- social

Keep the genie in the bag

Birinder Pal Singh

The department of Economics at Punjabi University, Patiala recently organised an international conference on ‘Innovation, knowledge accumulation and economic development in the era of the fourth industrial revolution.’ The organisers and the delegates lauded this first of its kind venture on the subject in the country. It is a welcome step, surely to be aware of the new revolution arriving in a developing country, a term that has been now blurred by the growth theory in the field of economics. This is also the era of ‘making in India’ and the ‘digital India’ when electricity is not available to most people round the clock in most parts of the year and yet we plan to go cash-less and use e-systems in all walks of life especially economic.


The fourth industrial revolution is pregnant with innovations, generating a tremendous store house of knowledge but seemingly poor in holistic economic development, hence high scepticism in most presentations at the conference regarding its usefulness to the people at large especially in the context of agriculture and agri-business, the mainstay of the north western states euphemistically called the granary of India.


Any revolution is usually not accorded a welcome by the majority people at that time since that disturbs the existing order and they are often sceptical of its benefits to them. But some people are overawed by the new developments in science and technology, as is the wont of middle class in the present times. However, there are always a few learned critics as well who forewarn the dangers fraught in this newness. The world so far has witnessed three revolutions and each one has boosted the pace of ‘development’. The world each time has touched new heights, so claim the elite since they are sure enough to reap the rich harvest of income and profits with such revolutions.


But the critics of such new developments are often ridiculed as traditionalists and backward. They are dubbed as closed minds that are scared of the new developments. Interestingly, those applauding the fourth revolution too consider social and political revolutions as disruptive, anarchic and violent. The red revolution, thus, got subdued and belittled with green, white and blue revolutions subsequently.


The Luddites in early nineteenth century England physically smashed the machines that were to dominate the world of production and transportation decades later. With the added advantage of hindsight, one tends to agree with them that all is not well with the machines. The industrial worker gets reduced to its appendage and becomes a cog in the wheel, losing his humaneness. He gets alienated from himself and everything else around him. In the recent times in India and especially in its north-western states, we find farmers working with large tractors and harvester combines more prone to commit suicide than those working with the traditional ploughs elsewhere. The medium is the message, so says Marshall MacLuhan.


A philosopher has rightly said that such technological revolutions are built into the system of production for the sheer necessity of maximizing the profit of the investors. We find that with each successive revolution certain classes and some people amongst them only could reap the harvest gainfully. Warren Buffet, number two in the rich list of the world says: ‘This has been a prosperity that’s been disproportionately rewarding to the people on top.’…  ‘The economy is doing well, but all Americans aren’t doing well.’ (Murphy 2017) How is it that the so-called people friendly technological revolutions, as these are made out to be, have not helped the majority people? Why do we have one per cent Indians controlling the wealth of 73 per cent people (figures given by the OXFAM 2018 report)?


The scene at the global level is equally dismal with rising levels of inequality. Thomas Picketty, a French economist has seen such trends globally over the last one century. The gap between the rich and the poor and those managing the corporations and its workers is widening globally. The World Economic Forum had already warned that ‘inequality is the number one trend to watch in 2015.’ The CNN too reports two years later in 2017: ‘The richest 1% of families controlled a record-high 38.6% of the country’s wealth in 2016, according to a Federal Reserve report… The bottom 90% of families now hold just 22.8% of the wealth, down from about one-third in 1989 when the Fed started tracking this measure.’


The domains of artificial intelligence and robotics may be very exciting in the field of scientific inquiry and technological research per se but what good it will do to the teeming millions worldwide who are living at less than two dollars a day. Such developments may be good for those countries who are investing in this research since they have plenty of resources and scanty population. They have to import immigrants to run their essential services, but what good it will do to thickly populated countries in Asia and Africa with already high levels of unemployment and poverty. The hidden agenda of these developments in the developed countries may be to check immigration from the poorer nations of black and brown people and more so because some amongst them may be potential terrorists.


A country with more than 130 crore people is not able to provide useful employment to its people. What do we do with the cloned Dolly and the emotional Sophia? I am sure, the fourth industrial revolution too will follow the footsteps of its predecessors and make the social inequality more skewed than ever. We must remember Mahatma Gandhi in this context who would dismiss any revolution that does not do good to all, not to the detriment of a single person. Does the fourth revolution has such potential? If not, then, let the genie remain in the bag itself, please.


The author is with the department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Punjabi University, Patiala-147002. (birinder_pal@rediffmail.com)