unifying ideologies. They frame what is possible and impossible, which ideas can be accepted and which must be rejected. In her book, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics, storyteller and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola examines the framing of the Fourth Industrial Revolution narrative in this light.

She argues that it is being used by global elites to deflect from the drivers of inequality and enable ongoing processes of expropriation, exploitation and exclusion. During a recent policy dialogue on the Future of Work(ers) she commented:

The real seduction of this idea is that it’s apolitical. We can talk about development and progress, without having to grapple with power.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution’s chief ideologue is Karl Schwab, chair of the World Economic Forum who published an influential book by the same name. In it he argues that digital innovations are transforming the ways in which people live, work and relate to one other. These include artificial intelligence and robotics, quantum cloud computing and block chain technology.

Compared to previous industrial revolutions, he maintains, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is evolving at an exponential pace, reorganising systems of production, management and governance in unprecedented ways.

But there is growing critique, particularly from the global South, of this capital-friendly framing of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Many are questioning whether it should be considered a revolution at all.

The available evidence suggests that the proliferation of digital technologies has been highly uneven, driven by an older generation of technological innovation, and used to reproduce rather than transform unequal social relations.

We share the view that there is nothing predetermined or linear about what digital technology is developed, how it is used, and for what end. The challenge is how to harness digital innovations to improve the conditions of work and life, while holding capital accountable.

Arguments against

Historian Ian Moll questions whether the current myriad of digital technological innovations constitute an industrial revolution. After all, revolutions are not characterised by technological changes alone. Rather they’re driven by transformations in the labour process, fundamental changes in workplace relations, shifts in social relations and global socioeconomic restructuring.

The industrial revolution, for example, gave rise to factories that changed how people worked as well as where they lived. The centralisation of workplaces saw growing urbanisation, deepening class divides between the rich and the poor. It also saw the emergence of trade unions.

It is clear that digital technologies are reshaping the structure of the labour market and conditions of work. They are doing this through automation and labour replacement, the informalisation or Uberization of work, the imposition of algorithmic management and commodification of data.

But they seem to be deepening rather than transforming historic patterns of inequality along the lines of class, gender, race, citizenship and geographic location.

As Nyabola put it:

Data is the new oil … data points which can be extracted for profit.

Despite critiques, the African Union (AU) has embraced the Fourth Industrial Revolution as a “watershed moment for Africa’s development”. The AU describes it as an opportunity to leapfrog into the digital era, increase global competitiveness and generate new sources of employment.

Scholar-activist Trevor Ngwane argues in the edited volume, the Fourth Industrial Revolution: a Sociological Critique, that technological innovation can indeed be beneficial for the working class. It can reduce drudgery, improve working conditions and free up more time for people to engage in other meaningful activities.

The problem is that the fruits of technological innovation are being monopolised by a globalised capitalist class. Take the example of digital labour platforms. Financed primarily by venture capital funds in the global North, they have set up businesses in the global South without investing in assets, hiring employees or paying into state coffers.

This process is being buttressed by a framing that portrays the current terms of innovation as inevitable and thus uncontestable.

As Ngwane reflected during the policy dialogue:

Who can question something which is moving along the laws of nature, of history, of technology?

Setting parameters

For community practitioner Tessa Dooms, there are two potential roads:

We can allow capital to do what it wants. Or we can start imagining a world where we set the parameters for what tech should be.

Dooms agrees that the narrative of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is more aspiration than reality. But it’s precisely because it is aspirational that its terms can be shaped. What is the place of Africans in an increasingly digitised world? How are technologies affecting people’s lives, identities and access to opportunities? How can innovations advance a more just society, where people are freed up to do meaningful work? How can states use regulations and other means to ensure the benefits of technological innovation are more equally shared?

The Future of Work(ers) Research Group at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand is hosting a six-part dialogue series. The aim is to generate further debate on the relationship between digital technologies, the changing nature of work(ers) and the implications for inequality.

Seipati Mokhema, an Associate Researcher with the Future of Work(ers), contributed to this article.

Ruth Castel-Branco, Research Manager, University of the Witwatersrand and Hannah J. Dawson, Senior Researcher, Southern Centre for Inequality Studies, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The trouble with sports

NOTE – this post was drafted in early 2020.  Then COVID happened.  I’m bringing it forward now.

Imagine – It was just another day in the Records and Registration office.  A smartly-dressed university official comes in to meet with the head of Records.  Doors were closed, but glass walls opening the view to others in the main office provided a view of friendly words exchanged, and after a bit some shaking of hands.

A record is retrieved and edits are made.

I heard this story back in the early 1980’s, at a well known university.  I was well aware that college athletes had better dorm rooms at my university (air conditioned!), better meals (their own dining hall), and lots of attention from tutors and others to make sure they could navigate the often incompatible responsibilities of being a modern-day gladiator for 4 years, while also trying to achieve an academic credential.

