It is a powerful rule of thumb, that the more the innovation, the fewer the manual labour needed. By extension, therefore, the more the modernising process spins, the more the society will be devoured. Automation unfolding before our very eyes, for example, should displace human hands at work sooner rather than later. RMG (ready-made garment) robots being developed, tested, and even made operational, as in the United States, will be set to push millions of workers into unemployment within a generation time-span before we even adjust.
Such a future was foretold two-and-one-half centuries ago when James Hargreaves invented the 'spinning jenny', and thereby the world's first RMG factories, in England: handicraftsmen paid the price, even as far away as Dhaka, where muslin production was brought to an end; and similarly, just as farmers worldwide paid (and continue to pay) the price of tractors, fertilisers, and genetically modified products gradually substituting the plough, sickle, and hand-picking skills. Fast forwarding to today, even the mobile in our pocket today, which is but a miniaturised version of its larger room-sized ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) forerunner of the 1950s, vividly displays innovative power.
Juxtaposed against that power is the nature of competition. This simply thickens the 'plot', whatever it may be. Put another way, the more the competitors, the lesser the likelihood copybook scripts will be dutifully followed, as short-cuts and deviations of every kind will prove more attractive to retain market viability. Again, by extension, the fewer the industrial powers, the more stable the international system is expected to be, meaning, as the number of industrialised countries increases, so too will complications and confusion.
When Great Britain was the only world leader during much of the 19th century, we found so much more peace in that part of the world that really mattered: West Europe. Then the rest of Europe began imitating or accelerating what Britain was doing to spark their own industrial renaissance. Going overseas to find colonies like Britain (and France) had been doing or over a century already became a popular 19th century European exercise. Germany emerged from such a background within Europe, but also Japan and the United States in other continents.
Britain became a victim of its own success, the goose, sort of, swallowed by its own golden industrial eggs. As the world's first industrialising country, it automatically dashed for second-base, as in a baseball-type game: innovate a free-trade policy approach (in order to receive raw materials at more inexpensive rates), beginning with corn from the mid-1840s. In the process, Britain also unleashed what we today call the 'business cycle': every innovation making extant machines rustier by default, thus nipping the competitive advantage where labour was involved, but also facing spiralling maintenance, research, and development costs. Fears stemming from such tectonic changes demanded safeguards, either in terms of mercantilist policies or military expansion. Abounding free-riders raise the stakes until another innovation eats away their brief lower-waged competitiveness, all a part of that spinning business wheel.
So it was that, by World War II, Great Britain had been fully replaced by the most competitive country in the world: the United States. Germany had posed a greater threat from the turn of the 20th century, but two world war defeats left the stage open to the United States to virtually walk into the top slot unchallenged. We are all familiar with US innovations, since we all use and benefit from them, but it is useful to keep the hindsight in mind: how the 18th century shift from farming pre-eminence to manufacturing domination during the 19th century set the stage to slowly transform into various service-sector economies from the 20th century and into the 21st century.
This is where the third element enters the picture: confusion. The United States is just too powerful in both military and economic terms to be displaced, even as it loses its competitive advantage in many manufacturing sectors (even such service-sector industries as highlighted by the Huawei controversy with China today). Yet its absolute competitive claim has evaporated: it is in that relative zone where innovation by other countries or more inexpensive labour elsewhere jolts its single world-leadership assumption. Germany has revived sufficiently to peck away at chunks of US leadership, as Japan also demonstrated a capacity to do in the 1960s and 1970s. China undoubtedly poses the greatest US challenge today. Having overtaken the economic size of all other countries save the United States, China is set on a collision course with the United States, presently, only on the economic front. Yet, as argued, this is but prelude to military contestation.
If we add to this messy 'great power' playground a new breed of industrialising countries, whether we call their economies 'emerging' or 'frontier, we suddenly see a crowd scrambling for the top slot where once only one country stood, then by just a handful. It is not that all of them have the military might of the United States, which looks as invincible as any country can get, and is destined to last as far as one can see. Yet, the point to be made is the economic competition intensifying before our very eyes threatening to go beyond the economic domain. Many newly industrialising countries (NICs) do not have any military competition in mind, but to not look like a sissy in a world of self-dubbed Gullivers, a military turn cannot be ignored. Nonetheless, since immediate future battlefields will be economic, countries pushing students/workers towards the cutting-edge with innovations will reap the most harvest.
This must be the 21st century trademark: confusion from sheer competition. Scores of countries have been trying to outwit, outflank, or outdo each other at the start of the 21st century than at the start of any previous century by far. Just as the 19th century was one of the pivotal industrial innovations, so too was the 20th century of the software revolutions. Countries blessed with coal, iron-ore, and thereby the ingredients of steel, monopolised the hardware associated with the former, just as those with intellectual ingenuity powered the latter. Hereafter it will be a case of how deep or far the intellectual ingenuity boundaries get pushed. There the competitive advantage will momentarily lie: with intellectual skills being more fluid and malleable than physical tools, the frontiers literally open up. This contrasts the innovative frontiers of industrial production, whose dominant mass-production tool was manual labour.
Where, then, might the pot-of-gold of new rainbows lie? Clearly education has to be there. This was not necessary to generate the RMG-based First Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, nor to fuel the 19th century Second Industrial Revolution, based on steel. With the computer-based Third Industrial Revolution we saw the fulcrum of progress shift from the hands to the brain, and consolidated more robustly through the artificial intelligence-based Fourth Industrial Revolution triggers today.
'Have education, will travel' may be the new motto for advancement, not necessarily through innovations, but the ingenuity in knowledge applications. Protecting these will become more fierce, shifting from the classroom onto battlefields, thus marking a century when enormous progress will be matched by enormous skirmishes, the golden eggs of the many geese by now producing fewer flocks than firepower, as knowledge application challenges innovation for the single economic wheel.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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