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The other side of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Workload & wires: Killing us softly?

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: October 31, 2019 20:08:46 | Updated: November 02, 2019 21:17:43


Just the metamorphosis of the term "burned out" tells us how rapidly and irrevocably society has changed over the past generation. From being a reference to "life-management" to becoming an "occupational phenomenon" dramatically captures the shift of the term from the social context to the individual, more precisely from the inherent gregarious proclivity to a workaholic leftover. Clearly how new technologies have entrapped us more comprehensively than ever before is part and parcel of the causal component in any equation. Not so softly disguised has been our multiplying material lust, at the extreme, pushing us to work harder to fetch the income to sustain our suddenly elevated lifestyles.

Michael Musker, who has studied this burn-out evolution and its concurrent characterisation, points out the central features of what the term entails. Energy depletion tops that list, and, as expected, mental distancing from the actual work and, thereby, reduced efficiency, become automatic corollaries ("These are the signs that you are suffering from burnout at work," World Economic Forum, Newsletter, June 14, 2019). We sense, see, and sympathise with any or all of the symptoms, yet show a classic form of indifference increasingly towards it, with the complete submission to gadgets that we have historically mastered depicting the entire process (beginning with conceiving and materialising to consummating and manipulating it, from start to finish).

In today's language, 'hardware' refers to technologies requiring a fixed station, that is, a factory, to be fully workable and efficient. This was the defining feature of the first and second industrial revolutions, producing mostly blue-collared jobs: people found jobs requiring largely physical input to produce a good; and since physical exertion had limits, so too those jobs, either from 9am to 5pm, or some such periodic slots. There remained plenty of time for recuperation before the next day's routine began. We filled that recuperation phase by shopping for our groceries, picking children up from school, dining, typically with the entire family, watching television, often the nightly news, then tapping the alarm-clock to wake us up early in the morning, early enough for breakfast, again, over another family get-together, then trekking to work to begin another day. Pressure was there, but buried by the overall peace and predictability.

With the third and fourth industrial revolutions shifting the playing-field from the physical to the intellectual, a more destructive seed was unwittingly planted. Though we mysteriously dub these new technologies 'software', they inflict more damages than the typical weariness of the first and second industrial revolutions. With the ball-game shifting from the muscles to the brain-cells, we cannot, first of all, feel the wear and tear upon the body, but, secondly, and, more wrenchingly, we have been so much more seduced by the more portable technologies that we easily (often willingly) succumb more to the enticements than to our body crying out, silently, for attention and pause. Waiting for the cell-phone to purr, or its bell ringing for every new 'like' to our own self-enhancing Facebook posting, Googling downloads of the entire universe of possible answers to the professor's classroom question, and, to top it all off, the crème de la crème activity, copy-pasting the entire term paper for that professor. Who would want to sleep to rebuild the body cells when so many 'cookies' could be gotten with the new technologies, particularly if they reap the 'A' grade in class. That fictitious 'A' grade sows the very seeds of the invincibility mindset that these technologies breed (and were probably advertised to elicit the individual attention in the first place)?

Even as these 'white' lies to our own selves and to others get reined in (after all, even the superfluous 'A' student will have to come to his/her Rubicon at some point), the body damage continues and continues to also be denied, until exhaustion prevails.

Even if a direct co-relationship has not as yet been established (becoming, in itself, an imperative for our community calm), that the suicide rate is also growing in harmony with this 'software' attraction, society is beginning to take its toll, becoming unhinged here and there. As alluded to, each individual is retreating more into himself/herself, much like billionaires typically do, with the critical difference being that previous billions were real and largely built upon a rock-solid foundation, whereas today's are built largely upon fast-fleeting wealth or even sand-dunes, that is, expectations partly bred by those new contraptions. More Facebook 'likes' might elevate one's stock-market value socially, but in so doing also breed the feeling of a  real market value also spiking.

Added to that invincibility delusion is the increasing mental malfunctioning spilling over into society.  One part of it stems from the false pillars of intellectual growth already alluded to. Another part emanates from the incapacity to follow up even genuine software success: not all programmers can easily switch to repeat performance because of the greater competition, or from simply getting spoiled from sudden riches. Barring a Steve Jobs or some other Silicon Valley nerd, success of past accomplishment now releases the sclerotic effect upon the next would-be invention far faster, a feature not uncommon in the first and second industrial revolutions (for example, the laws of diminishing returns that even Adam Smith could conceive before the very first assembly-line was in place), but at a more glacial pace. Overall, the malfunctioning is becoming an inherent quality of rapid technological escalation: 'software' improvements can happen overnight, which is impossible for 'hardware technologies (assembly-lines cannot be replaced every other year, month, or week), thus creating uncertainty from the transitions, adjustments, and necessary training.

Perhaps the greatest casualty of the 'software' revolution has been the slow, subtle, and costly abandonment of society by the indulgent 'software' players. Even a fortress-mindedness carries a social circle, limited though it may be. Yet here we see individuals literally casting away for the uncharted sea virtually alone, as if the rewards and riches to be acquired must be reaped and consummated alone. Those Facebook 'likes' translate into lots of new friendship circles, but ones with more flaky foundations than friendships used to previously be.

All of these impose far higher overhead costs. Just a 'salary', as opposed to a 'wage' multiplies the starting costs, and since 'software' innovators also come in multiplied numbers compared to 'hardware' innovators (the Henry Bessemer, Henry Ford, James Hargreaves and so forth), expenses always remain astronomically higher even though market costs may be many times lower (owing to the efficiency new technology permits). Added to these are the transition and adjustment costs aforementioned. Consumption levels keep pace with higher income, so much so that the assumption of expected income encourages reckless spending. Indebtedness of high-salaried workers is not uncommon, and is growing, and often connected to the spiraling suicide rate previously mentioned.

Where does that leave us? Clearly the "revolution of rising expectations", Karl Marx was confident, would lead to capitalist societies crashing has been partly true: capitalism may be at its zenith in this neo-liberal age, but market crashes, recessions, and slowdowns have become too common to not make any causal connection. With the 'software' revolution, this has spiralled out of control, leaving more societies at the brink, a financial fault line being papered over by governmental intervention and other unsavoury market interventions.

"There are daggers behind men's smiles," Lady Macbeth astutely warned her apparition-haunted monarch husband. We have almost reached that point of society, but who would have thought the sunny-looking Fourth Industrial Revolution would be the goose to lay that fatal egg.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor and Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

imtiaz.hussain@iub.edu.bd

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