And the Rams club at my alma mater – wealthy members who rode in on football weekends, flasks full, to enter the stadium to their preferred seating (at exorbitant pricing) – often leaving the lowly students with few or no seats to view their own team’s performances.  Money, money, money.

I realize that the reality is complicated for student athletes:  Something like 2% (to their credit, the NCAA shows that statistic on the second page of the PDF that was available) go on to have a professional career.  Only 2%. There is also great disparity in the funding of the ‘lesser’ sports, compared to (at least in the Southeast) the trio of football, basketball and baseball.  And all the pressure that the students are under to physically and mentally perform as top-notch athletes most often exercises a toll on their time to focus on studies.

In this post at NBC, *from 2019*, you can get the feel for how much money at academic institutions is going to non-academic individuals:

Below are the highest-paid Power Five coaches, per conference:

  • ACC — Swinney, $9.32 million
  • Big 12 — Texas’ Tom Herman, $6.75 million
  • Big Ten — Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, $7.5 million
  • Pac-12 — Washington’s Chris Petersen, $4.63 million
  • SEC — Saban, $8.86 million

Conversely, these are the lowest-paid Power Five coaches for each league:

  • ACC — Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson, $2.19 million
  • Big 12 — Kansas State’s Chris Klieman, $2.3 million
  • Big Ten — Indiana’s Tom Allen, $1.8 million
  • Pac-12 — Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin, $2 million
  • SEC — Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead, $3 million

And in this Forbes article from Dec. 2019, we see the top-paid coaches in the nation, by league (professional and collegiate):


If you really want to see a lot of 7-figured numbers associated with coach pay, check USA Today’s site out.

Sigh.  At this point, I want to point out that some stats from top academic salaries.  From an article dated November 2019 on average professor salaries in the U.S. the takeaway is this:

Top-ranked UCLA has the highest average professor salary at just over $162,000.

Just. Over.  $162,000.  No doubt, there are some shooting stars in academia, according to The Quad in 2018:

  • David N. Silvers: $4.33 million.  Columbia.
  • Zev Rosenwaks: $3.3 million. Cornell.
  • Dean Takahashi: $2.6 million.  Yale.
  • William E. Fruhan Jr.: $1.19 million.  Harvard.
  • Dan J. Laughhunn: $1.03 million.  Duke.
  • Andrew M. Isaacs: $709,000.  UC Berkeley.
  • Kannan Ramaswamy: $700,000.  Thunderbird.
  • Andrew Inkpen: $566,000.  Thunderbird.

But let’s pause on this for a moment:  The highest paid academic in the U.S. (according the The Quad in 2018) was making less than half of what the highest paid collegiate athletic coach was paid.

US collegiate sports has become a huge revenue-generator for schools that can afford the infrastructure and staffing – and the blurring of the lines of the ‘student athlete’ continues to expand.  Recently, college students in some states now have the right to profit from their image. And we’ve known for a long time of the lucrative agreements that are made between suppliers of sports wear and equipment and the colleges.


I’m all for colleges and universities having great teams.  I’m a staunch supporter of academic rigor and excellence – for ALL students.  How do we rationalize the reality that student athletes in the major sports are tied to the money-making agendas of their universities?  I have a proposal:

  • Stop calling them student athletes.
  • Use the current recruitment programs to establish “SEMI-PROFESSIONAL” teams.
  • These semi-pro athletes are NOT REQUIRED TO TAKE COURSES.
  • These athletes get PAID – salaries tbd, but something reasonable which gives them a good living (NOT minimum wage).
  • If these athletes perform for their employer for 2-4 years, and remain in good standing*, they then have the option to go pro OR to STOP being semi-pro athletes.
  • AT that point, the college or university provides the semi-pro athlete in good standing with a full-ride SCHOLARSHIP  – an academic scholarship.
  • The semi-pro athlete could, at any point, decide to go pro – but if before the 2 year mark, they forfeit the offer of a full-ride academic scholarship.

*In good standing.  I’m sure there will be some discussion, as there should be, about what this means.

Maybe with some form of this plan we could still have those fabulous games, root for our teams, and provide the players with adequate funding and incentives to be the best athlete they can be, and then later, and for the 98% that don’t go pro, be the very best at whatever else they wish to pursue.

N.B.  During COVID, I discovered a podcast that looks critically at sports.  I recommend it as food for thought.  The End of Sport Podcast.  From their website:

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The house is burning


India’s monsoon season, 2019 – starting hot and dry.

I’m seeking to educate myself more about the climate change impacts, forecasts and so on. Ever since Al Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Truth‘, I’ve had this discomfort way down deep inside. A discomfort that accompanied me on business trips, was resident in me at events, and was a companion during vacation times.

The discomfort resides in the fact that we have known for so long about this issue, yet have done little to slow ourselves down long enough to have a rational discussion and sobering moments-of-truth.

