the 3rd Industrial Revolution is not really computers and the internet, it is the networking of everything
Regarding the question in the title above, my own proposal would be to place this in 1993, the date of the invention of the browser for the world wide web, because it made the massive interconnection of minds possible from that moments onwards (the decade before it was reserved for the scientific elite). I believe it makes sense to divide the network era into an era in which computers were either unconnected, or only connected by the elite, which used it to create the basis of the neoliberal re-organization of our global economic system. However, if we take a non-technocratic view, we could argue that the capabilities of universal interconnectedness and global cooperation had their cultural roots in the great cultural revolution that took place in 1968, and the birth of post-capitalist values in the cultural sphere. Why does this matter? Because some historians, like Elisabeth Eisenstein in her history of the effects of the printing press on European society, argue that it takes four generations for such a full societal change to play out. So it matters when we begin counting!
Kevin Kelly‘s hypothesis however, which is focused on the full technical capability to interconnect all things, starts his calculation more or less in 1996, the date of birth of the commercial internet, while I would place it at the birth of the civic internet.
Here is what he writes:
“If digital innovations, millions of apps, the vast social networks that are being woven are increasing our living standards where is the evidence in the GDP?
I think the key sentence in (Robert) Gordon’s paper is this:
“Both the first two revolutions required about 100 years for their full effects to percolate through the economy.”
Repeat: it took a century for the full benefits of the innovations to show up.
By my calculation we are into year 20 of this 3rd upheaval. Gordon wants to start the clock on the 3rd Industrial Revolution in 1960 at the start of commercial computers. That’s an arbitrary starting point; I would arbitrarily start it at the dawn of the commercial internet because I don’t think unconnected computers by themselves are revolutionary. Unconnected computers did not change much. Standalone personal computers hardly changed our lives at all. They sped up typing, altered publishing, and changed spreadsheet modeling forever, but these were minor blips in the economy and well-being of most people. Big mainframe computers helped the largest corporations manage financial assets or logistics, but a number of studies have shown that they did not elevate much growth.
Everything changed, however, when computers married the telephone. This is when ordinary people noticed computers. They could get online. Everything went online. Retail changed, production changed, occupations changed. This communication revolution accelerated change elsewhere. Processes and gizmos got smarter because they were connected. Now the advantages of personal computers made sense because in fact they were just local terminals in something bigger: the network. As the Sun Computer company famously put it: the network is the computer.
So the 3rd Industrial Revolution is not really computers and the internet, it is the networking of everything. And in that regime we are just at the beginning of the beginning. We have only begun to connect everything to everything and to make little network minds everywhere. It may take another 80 years for the full affect of this revolution to be revealed.
In the year 2095 when economic grad students are asked to review this paper of Robert Gordon and write about why he was wrong back in 2012, they will say things like “Gordon missed the impact from the real inventions of this revolution: big data, ubiquitous mobile, quantified self, cheap AI, and personal work robots. All of these were far more consequential than stand alone computation, and yet all of them were embryonic and visible when he wrote his paper. He was looking backwards instead of forward.”