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Against Industry 4.0: Putting the fourth industrial revolution in its place

Today in mainstream discourse we hear much about the expected impact of an imminent ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Industry 4.0 – as this is more commonly known – is understood as the large-scale digitalisation and automation of manufacturing with the use of smart and networked technologies.

The industrial adaptation of a ubiquitous ‘Internet of Things’ was conceptualised in the German manufacturing sector as ‘Industrie 4.0’ around 2011. For the past eight years the concept has expanded globally, proposing enormous benefits of cost-reduction gained from the rapid automation of manufacturing production and the potential for ‘business model innovation’.

With Industry 4.0, manufacturing is once again seen as the engine of industrial revolution. But equally important is the potential for business model innovations to drive employment in high-value service sectors. Herein lies the equivalent in business terms of what music critics describe as ‘the hook’ of a hit song. Consequently, despite its emergence from the industrial world, the globalising ‘Industry 4.0’ term has been co-opted by a veritable cottage industry of global consulting firms such as those surveyed by Andrew Sturdy and Glenn Morgan in a previous edition of Futures of Work, shaping the way the concept of ‘Industry 4.0’ is consumed.

All too often there appears to be more for global corporations to gain from Industry 4.0 than is being invested by manufacturing companies in the technologies driving it. As a result, Industry 4.0 has become a term that serves as little more than a branding exercise.

To understand this phenomenon, it’s necessary to delve deeper. Industry 4.0 discourse has been significantly concentrated in engineering and computer science disciplines in academia, and more recently translated into business managerial terms in conceptualising the future of work. Subsequently, it exhibits a focus on the game-changing role of technology in all sectors of the economy.

For example, we are told that not only will the aggregation of digital technologies in Industry 4.0 supposedly transform manufacturing production, but they will also have flow-on effects throughout supply chains, creating opportunities for business model transformation and employment opportunities in service industries and other sectors.

Yet very little is ever mentioned about the disruptions to work and workers caused by these new technologies. In past industrial revolutions, technology has always been a catalyst. But in the apparently approaching fourth iteration we see a particular technological determinism in the rhetoric and an evident ambivalence towards the plight of workers.

On top of this, we have witnessed the disproportionate celebration of the techno-genius of a small number of supposedly self-made business people who cut their teeth in ‘hubs of innovation’ like Silicon Valley. Hence, the true origin of many of the technologies in enormous public research and development projects is frequently obscured by the cult of personality constructed around singular, individualistic entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and the late Steve Jobs. This is the case despite the fact that workers – as in previous industrial transformations – have been at the forefront of changes to work and arguably the most critical component to sustaining the system moving forward.

PANACEA OR CASH COW?

As a purported industrial revolution, Industry 4.0 represents a step beyond the post-Fordist mode of production that has defined the embedding of the neoliberal global political economy and the financialisation of capital. This period of globalisation has connected and deeply integrated global supply chains and production networks, with productive activities often surpassing the regulatory scope of nation-states.

Consequently, as post-Fordism has been premised on flexible specialisation in manufacturing and an increased focus on global production networks and the participation of smaller firms, there has been a subsequent erosion of trade union power at industrial and sectoral levels. This has also been a period of capitalism in which computer programmable robots have replaced workers en masse.

What we are witnessing in the uptake of the technologies that aggregate in Industry 4.0 is a neoliberal solution to the crisis of capitalist production that has persisted for more than a decade since the global financial crisis (GFC). The use of technologies in production processes (e.g. automation, artificial intelligence and big data) combined with the dominance of a discourse suggesting that only key individuals and their branded offerings have the solutions to the grand challenges humanity faces, impose themselves as the techno-centric, market-oriented panacea to existential threats like climate change.

In the process, business consultants have embraced a cash-cow as governments across the world scramble to implement new ways of using technology to increase profit and growth with little regard to the impact of Industry 4.0 on the future of work and workers.

A CATCH-22 SITUATION

On paper, there seems no problem with the way Industry 4.0 represents the digitalisation of technology that is driving innovative changes to production. But in more explicit material terms, this sees data-driven networks being mobilised – and indeed, politicised – by capital to suppress the active role of workers in implementing new production processes at the very sites of digitally driven changes to work.

Industry 4.0 effectively foretells and tames the future of work in order to narrow the scope of possible trajectories for innovation – a classic case of identifying the most efficient route to profit and growth via the disciplining and controlling of workers. This narrow pathway seeks to obliterate options for shaping a world of work with greater focus on its human and geographical dimensions and the enormous diversity of possibilities that comes with it.

The assumption is that robots are being implemented throughout global production networks to put mass workers out of high-paid jobs where the cost of operating automated factories is diminishing. Except they aren’t. As data from the International Federation of Robotics suggest, the uncertainty that characterises the post-GFC global economy has fomented a culture of risk amongst global corporations.

This is a catch-22 that has seen global businesses fail to invest in technology at the rates required to deliver the revolutionary potential of Industry 4.0. Therefore, the irony of Industry 4.0 is that technologies aren’t being utilised by companies to destroy jobs as much as the media might suggest; and that even though this appears to be the aim of capital, a more worker-inclusive strategy for full automation would actually see more jobs created than lost – or further still, the end of work as we know it.

The failure of Industry 4.0 to deliver on the promises consulting firm apparatchiks are selling is what holds back the vision of a sustainable future of work. The clearest evidence of this failure is in the growth of the gig economy with the rising tendency of finance capital to invest in digital platforms.

These platforms feed capital’s tendency towards monopoly, thrusting millions of workers across the world into precarious and insecure forms of work in which protections are easily eroded. Uber continues to be the textbook example of the way digital technologies are deployed to leverage the expectations of an employer-employee relationship but minus the typical working rights afforded to employees in most traditional employment relationships.

More recently, emerging details about the case of Amazon’s vast consignment warehouses and the digitally driven surveillance of human workers have revealed the increasingly punitive working conditions forced upon employees where the digital disciplinary elements of the gig economy creep into more typical forms of work.

POINTS OF RESISTANCE

Despite the range of destructive advances of digital technologies on work, a number of points of resistance are forming around technology and its potential positive impacts. Digital apps are in some cases starting points for workers to organise collectively across online platforms, counteracting the worst effects of digital capitalism and the gig economy. Some research has shown that Uber’s aggressive approach to gaining market dominance in a city is premised on the notion that it claims it is a ‘technology company’, rather than a ‘transport company’. That is, until local regulatory authorities challenge this claim and – in most cases to date – win, forcing Uber to accept its responsibility to provide better pay and conditions to its more substantively defined employees, as exhibited in the struggles and strike waves on which recent contributions to Futures of Work have focused.

Yet further research has also found that there is an enormous diversity in the way that Industry 4.0 technology is impacting supply chains and the small firms that comprise them within countries, let alone between them. In the case of these specific sites at which Industry 4.0 is being shaped, the role of geographical place and the political economy that has historically shaped it is a growing point of resistance to the techno-centric nature of the debate to date. A focus on the role of labour in this process of change reflects a long history of class struggle from which strategies can be re-discovered and deployed.

As the opening editorial of Futures of Work argued, workers maintain the power to shape the future by steering technology towards a future of work that benefits all. A starting point for this might be realising the potential of digital technologies to build global solidarity across a vast array of localities interlinked through global networks of production in both the global north and global south. We must understand that shaping the future of work with Industry 4.0 is something that workers are doing, rather than being done to them.

 

Al Rainnie is Research Associate Flinders University

Mark Dean is Research Associate at Flinders University

Image Credit: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)