The Fourth Wave of Technological Progress

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Much has been said about the arrival of the “information economy;” the “information age;” and/or the “knowledge worker.” If we take these claims seriously, and as indicating a shift in society and economy equal to the gravity of those statements, we should find similar revolutionary changes in today’s sites of industry as Mumford charted in the 14th and 18th centuries. The mine is the first wholly artificial environment. It has no sunlight, no women with large breasts in fields, and the very air that the miner breaths has had work done on it by a built ventilation system. The work of human beings surrounds the individual, and in this totalizing environment one is left to confront the world of abstracted use and exchange. The mine exists because of and through the scientific knowledge of the previous century. It is an environment that was made to be punishing (another way to say this is it was populated by the punished), and yet the extracted resources were the fundamental components of the physical container of society.

            As Winner notes, this first impression colors the rest of industrial society. As the products of the mine flow outward into the cities and towns, so with it go “the basic attitudes towards nature, work, machinery, the character of human experience, and even the agendas of scientific theory for hundreds of years to come P. xi).” The three waves that Mumford describes in his first chapter describe a centuries-long process of building the machine and negotiating the role it will play in society. The third wave is moving in the opposite direction of the last two, pushing society to mold to its own whims. We are altered by it, or rather we alter ourselves to suit the needs and desires we think it fulfills. As with real waves, this metaphorical one can be cresting while a fourth wave beings to surge. This wave, if we are to believe the hype, is the wave of information technologies. In the style of Mumford, I am tempted to call them “infotechnics.” This wave is taller, faster, and alluring enough that we greet it at the shore with open arms.

            In the place of the mine, the fourth wave mold’s society’s attitudes towards nature, work, etc. in the style of the laboratory. As Beck and Giddens remind us, our world is full of risk. We seek to mitigate that risk through our actions in the modern world. We placidly make life and death decisions every day, comforted by the promise that our actions are the result of careful rationalism. Mumford observes that the alchemy of capitalism gives every object an abstracted value -an exchange value that can be bought and sold- thus making everything translatable into valuable metals and credit.

            This is where Mumford and Ellul overlap. Generally, Ellul is more fatalistic about the nature of what Mumford would call third wave. Technique is more about rationality and Taylorism than physical machines. It is a force pushing us toward (and in its external physical form- the embodiment of) conformity. The machine is not the thing that makes us this way, the machine arises out of a desire to use things like machines. When Mumford describes the birth of the canonical hour in the 7th century, he goes on to describe how the clock made it possible to preform finely scheduled tasks. Ellul however, sees this process as a change in a moral ordr that is only possible through this particular form of technique. In so doing, we reify the basis of the machine inventor’s desires. One would argue that most inventions like the clock, are useful and allow us to accomplish more things that make our lives more comfortable and less “brutal and short.” Ellul sees this more as the acceptance of one form of enslavement for another. We abate the dangers of the natural world through invention, but in so doing we become reliant on that technology. Eventually society becomes subservient to its own creations. We then find it impossible to act outside of the dominant technique, because the skills required to live with nature have been lost to us.

            Returning to the concept of the fourth wave, it would easy to conclude that information technology has pushed us even further away from our ability to fend for ourselves in a state of nature. We have gone from foraging for basic necessities, to solving the problem of over-abundance with iPhone apps that pick a desirable restaurant based on your previous patronage. We have multiple layers of dependence. The restaurant depends on global agribusiness and distribution systems, reliable availability of infrastructure and utilities. The phone is manufactured in highly specialized factories far away and gets data from extremely complicated networks of wires and EM waves.  All of these things become necessary in order to meet the most basic of necessities. The fourth wave, in Ellul’s eyes is certainly a push in the completely wrong direction.

            But there is something particular about knowledge as the product of the system that I think works in the opposite direction. A riptide working in the opposite direction that through sheer force, pulls one against their will into a scary dangerous place that is ultimately best dealt with through “going with the flow.” In this case, the flows of information that have given rise to new forms of collaboration and communication, make possible new affinity groupings. The new forms of resistance that come up purely through internet-based communication and some of the oldest forms of civil unrest have taken on a new character through their digital augmentation. The fourth wave may appear to be heading in the same direction as the third, but it has a certain undercurrent that could sweep it all away.