Judith Bessant writes about her new book: Judith Bessant (1918) The Great Transformation, History for a Techno-Human Future. Routledge
Many people describe the transformation now taking place by saying we are embarking on a ‘fourth industrial revolution’, or ‘Industry 4.0’ or that we are being deluged by a ’wave of digital disruption’. In my new book The Great Transformation, History for a Techno-Human Future (Routledge), I explain why such accounts are inadequate, and why they fail to provide any useful insight into what is happening. Rather, they are clichés constantly repeated to fill-up the public airways in what seems to be a hope they will somehow become true. They are also to give the impression that those providing such descriptors – our leaders – are clear about what is happening. The message is that the fourth industrial revolution we are now embarking on, is simply the latest stage in a process of industrial ‘revolution’ distinguished by the nature of technologies such as the ‘ubiquitous and mobile internet’, by AI and ‘machine learning’. In this case we are simply evolving ‘naturally’ into the next stage of industrial capitalism. I don’t think so – and in the book I say why. In short, while it is generally recognised that AI, robots, bio-technologies and digital media are transforming work, culture, and social life, there is little understanding or agreement about the scope and significance of this change.
The book is the product of a five year multi-disciplinary project that draws on philosophy, historical sociology, evolutionary theory, ethics, cognitive and computer science. The primary aim of the book was to better understand the radical changes we are now undertaking. In doing this I offer a new interpretation and hopefully original insight into our present techno-social condition. With this in mind I pay particular attention to the momentous shift in human consciousness now taking place in the hope we might be better placed to make good judgment in the task of making a better future. I argue that by learning from the past and by rejecting technological determinism we will be better positioned to redesign social arrangements in ways that help to ensure we all benefit from the new and emerging technologies. I also argue that the prevailing transformation is producing unprecedented socio-cultural and economic change: it is changing how we represent and experience reality and indeed it is altering the human condition.
The book documents the transformations under way in a number of key sectors, arguing it is affecting all aspects of work and life. Drawing on historical sociology and co-evolutionary theory I explain why the radical evolution of human consciousness and social life now under way is comparable with, if not greater than, the agrarian revolution (10000 BC), the explosion of science, philosophy, and religion in the Axial Age (600 BC), and the more recent Industrial Revolution. Turning to those more recent major socio-economic crises (1890 Depression, the 1930s ‘Great Depression’ and the 2008 Global Recession), I ask what can be learnt from them. In addressing this question I say why we cannot afford, this time, to repeat the failures of elites and theoretical systems such as economics to attend appropriately to this period of radical change.
I also argue that the claim that similarities exist between the brain-mind and computer-AI is an unhelpful analogy and simulation. Hopefully the material and arguments presented in the book offer some insight that is useful for meeting the challenges of imagining and designing new arrangements, policies, education, and ethical frames we need for conditions that are radically different from anything we have been accustomed to. This is the specific burden of the last section of the book where attention is given to the kinds of practices and guiding principles we might use to think, and act so our technology enables human flourishing and indeed the flourishing of all life.