50 years of warnings about the next industrial revolution. Are we ready?

Summary:  Today we look at three early predictions about the 3rd Industrial Revolution, now upon us. We have sufficient warning (and the experience from the first two industrial revolutions), and should be able to navigate through it without massive suffering — to a prosperous future. This is the latest in a long series about what might be the major economic event of the 21st century (links to earlier posts at the end).

On September 23 {William the Conqueror’s} fleet hove in sight, and all came safely to anchor in Pevensey Bay. There was no opposition to the landing. The local fyrd had been called out this year 4 times already to watch the coast, and having, in true English style, come to the conclusion that the danger was past because it had not yet arrived had gone back to their homes.

— From A History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill

Danger, Construction Ahead
There is a safe path to the future.
“Danger, Construction Ahead” by Kay Sage (1940)


  1. Preparing by closing our eyes
  2. James Blish: science fiction warning
  3. Jeremy Rifkin’s bleak forecast
  4. David Noble looks at the politics of the 3rd industrial revolution
  5. For More Information

(1) Prepare by closing our eyes

As our world has grown richer and our technology more powerful, our ability to anticipate troubles increases. Yet that’s so only if we make the effort to do so.  Too often we fail to even try. Extreme weather (i.e., hundred-year events), climate change, peak oil, and the next Industrial Revolution all show this sloth at work.

All of these are visible problems, long forecast. Yet rather than make use of this warning time, which allows gradual, careful preparation, we interpret failure of the event to arrive as evidence that it will not come.

In the past we could not well anticipate, mitigate, or avoid large-scale changes in the world. Plagues, droughts, floods were the natural course of life, often devastating regions — even destroying civilizations. Social and economic changes, like the first two Industrial Revolutions, brought greater wealth — but its poor distribution created massive suffering from pollution and poverty.

That was then, but need not be so today. We can do better. Too often in America we’re not.

Coastal cities such as New York should have defenses against typical storms like Sandy (details here), as do many of the great cities of Europe. Sea levels have been rising for thousands of years, and the world has been warming for two centuries (until roughly 1950 largely from natural causes), with obvious effects that should shape public policy.  Building cities in the desert without assured water supplies courts disaster. Developing new energy sources prepares us for Peak Oil and It’s a long list.

Too often we squander the time provided by advance warnings for the most feckless of reasons: the problems are coming but not yet arrived.

Which brings us to our issue for today: the 3rd Industrial Revolution is upon us. Below are some of the earlier forecasts of its effects during the past half-century. We have no excuse for being caught unaware, destabilizing our society and causing widespread suffering. With modest planning we should enjoy it fantastic benefits without pain. As with driving, reacting without planning might mean more pain than gain.

A Life for  the Stars

(2)  Sci Fi then; fact for the future

The effects of automation have been visible to some people many years. Such as science fiction authors An early example is in this from James Blish’s A Life for the Stars (1962, second of his Cities in Flight series):

The cab came floating down out of the sky at the intersection and maneuvered itself to rest at the curb next to them with a finicky precision.  There was, of course, nobody in it; like everything else in the world requiring an I.Q. of less than 150, it was computer-controlled.

The world-wide dominance of such machines, Chris’s father had often said, had been one of the chief contributors to the present and apparently permanent depression”  the coming of semi-intelligent machines into business and technology had created a second Industrial Revolution, in which only the most highly creative human beings, and those most fitted at administration, found themselves with any skills to sell which were worth the world’s money to buy.

The End of Work

(3) Jeremy Rifkin’s bleak forecast warns us to prepare

From the Introduction of Jeremy Rifkin’s The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era (1995):

The Information Age has arrived. In the years ahead, new, more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilization ever closer to a near-workerless world. In the agricultural, manufacturing, and service sectors, machines are quickly replacing human labor and promise an economy of near automated production by the middecades of the twenty-first century.

The wholesale substitution of machines for workers is going to force every nation to rethink the role of human beings in the social process. Redefining opportunities and responsibilities for millions of people in a society absent of mass formal employment is likely to be the single most pressing social issue of the coming century.

… We are entering a new phase in world history-one in which fewer and fewer workers will be needed to produce the goods and services for the global population. The End of Work examines the technological innovations and market-directed forces that are moving us to the edge of a near workerless world. We will explore the promises and perils of the Third Industrial Revolution and begin to address the complex problems that will accompany the transition into a post-market era.

