Niall Ferguson is no stranger to the study of history, given his eye-catching books on Empire (2003), Colossus (2004), and Civilization (2011), among so many others. Though he joins the chorus of other scholars and observers to claim we live in "the network age," he steps carefully aside to make the clarion call that this age could be "joyously emancipatory," or "hideously anarchic" if, and only if, "we do not study the smaller, slower . . . ubiquitous . . . [and] powerful" counterparts "of the past" (The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power, Penguin Books, 2017; quotes from pages 13-14). He does not waste time to push the point. "If the 'first world cyberwar' has already begun," he postulates, "then it is a war between networks." Borrowing from Yuval Harari's Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016), who distinguished between "the age of large-scale mass cooperative networks based on written language, money, culture, and ideology," (all the "products of carbon-based human neural networks"), and "a new era of silicon-based computer networks based on algorithms" (in which any disconnection "will come to mean death for the individual," but connection "will ultimately mean extinction for the species"), Ferguson posits that "a single global network will ultimately render Homo sapiens redundant and then extinct."
Though 'network' has acquired a multidisciplinary audience by ubiquitously invoking information and communications technologies (ICTs), blood, or neural systems, among others, and for being as related and relevant to human experiences as animal, the term boils down to a simple common denominator: a flow. That flow, according to Xiudian Dai of the University of Hull, may be called by its contemporary name of 'digital revolution', but which really began in the 19th century. He traces it back to Alexander Bell's telephone in 1876, Marconi's 1896 radio system, television broadcasting in the 1920s, the Morse Code from 1937, and electronic computers in the 1940s. With these evolved the electronic mail (e-mail), worldwide web (www), multi-channel digital TV broadcasting, digital versatile disc (DVD), integrated services digital network (ISDN), asynchronous digital subscriber line (ADSL), and the various generations of mobile communications (3G,4G, and 5G), without any end in sight (Digital Revolution and Governance, Ashgate, 2000, quotes from ch.1).
These have truly transformed society. Just as the 1967 invention of the automated teller machines, or ATMs (by Shepard Barron for Barclays Bank in London), began the human retrenchment process, so too has the advent of the worldwide web (www) contributed to driving newspapers out of the market. While these are slow-moving changes we witness with our own eyes, even more dramatic changes have been afoot: online teaching driving away teachers, with automation being experimented profusely and urgently in almost every other walk of life, from driving cars to surgeries, and in outperforming humans in chess, reproducing quality babies, and a wide variety of other applications of intelligence. The entire artificial intelligence (AI) industry is poised to replace the human being to a second-class status, in turn setting off profound socio-cultural and economic revolutions: sociologically, blood relations will diminish in value and relevance; culturally, mechanical substitutions of human involvements predicts a different ball game entirely; economically, not just the marginal but also the mainstream worker will be as easily dispensable as trash-removal; and politically, the more resistance grows, as inevitably, the greater the costs for society (if only for incrementally spiked costs).
These and other changes were explained through 'waves' by Alvin Toffler (The Third Wave, Bantam Books, 1980). He outlined three of them: the first, addressing the agricultural revolution whenever that took place in various societies; the second, the industrial revolution as and when that transformation surfaced; and the third, the post-industrial revolution or Information Age (or Electronic Era). Each has been riddled by collusions between countries, both intra-wave and inter-wave, demanding not just regulations and supervision, but also recognising how these have become virtually impossible to control the changes.
The result, according to Robert J. Stimson, has been a 'digital divide', from the 'Fordist' (or individual) to the 'post-Fordist' (or post-industrial) societies ("The digital divide: A review of socioeconomic and spatial distribution issues in ICTs," The Emerging Digital Economy, eds., Börje Johansson, et al, Springer, 2002): the former is nationally driven, featuring an 'old economy', with vertical and hierarchical organisational forms, the latter being more regional, with 'new economy' features, and more horizontal and flexible arrangements. Whereas the former relies on tangible resources, such as raw materials, human physical power, and 'hardware', the latter emphasises intangible resources, such as intellectual power and fleeting technologies ('software').
Two obvious consequences, according to Stephen Graham ("Bridging urban digital divides," Urban Studies 39, no. 1, 2002, 33-56): rapid urbanisation pushing rural areas further into the periphery; and the rapid resort to 'sunrise' technology, such as ICT resources ('software'), drawing a sharp line with 'sunset' technologies ('hardware'). Based on these developments, he identified 8 (eight) forces behind what he foresees as 21st century changes: globalisation; collapse of the state system against integrative and internationalising forces; evolving digital economy; industrial restructuring; labour market restructuring; 21st century corporate governance; internationalised business regulations; and new value motivators.
We have already seen some of Graham's forces in full flow (the first, third, fourth, and fifth), others intermittently (sixth, seventh, and eighth), and yet another one inversely (the second). What they predict becomes easier to comprehend: the digital revolution is indeed dividing societies, but that resistance is also being ramped up. For example, rather than collapse, we are currently witnessing state forces coagulating more than crumbling, egged on, particularly by disseminating from western countries, by strong, vocal, and forceful societal groups. Under swaying populist sway, integrative efforts, both regionally and internationally have been reined in or reversed, so much so, in fact, that undoing these resistant forces may take up much of the rest of this 21st century.
Over the long-run, though, the unstoppable technological drive cannot but prevail: that has been the story with every industrial revolution thus far, the only difference being the "hardware" propellant of the first three could be adjusted to over time, but the "software" thrust of the fourth epitomised in artificial intelligence (AI), and with it, the digital revolution soaring too high too fast, may remain beyond human reach, at least in the first half of this century. Humans have met their match, and that foe is none other than human creativity being absorbed and reconfigured more briskly, eloquently, and substantively by non-human contraptions designed by humans, but now too independent to keep under human control.
Of course, since the buck has nowhere to now stop, beyond rapid adjustments, society and its units, human beings, must resign themselves to increasing impoverishment in the most materialistic moment of human history, or increasing resistance since little else remains in between to be done.
Dr Imtiaz A Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.