When I was a young kid, around 10 years old or so, there was an ecological push in the US. This was no-doubt spawned in part by the oil crisis of the 1970’s. Bumper stickers were printed and given away, the term ‘recycle’ came briefly into vogue, and even ‘noise pollution’ was raised as an enemy of the people and planet.  That was over forty years ago. *

I carry this discomfort, today, as I look back on my role in leadership development, and the opportunities I probably had to raise this issue further, to be a bit ‘inconvenient’ in my dealings with managers and leaders of various organizations – domestic and abroad.  Truth be told, some of those organizations were well aware and were acting in positive directions – reclaiming water, implementing renewable energy sources, seeking carbon neutrality.  But the vast majority, in my experience, continued to live in bubbles of their own creation – markets that operate (seemingly) outside of the larger sphere of ecological context and consequence.

So I’ve turned to a few sources to educate myself about where we are today.   I should warn any reader that a) I am NOT an expert in this field, and b) I believe in the scientific method (and therefore, I believe in scientists that are not under obligation to any corporate interests).  I am on a continuing journey here, and want to track a few things.

How bad is it?

David Wallace-Wells was interviewed by Joe Rogan.**  This is a long interview, so I suggest getting a cup of tea to settle in.  His book, The Uninhabitable Earth, is on the shelves now, and paints a stark picture of a 1.5 – 2.0 degree Celsius change in temperatures, and, even worse, the current destination of a 4.0 degree Celsius change.  Ultimately, it comes down to those of us in this generation (my kids’ generation) to take bold steps to shift things in order to ensure a healthy existence for all.

In a response to Wallace-Wells’ book, scientists at The Ecologist wrote an open letter praising his work, but also counseling that we may have even less control than we think, and that the future will be one of ‘deep adaptation’.  This is terribly interesting, and terrifying as we think about our systems in play today – business, economic, political, social, etc. – that all revolve around existing models of what is valued.

It is this systemic responsibility that, in part, created this discomfort I have carried for so long.  Year after year witnessing managers and leaders fine-tune their approaches to marketing, sales, innovation, customer relationships, product development, change management, strategic thinking – all while in a bubble of true or self-imposed ignorance of the irrefutable facts of climate change and what it means for all of us.

How do I know this?

It was eight years ago that two retired oil company executives asked me to review a letter they were intending to share with the board of that company.   It was, in effect, their call-to-action to effect policy changes immediately in order to (hopefully) stem the impact of their industry on the health and safety of the world.  In that conversation, and in other research that was done, it is clear that the company in question had known, not for eight years, but for twenty years that their industry was the chief contributor to an irreversible and disastrous series of climate impacts.

So, forty years ago we had our first wave of awareness-raising around air pollution, water pollution and even noise pollution.  For at least thirty years, key contributors have known of their own responsibility in the destruction of the environment.  So where are we now?

Who could possibly oppose efforts to save the planet?

Well the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US has their list of those that, today, are opposing efforts such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.  This plan was tabled immediately after Donald Trump took office, in February of 2016.  Perhaps not surprisingly, three large energy companies (coal, oil), the American Legislative Exchange Commission (ALEC), and the US Chamber of Commerce are the top five on their list.  Please follow the link above if you want some insight into how these organizations have obstructed change and mislead the American public.

Well if it’s a global issue, which nations are the top offenders?

The World Atlas published a review in 2017 with this chart, with percent share of global CO2 emissions on the Y axis:


It is interesting to note that, from a population standpoint, both China and India have over 1 billion people, while the US has about a third of that (330 million).  So the U.S. is cranking out way more than our fair share of pollution.

Let’s get more specific:  Which companies are the largest offenders?

The CDP and the Climate Accountability Institute published a report (The Carbon Majors Report) in 2017 that lists the 100 companies that produced the highest greenhouse gasses from 1988 to 2015.  The top 10 are oil and coal companies.  In fact, the top 20 are oil and coal companies.

Each of these companies has leaders.  Those leaders are humans (for now).  They likely have children, and grand-children.

I know that many companies have now come public with targets for moving to renewable energy sources, carbon-neutral footprints, investments in carbon capture technologies, and so on.

But this fire did not just start.  The house – our house – has been burning for decades, from a slow smolder to what is now feeling like an uncontrollable blaze.  As David Wallace-Wells said, it is my generation that has created the majority of the greenhouse gasses that are now in the atmosphere.  For other tail-end baby-boomers and Gen-x’ers out there, this has happened in our lifetime.

What can we do?

  • Divest from any company that is fighting regulations that would help slow consumption of fossil fuels.
  • Consume less stuff.  It takes energy to create products and transport them.
  • Buy local.  Less transportation – less energy expended.
  • Invest in renewables.
  • Vote for politicians who believe in science.
  • Stay informed – through evidence-based research.

*Neil Young – After the Gold Rush.  1970  – Lyrics later changed from “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970’s” to “… in the 20th century”.  Sadly, another change to the lyrics is needed.

** Updated June 2022: I do not subscribe to any of Joe Rogan’s feeds or posts.  I simply found the interview with the climatologist compelling.

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