… In the past, when new technologies have replaced workers in a given sector, new sectors have always emerged to absorb the displaced laborers. Today, all three of the traditional sectors of the economy agriculture, manufacturing, and service — are experiencing technological displacement, forcing millions onto the unemployment rolls.

The only new sector emerging is the knowledge sector, made up of a small elite of entrepreneurs, scientists, technicians, computer programmers, professionals, educators, and consultants. While this sector is growing, it is not expected to absorb more than a fraction of the hundreds of millions who will be eliminated in the next several decades in the wake of revolutionary advances in the information and communication sciences.

… The restructuring of production practices and the permanent replacement of machines for human laborers has begun to take a tragic toll on the lives of millions of workers.

Progress Without People

(4)  Politics of the next industrial revolution

For a grim look at our future see Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance by David F. Noble (1995). See his Wikipedia bio. The opening chapters are from his 1983 series of articles in Democracy about “Present Tense Technology”. The series opens with this stark warning from “Technology’s Politics“:

There is a war on, but only one side is armed: this is the essence of the technology question today. On the one side is private capital, scientized and subsidized, mobile and global, and now heavily armed with military spawned command, control, and communication technologies. Empowered by the second industrial revolution, capital is moving decisively now to enlarge and consolidate the social domination it secured in the first.

… Thus, with the new technology as a weapon, they steadily advance upon all remaining vestiges of worker autonomy, skill, organization, and power in the quest for more potent vehicles of investment and exploitation. And, with the new technology as their symbol, they launch a multi-media cultural offensive designed to rekindle confidence in “progress.”

On the other side, those under assault hastily abandon the field for lack of an agenda, an arsenal or an army. Their own comprehension and critical abilities confounded by the cultural barrage, they take refuge in alternating strategies of appeasement and accommodation, denial and delusion, and reel in desperate disarray before this seemingly inexorable onslaught —- which is known in polite circles as “technological change.

What is it that accounts for this apparent helplessness on the part of those whose very survival, it would seem, depends upon resisting this systematic degradation of humanity into mere disposable factors of production and accumulation?

Our world in their hands.

(5)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts describing how the 3rd industrial revolution has begun. And posts about the theory that we’ve entered a period of secular stagnation.

For deeper analysis see these books:

14 thoughts on “50 years of warnings about the next industrial revolution. Are we ready?”

    1. Duncan,

      I agree. Marx was wrong about the Second Industrial Revolution, but might be correct about the Third. The opening quote to my 9 December 2012 post:

      “An increase in the productivity of labour means nothing more than that the same capital creates the same value with less labour, or that less labour creates the same product with more capital.”

      — Karl Marx, Notebook IV of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1857/58)

    2. We should even reconsider the question raised by Lenin: What Is to Be Done?

      Seriously. What is to be done — concretely — now that we have enough warnings and analyses?

    1. Pluto,

      That is the question anyone writing a website like this wonders. Six posts per week, a thousand-plus words each (plus many links to authoritative sources). Plus answering comments, often with facts and links to more info.

      It takes a lot of time.

      Is anybody listening?

      The record of forecasts on the FM website is remarkable good (see the records at the top menu bar). Most comments register disagreement, or outright hostility — so these were mostly non-consensus forecasts.

      Sidenote: our only claim to uniqueness– I know of NO other website where the comments usually disagree with the content.

      The four million hits suggests that more people are reading than I expected (when he set up the FM website it would find an audience, albeit never a mass audience. I didn’t expect that much.

      My personal metric: donations show the real impact on people’s thinking. The tip jar is on the right-side menu bar.

  1. Those who are at the helm of the power circle have already accumulated enough capital to subordinate the all three branches of the US government, hence it is unlikely they will shift their policies to the ones that provide a social safety net for the unemployed. In fact, I understand, the militarization of various levels law enforcement agencies are happening, and they are upgrading their weaponry and amassing ammunition to counter the potential riots. Even some social security offices placed orders for ammunition might be a tell tale sign of what our controllers are anticipating and preparing.

    Assuming the second industrialization to be left in the same hands, I am afraid of the two trends to take care of the unemployed.

