Actually, welcome to the Third Industrial Revolution. I woke up to the fact of this revolution on Christmas Eve this year, thanks to a few pages by Jeremy Rifkin, and this realization quickly solved two nagging problems. It got me out of the doghouse on four Christmas presents, and it gave me an “ahaa!” clarity about what happened in our election on November 8th this year, a gift I’m eager to pass along to you.
If you’re not aware that there’s a revolution going on, you’re in good company. Nobody I’ve talked to since Christmas Eve is aware of it either. Yet we all know what Google, Facebook, EBay, Graigslist, AirBnB, ZipCar, Uber, Wikipedia, YouTube, and Amazon have done to shift power from the corporate board room to the solo entrepreneur and to cooperative networks. You may not find this power shifting threatening, but think of the corporate dynasties that have taken big hits in the last two decades. Think of most newspapers, record companies, advertising giants, book publishers, postal services all around the world, taxi companies, hotel chains, and the giant retail stores that anchor our big malls and now are selling off their real estate while Amazon hires a larger workforce.
Amazon started out in 1994 as an online bookstore and a platform for solo booksellers, many of whom work out of their homes. In 2007 1.3 million sellers sold products through Amazon. The traditional capitalist way of doing business is taking hits from upstart start-ups, and power is being distributed outward and laterally in every sector of society. Some people find that threatening. In my daily efforts to make sense of our power struggles in the infancy of the Trump regime, I find it both exciting and reassuring to remember that Trump is just a role player—though potentially a dangerous one—in the bigger drama of this Third Industrial Revolution.
Washington Park, Cincinnati, 12:30 pm, January 21, 2017
On the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump the streets of 670 cities looked like the scenes of a global revolution. But this is not a political revolution, at least not at the root, not like 1776 for the colonies, or 1789 for France, or the 1960’s here in the USA. So it does not really matter which side of the 2016 election you were on. We’re all living in this revolution whether we like it or not, all over the world. This is an industrial and economic revolution that is radically changing the way we do business with each other. This revolution was well on its way before Mr Trump jumped into the scene. In fact, the accelerating pace of the revolution may be the very reason Mr Trump jumped in now.
Back in 2012 I read Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Third Industrial Revolution. That book also got me out of the doghouse on four Christmas presents to those same four impressionable sons. But I didn’t grasp the impact of Rifkin’s announcement of this revolution until the 2016 election whacked me on the head and then I read on Christmas Eve morning the first chapter of Rifkin’s latest book (2014) The Zero Marginal Cost Society: the Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism.
Rifkin tells us that the Third Industrial Revolution is bigger than the First Industrial Revolution, which was ushered in by coal, the steam engine, and the rapid printing press that spawned capitalism and socialism in the early 19th century throughout the western hemisphere. This current revolution is also bigger than the Second Industrial Revolution, ushered in the early 20th century by the discovery of oil, the invention of the combustion engine and the car, and the wrapping of telephone wires around the world, all of which made possible the emergence of mega-companies like Standard Oil and General Motors. These two storms of invention in the energy, transportation/manufacturing, and communications sectors revolutionized the way societies did business twice in the last two centuries, all over the world.
Now, in the early 21st century a third storm of inventions is revolutionizing the way we do business with each other. No wonder those who stand to lose find that threatening. The browning of America and eight years under our first black president and the recent prospect of our first woman president have spelled the end of the dominance of the white male in our power hierarchies. No wonder conservative white males came out to vote last November in surprising numbers for a throwback white male billionaire chauvinist real estate tycoon, for a cartoon of the capitalist bully who promotes fear of foreigners and “America First!” Mr Trump speaks the voice of an old order that won’t go down without a fight. It is already an ugly fight. But the fight is not about Mr Trump, though he would like us to think so and we do have to deal with him. The fight is about how we do business with each other, all over the world.
According to Rifkin, senior lecturer at the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, our third revolution began back in the 1990’s with popular access to the internet. The internet is now nearly free for users, for the first time providing the world with a nearly zero cost medium for communication and business. The internet has revolutionized communication and commerce more radically and more rapidly for more people around the world in a shorter period of time than the printing press or the telephone did in their day. We used to pay good money for books, records, fast mail, long distance phone calls, college courses, electric power, and starting a small business. Now we can buy each of these for nearly nothing. Facebook was a pipedream just fifteen years ago. Some people find that threatening. I find it promising.
Rifkin asserts that a driving force for this Third Industrial Revolution is the rapid escalation of the climate crisis. If we don’t switch fast to relying more on renewable energy, we face climate disasters, droughts, and famines that will likely decimate agricultural output as we know it. However, the decline of oil and a rapid rise of renewable energy sources could bring us a shift from the very expensive to the very cheap, from extremely capital intensive drilling and processing and distributing of a finite natural resource by a few enormous corporate dynasties (Standard Oil, Exxon, and Shell) to the reality that soon many of us will be energy producers as well as consumers, or “prosumers.”. As we adopt solar, wind, and biomass capacities plugged into an energy grid that is owned by none and shared by all—the “Energy Internet,” as Rifkin calls it—power will literally be widely distributed, instead of tightly concentrated in the hands of the power companies. This shift to renewable energy may happen faster in developing countries through micro-grids in rural areas. Rifkin spells out how this industrial revolution is changing the way we deliver higher education, finance enterprises, and achieve unprecedented efficiencies in the production and consumption of energy and products through the “Internet of Things.”
This revolution demands new ways of governing to manage forces such as the internet and global climate change that know no national boundaries. More than ever we need cooperation among cultures and across continents—global networks, not walls between nations, not hostile insults aimed at our partners. Chapter One of Rifkin’s latest book is titled The Great Paradigm Shift from Market Capitalism to the Collaborative Commons. He reminds us that before we had big government and big business, just two hundred years ago, we organized ourselves in small villages and towns around the sharing of common resources none of us owned, such as pastureland, our town commons, water, our marketplace, childrearing, and village security in a “commons” model of governance. Modern big government and big business are not about to go away, but the internet has revived the commons model of governance for the management not just of information but for many of our sharable resources, such as energy, oceans, the atmosphere, education, and the genetic code.
Welcome to the revolution. The rules of the game are changing. The “commons” model for doing business is challenging the capitalist model. As industrial revolutions go, this one is moving fast. But fear and the “forgotten man” are in the White House now, determined to change the game back to what it once was—a fool’s errand. I find it reassuring to read Rifkin and remember that this revolution is bigger than any one person and more powerful than any political agenda. Our choice is not whether to join the revolution, but how to join it and guide it. How do we contain and ease the fears of those who oppose these changes? Another storm of inventions is already changing us for the better, and for the third time in three centuries. How do we prevent the reactionary scrapping of recent progress in the Third Industrial Revolution?
Rifkin wrote The Zero Marginal Cost Society in 2014, but for me he spelled out the urgency of the issues that have been magnified by Trump’s election: immigration reform, renewable energy implementation, education reform, political reform to insure fairer representation, women’s rights, healthcare for all, cyber security, embracing the Internet of Things, adopting a collaborative commons approach to governance in certain sectors, and international cooperation on all these fronts. I sleep better at night knowing we can do these things. The alternative of ignoring them or opposing them may not be compatible with life, not the life I want to live.