For decades, scholars have been trying to classify the history of technology in terms of revolutions, eras or surges. These attempts are typically based on the macro-economic impact of (sets) of technologies and they tend to claim mankind is about to enter a radically different era. What can we learn from these classifications and what do they tell us about the oft-proclaimed digital revolution that is still ahead of us?

Our observations

  • The traditional periodization of (modern) technology starts with the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and early 19th century in Britain, which resulted in a step change in productivity and welfare. This was followed by the Technological Revolution, the Digital Revolution and the, just-begun, Fourth Industrial Revolution (a term widely embraced by, amongst others, the World Economic Forum). Still, the actual economic impact of digital technology is still a subject of debate (e.g. the work of Robert Gordon).
  • We often refer to the work of Carlota Perez, who has developed a similar, but more fine-grained, periodization on the basis of (sets of) so-called general purpose technologies. She distinguishes five instead of three revolutions (between the late 18th and early 21st century) and her focus is on the role of capital in the shaping of technological revolutions, their (cyclical) impact on economic growth (and recessions) and the emergence of new institutions (e.g. rules, structures of governance or new business models). To Perez, we are still in the fifth surge, but the sixth (based on A.I., 5G and quantum computing) is already visible (akin to the Fourth Industrial Revolution).
  • Johan Schot, building on the work of Perez and the literature on transition studies, has coined the term Deep Transitions to describe the process of industrial modernization. According to Schot, we are currently witnessing the early stages of the next Deep Transition, which will result in a much more egalitarian and sustainable socio-economic system.
  • There is no shortage of alternative proposals for a periodization of history in relation to technology. In the 1930s, Lewis Mumford proclaimed the world on the brink of the neotechnic phase (and out of the paleotechnic), Toffler in the 1980s spoke of the Third Wave and Castells of the network society (or Information Age) in the 1990s.
  • Today, again, we see a number of popular thinkers claiming that we find ourselves in a time of grand change. According to them, we are about to enter an era of endless (digital) possibilities and wealth (e.g. singularity, Second Machine Age, superintelligence or abundance), develop into a kind of superhuman (e.g. homo deus) or see a radically different model of global governance (i.e. the Stack).
  • Instead of a primarily economic focus, one may also look at the history of technology from a broader perspective of “social development” or through a lens as specific as life expectancy or the carbon content of the energy system. As for the latter, wood, our prehistoric fuel, holds about ten carbon (C) atoms for each hydrogen (H) atom (i.e. a 10:1 ratio) and releases relatively large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) when it’s burned. More recently, mankind has (partially) switched to coal (with a C to H ratio of 2:1), to oil (1:2), to natural gas (1:4) and will possibly switch to hydrogen (zero carbon) in the future.

Connecting the dots

The basic tenet of each periodization of the history of technology is that each revolution, cycle or wave brings about a step change in productivity and, hence, welfare. Each revolution also has a darker side (e.g. worsening labor conditions or environmental damage), but these historic demarcations are, first and foremost, based on economic output. There are widely-held perspectives about each of these on why change took (or will take) place and what the precise effects are or will be. The classic perspective is relatively techno-deterministic, with a strong focus on the technologies that drove change and less so on the process of change itself. Each revolution brings about stronger, faster or better technology, but there is no further framework to distinguish or explain recurring patterns of change.
Because of this, we have, in our previous writings, shown great interest in the work of Perez (e.g. in From Luxury to Necessity) as she has developed a framework to recognize and understand why technology development comes in revolutions and which recurring patterns (e.g. of bubbles and crises) are visible in each revolution. As part of these recurring patterns, Perez also highlights the role of institutional development, which guides the direction of socio-technological systems and the development of the wider economic system in response to (and in support of) technological change.
Clearly, people always feel they are living in a time of great change. Current authors proclaiming the next revolution do so as well, and even though their articulations of the future differ somewhat, they all build on an intuitive scheme of the history of technology. There was a pre-history (of very basic technologies), a history filled with powerful but relatively dumb technologies and an ultra-smart future that surpasses everything we know today. At first glance, the Deep Transitions framework of Schot hinges on such a crude periodization as well.

However, in essence, a Deep Transition is much more the result of the accumulation of subsequent bigger and smaller transitions (i.e. micro-revolutions) and, especially, their institutional outcomes (e.g. the slow emergence of a new economic and societal paradigm). In that sense, the notion of Deep Transitions is also much more evolutionary; even when macro-economic changes come in shocks, as Perez describes, the real-life changes (in everyday life and society’s institutions) are much more gradual and path-dependent.
Looking ahead, it could very well be that the development of technology and, hence, productivity may not be as jolting as it used to be. Future economic growth, insofar as it is driven by IT and Artificial Intelligence, promises to be much smoother (be it linear or exponential), as new solutions and applications are built directly on top of each other. While this was partially true for previous technologies (e.g. electricity was generated from steam power and the Internet was built on top of the old telephone and cable network), the fact that all digital technology uses a shared language (binary code) and resource (data), makes for a truly modular system in which new applications can be added to older systems with relative ease. This is likely to dampen the shocks that normally occur between generations of digital technologies. At the same time, a radical breakthrough in the field of A.I., for instance, could, in theory, result in rapid adoption and bursts of changes in productivity (and in our everyday lives) without the long lead times (and early warning signs) that preceded the introduction of the technologies of the past.

Implications

  • Energy and mechanical power played a crucial role in the industrial or technological revolutions of the past. It remains questionable whether any kind of digital or smart revolution can have a profound (global) economic impact when it’s not accompanied by likewise developments in energy technology (or food or water). Obviously, digital technology can greatly enhance efficiencies in those sectors and provide data and solutions for a more circular economy, but it is unlikely that those sectors will be able to keep up with the exponential development of digital technology itself.
  • Not all proclamations of new eras have come true. Atomic energy never managed to incite a new revolution and other grand technologies (or complexes of technologies), such as nanotech, have also failed to result in a new era, notwithstanding analysts’ claims.