    1. Stiffer criminal penalties – such as the 3 strikes law- to ensure 25cents/hr slave labor in privatized prisons which have mushroomed to be a $40 billion industry (just the big 3) in such a short time. Considering the large number of blacks and Hispanics filling these prisons, it almost seems another form of castigated plantation labor with no chance of medical insurance, vacation, unionization or communication channels for reporting abuses. In the past 10 years alone, the US criminals put behind bars have jumped 27% to the whopping 2.4 million according to the Justice Department. This is 0.5 million larger than the notorious China for using the prisoners as the cheapest possible labor. Besides where there were only 5 private prisons mere 10 years ago, the figure has quietly climbed up to 100.

    I may be mistaken on the finance side of this business, but if it costs the US government roughly $21,000/prisoner/yr, and privatizing more and more of the management, it seems to translate into the fund transfer from the government to a very lucrative private industry just like the military industrial complex. No wonder the prison industry spent $700million in lobbying activities to tighten the anti drug laws. Already over 50% of the prisoners seem to be drug offenders. Ordinarily there should be an outright conflict of the interest between the government (who pays) and the prison industry (who benefits), but in today’s all corporate America, they seem to be in collusion. The inhumane nature of privatizing correctional facilities is akin to privatizing police. Under wrong hands, they can easily turn into armed contortionists.

    2. Perpetual wars to absorb the otherwise unemployed (or facing potential unemployment at young age) into the military. These men will be treated more and more as dispensable component with limited compensations, while the more and more privatized military conglomerate will make astronomical revenues. Hence the government will bleed more financially. If only the same defence budget could be instead used to avoid the unnecessary warfare under a different leadership, the US could be in the forefront of enriching the lives of ordinary citizens, of preparing the whole nation for the coming robotic age.

    1. kamaaina,

      It would make me very happy to dismiss your concerns as alarmist. Unfortunately, I read the newspapers — and so every week I see evidence supporting your forecast.

      (1) Attacking the safety net

      “What does that get us? A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class. And all because a few starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir them up and fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas.”
      – Henry F. Potter, leading banker and first citizen of Potterville

      The recent cuts to food stamps and extended unemployment benefits are just the first wave of the GOP’s plans. Senator Paul has shared with us his dreams of an America returned to the days before the New Deal, with Plutocrats triumphant. Two of the many posts about this:

      1. A look at the future of America, unlike the expectations of conservatives and liberals, 10 August 2011
      2. A modern conservative dresses up Mr. Potter to suit our libertarian fashions, 17 November 2011

      (2) Stiffer criminal penalties

      Our Plutocrat rulers have just begun to explore the uses of what were “law enforcement agencies” and are now security services. Such as bringing back debtors prisons.

      1. As economy flails, debtors’ prisons thrive“, CBS News, 5 April 2013
      2. Local courts reviving ‘debtors’ prison’ for overdue fines, fees“, Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, Fox News, 28 December 2013
      3. Coverage by the ACLU of this important issue

      (3) Endless Wars

      War is the health of the State (18 September 2010), and serves the interests of our ruling elites in many ways. Absorbing surplus workers is one (but an expensive method). More important uses are:

      (a) Take the aggressive goats, keep them off the streets, and convert them to supporters of the State.

      (b) Develop methods in overseas wars, allow the public to become accustomed to them, then apply them at home. Surveillance, indefinite detention, reduced rights in Court, and eventually torture. It’s a powerful tool to help build a New America.

    2. Regarding “stiffer criminal penalties”: historically, this is exactly what took place during the industrial revolution(s) — together with increased police supervision of the population.

      The 18th and 19th century saw a rapid extension of the legal concept of “vagrancy”, thus justifying the application of forced labor (workhouses, deportation to colonies), the systematization of work certificates (in several European countries, notably in France and Germany, they were formalized in a personal document that had to be controlled by the police when starting and leaving employment), the obligation of registration when moving from a place to another (and the general introduction of associated identity documents), etc.

      1. guest,

        “Regarding “stiffer criminal penalties”: historically, this is exactly what took place during the industrial revolution(s) — together with increased police supervision of the population.”

        Thanks for bringing that up! I had not made that connection.

        For those not familiar with this history, it was called the “bloody code” — the British aristocracy’s response to the First Industrial Revolution. From Wikipedia:

        In 1688 there were 50 offences on the statute book punishable by death, but that number had almost quadrupled by 1776, and it reached 220 by the end of the century. Most of the new laws introduced during that period were concerned with the defence of property, which some commentators have interpreted as a form of class suppression of the poor by the rich.

        George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax, expressed a contemporary view when he said that “Men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen”. Grand larceny, defined as the theft of goods worth more than 12 pence, was one of the crimes that attracted the death penalty …

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