A discussion by Michael McAllum, on Disruptive and Revolutionary Technology, from the PHD thesis, “Making Sense of Rifkin’s Third Industrial Revolution

Michael McAllum:

Technologies can engender revolutionary effects. Technology that is disruptive at a civilisational scale, occurs when particular technologies (in the contemporary situation networking, robotic and energy technologies) reorder, replace and integrate, certain dimensions of human life, while excluding others previously used to establish ‘meaning’; how we connect, organise, express culture or enable power. Consistent with this disruptive characterisation Castells postulates, what these networks are doing is redefining cultural and social meaning, in ways that hitherto have been defined by ‘place’ on the one hand and the ‘functionality of wealth and power flows’ on the other. Others like Katz extend exploration of these technology effects. They assert that just as the ethos of mechanical progress influenced the 2nd Industrial Age, so too the design and the use of the technology has assigned a number of new meanings to network technology devices, an Apparatgeist, that was never intended when the technology was created. In a sense, the machines have become us—and for that matter, more than us—to a point where one of the defining characteristics of individuality and our age—what we call ‘work’—“will soon come under threat from forged labourers and synthetic intellects”. So pervasive will be their impact “the future will be a struggle of assets against people, as the resources accumulated by our creations serve no constructive purpose or are put to no productive use”629. As the technologies evolve or are replaced by newer and smarter versions, the revolutionary effects of the never ending redefinition of meaning permeate ever deeper into the existing fabric, eroding what is and providing opportunity to establish what might be (a process previously described as pseudomorphosis).

* Disruptive Technology enables Discontinuous Form

If technologies enable ‘meaning’ to be redefined, and if such reconstitutions are widely shared, then the entire social and economic fabric is also rearranged to an extent that it can only be described as revolutionary. For example, with almost ubiquitous technological connectedness (a central tenet of Rifkin’s sense of revolution) Perez argues what distinguishes a technological (network) revolution from the emergence of interesting but random technologies is the strong interconnectedness and interdependence of the participating technologies in how they influence markets and societies, together with their capacity to profoundly transform economies, institutions and society itself. Figure 5.4 suggests that it is at deeper levels of reality that redefinition, due to the introduction of a particular technology, becomes important. This importance might be measured by the capacities any particular technology creates, to enable transformation; to redefine society at a structural level—thereby reframing worldviews and creating new myths and metaphors—that defines revolution at a scale that is material.

* Why Network Technologies Undermine Continuity

Almost paradoxically, an understanding that it is the reconstitution of meaning that matters in transition and transformation assists in understanding the dialectic tension that exists between the widespread dissemination of network technologies and at the same time the evident capacity of some of those technologies to undermine the existing system (particularly capitalist economic systems). While the implications of this tension and the possibility that it will usher in a post model, will be explored later in this chapter, there are a number of more generalised effects that might be considered.

Firstly, they enable a radical redefinition and rearrangement of transaction costs. This has profound implications, for both margins (on both the supply and demand side) and on the formshape-size of organisations. Secondly, as was alluded to earlier, advances in robotics and cognitive technologies will see the end of work, as we understand it. If this is as rapid, as some argue, then how wealth is socially distributed to allow any kind of economy (be it for accumulation or exchange) will require a different alternative to work as a wealth distribution mechanism. The third reframing reflects the tension engendered by technologies that allow for significant global, and therefore non-state based, economic activity. This allows particular classes of actors to avoid or go beyond the frameworks of any particular nation whose policy settings they perceive are not in their best interests, thereby challenging the close connection that the nation state has with economy. While each of these contentions is important and are worthy of further exploration within the context of this study, what they demonstrate both separately and together is that networking technologies create significant disruption to current arrangements, and the potential for the reconstitution of an economic system or systems that is different from these arrangements.”

Photo by anselm

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