The Word Economic Forum closed at the weekend. The annual event held in Davos, Switzerland brings together the leading politicians, businessmen and intellectuals to discuss the world developments.
One of the themes this year was the Fourth Industrial revolution. In human history we have seen three eras that have seen human productivity achieving quantum leaps in technology and they seem to happen every 100 years.
From 1784 the harnessing of steam and water power to cause mechanical production was the first industrial revolution. Division of labour, use of electricity and mass production starting in 1870 heralded the second industrial revolution. And then in 1969 with electronics, IT (Information Technologies) and automated production has brought us to where we are now.
Following on from our current circumstances thinkers see a world of “cyber physical systems” where not only will all our devices be connected but it is not inconceivable that we will be connected to our devices.
The possibilities are at once incredible and scary.
On the one hand imagine a situation where we would be able to tap much more easily than we do now, into the data bases of the world, increasing collaboration and reducing the time between innovations. On the other hand there is the possibility of the creation of super smart robots, which raises apocalyptic visions of robots running amok and seek to exterminate the human race, a la Terminator.
"The key thing is that with greater access to information due to better connectivity, worldwide human productivity will increase and usher in the fourth industrial revolution...
About 30 years ago futuristic thinker Alvin Toffler talked about the evolution of power down human history. First it was the strongest man in the cave who was the leader. With the creation of money it soon became the man with the most money who led the society. Physical force is good for coercion but with money not only can you buy the means of coercion but you can actually induce behaviour to your liking by paying for it. And finally he said we were living in the third wave – with the first two trends being the first and second wave. In the third wave it is the man who can generate, store, process and disseminate data that will rule the world.
It is already happening. We talk of the wealth and income disparities in the world. Oxfam ahead of the Davos meet said one percent of the world’s population already control more wealth than the bottom half combined. At the bottom of this material disparity is an even greater disparity in data generation, storage, processing and dissemination.
This disparity exemplified by the digital divide is what sustains the material inequalities.
However as we have seen with the mobile phone, this increasing connectivity if we adopt it with openness and foresight can help us leapfrog into the 21st century.
For example our challenge now is how we industrialise. People who should know argue that our best bet is to develop our agro based industries. However there are impediments to raising farm productivity, access to the cutting age biotechnologies, access to markets and even tapping into the billions of dollars in finance swirling around the world in search for a home.
Better communication will bring these things much closer to home for us than the Asians in the 1970s or the Europeans at the time of the agrarian revolution.
"With better communication being a landlocked country will not be death sentence as some old school economists have concluded...
But the rising up to this potential is not inevitable. We can miss the bus entirely by refusing to open our communications space to new technologies, drag our feet on rejigging our education system and generally failing to see that some concessions will have to be made now to see benefits well into the future.
Our post-independence governments made the error of stifling the private sector, frustrating capital growth and hoping in effect to distribute poverty. As a result the continent is lagging far behind the rest of the world on every measurable index.
We are on the cusp of a new era, where a break from the old thinking of carving out small spaces and defending the despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, will make the difference between a better life for our people in the future or existing at sub-human levels , beaten down by poverty, disease and war.
We need to open ourselves to the consumption of these new technologies but also create the manpower to able to adopt these technologies to provide solutions to our own unique challenges.