History Repeats Itself – And Sometimes That’s Good
“The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”
This famous quote by 19th century Germany philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is particularly relevant these days. We are in the middle of another industrial revolution. This revolution involves artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, machine learning, robotics and more. These technology marvels are combining to change the way we live, work and play.
History has demonstrated – over and over – that such change is good. However, the neo-Luddites are out in force.
Fear of the Future – Again
After all, technological progress can bring rapid change. Rapid change breeds fear and resistance.
People worry their skills will become obsolete. Their wages will decline. Their jobs will disappear. The revolution will destroy daily life.
These fears of worst-case scenarios have all happened before. And headlines proclaiming “300 million jobs Will Be Lost or Degraded By Artificial Intelligence” reinforce However, history repeatedly shows that these concerns are largely unfounded.
The best long-term option? Embrace change and learn from history.
The First Industrial Revolution: Steaming toward Skepticism
The First Industrial Revolution spanned from 1760 to 1840. Industries rapidly adopted new technologies such as the steam engine, textile machines and factories. These innovations revolutionized industries.
But they also sparked significant resistance. Many feared that these advancements would render their skills obsolete, reducing wages and employment opportunities.
Yes, working conditions were brutal in some factories. Pollution certainly increased. But factories were often able to lure workers from the farm with higher wages.
Instead of an apocalypse and widespread unemployment, the First Industrial Revolution created new jobs and increased productivity.
The Second Industrial Revolution: Resisting Railways
During the Second Industrial Revolution, the Bessemer process allowed mass production of cheap steal. Electricity became more commonplace. While dates vary, many historians place the Second Industrial Revolution between 1850 and 1914.
Once again, groups resisted changes. At the risk of repeating myself, they feared “these advancements would render their skills obsolete, reducing wages and employment opportunities.”
However, as with the First Industrial Revolution, these fears were proven wrong. Adopting new technologies not only led to economic growth but also created new industries and employment opportunities.
Don’t believe me? Well, will you believe railroad track maintenance workers?
Steel and coal helped railways grow. In turn, railroads played a key role in transforming six key industries: automotive, construction, agriculture, manufacturing, mining and retail.
Take two examples – mining and agriculture. Railroads solved the problem of transporting heavy loads of coal, copper, iron and other mined material. Railroads solved the problem of rapidly transporting perishable agricultural products.
Think refrigerated goods and fresh fruit and vegetables. Thank this industrial revolution next time you sit on an Atlantic beach taking a bite out of a Washington state apple.
The Third Industrial Revolution: Computers and Controversy
Computers, the internet and mobile phones marked the Third Industrial Revolution.
Again, dates vary, but the first programmable computer, the ENIAC, was ready in 1945. Still, it took decades for computers and mobile phones to become everyday items for most everybody. We can also thank the geniuses of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and others. Combined with the rapid growth of the internet, and I would consider the digital age complete by 2010.
As expected, people and groups resisted these technological changes.
Once again, “they feared these advancements would render their skills obsolete, reducing wages and employment opportunities.”
However, history repeated itself once more.
These innovations ultimately sparked the creation of entirely new job categories and industries. Web developer. U/X designer. Data scientist. Software engineer. Application developer. Cloud developer.
Even humble bloggers like myself. None of these jobs exist without the Third Industrial Revolution.
On a personal level, we can shop from anywhere. We can communicate with loved ones and colleagues from anywhere. We can access medical information from anywhere. We can learn from anywhere.
The revolution significantly improved the quality of life for billions of people around the world.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Anxiety Disorder and AI
Today, we are in the middle of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Again, people fear that “these advancements would render their skills obsolete, reducing wages and employment opportunities.” They are warning this time about artificial intelligence, specifically advanced forms of generative AI.
However, if history serves as a guide, future events will prove these concerns unfounded. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will create new opportunities and industries. Once again, history will repeat itself. Overall, the world will be a better place.
The Fear of Advancements: A Recurring Theme
The fear of technological advancements replacing workers is a recurring theme throughout history. New technologies have consistently reshaped the nature and demand for work. However, these technologies have consistently created more jobs than they have displaced, increased productivity, and improved the overall standard of living. It is crucial to recognize this pattern and address the anxieties of the present with the lessons of the past.
The Luddites: A Historical Example
One of the most famous examples of resistance to technological change during the First Industrial Revolution is the Luddite movement. The Luddites believed that powered weaving looms produced poor-quality cloth and threatened their livelihoods.
They responded by meeting at night, attacking factories and destroying looms. They acted in the name of Ned Ludd, a mythical person they regarded as their leader.
Eventually, governments suppressed the Luddites. Technological progress continued.
The Neo-Luddites Rise Again
Today, we see a new generation of individuals and groups who are skeptical of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Some want to slow down or even dismantle potential breakthroughs. They want to protect the status quo. They claim they aim to eliminate threats to humanity.
However, humanity has proven resilient and adaptable. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, including AI and automation, hold immense promise for solving some of society’s most pressing challenges.
In healthcare alone, AI and automation could reduce human error, improving diagnostics, patient outcomes, access, analytics, even robotic surgery.
In my world of supply chain and leadership, artificial intelligence and machine learning can improve many areas. After decades of slow progress, I have seen rapid improvements in warehouse management systems, transportation management systems and other areas.
And complete digital supply networks were not even possible until a few years ago.
I hear the warnings of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and others who predict humanity’s doom. We must provide guidance on AI safety and ethical issues, whether it’s giving bad advice or making up things that are not true.
But do not let fear kill the future. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will create new jobs, enhance productivity, and drive economic growth. Even one of our best friends has been upgraded with AI. That would be your superhuman assistant Alexa.
So, to the neo-Luddites of 2023: “Chill”. Thank you for your concerns. But we will be fine.
The weaving loom, electricity and mobile phones created more jobs, increased productivity and improved the quality of life. So will AI. Let’s be open-minded, diligent and thoughtful as we harness its power and enjoy its benefits.
Like Hegel said at the top, we learn nothing from history.
Let’s learn this time. Would you like to see how progress and technology can help your organization? If so, let’s take the discussion to another level.
Jim Tompkins, Chairman of Tompkins Ventures, is an international authority on designing and implementing end-to-end supply chains. Over five decades, he has designed countless industrial facilities and supply chain solutions, enhancing the growth of numerous companies. He previously built Tompkins International from a backyard startup into an international consulting and implementation firm. Jim earned his B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering from Purdue University.