There was only one industrial revolution

Many people these days talk about an impending “fourth industrial revolution” led by AI, the internet of things, 3D printing, quantum computing, and more. The first three revolutions are supposed to be:

  • 1st industrial revolution (~1800-1870): the world industrializes for the first time via steam, textiles, etc.
  • 2nd industrial revolution (1870-1914): continued huge growth via steel, oil, other things, and especially electricity.
  • 3rd industrial revolution (1980-today): personal computers, internet, etc.

I think this is a misleading framing for the last few centuries, though, because one of these things is not remotely like the others. As far as I can tell, the major curves of human well-being and empowerment bent exactly once in recorded history, during the “1st” industrial revolution:

all curves, with events

(And yes, there’s still a sharp jump around 1800-1870 if you chart this on a log scale.)

The “2nd” and “3rd” industrial revolutions, if they are coherent notions at all, merely continued the new civilizational trajectory created by the “1st” industrial revolution.

I think this is important for thinking about how big certain future developments might be. For example, authors of papers at some top machine learning conference seem to think there’s a decent chance that “unaided machines [will be able to] accomplish every task better and more cheaply than human workers” sometime in the next few decades. There’s plenty of reason to doubt this aggregate forecast,1 but if that happens, I think the impact would likely be on the scale of the (original) industrial revolution, rather than that of e.g. the (so small it’s hard to measure?) impact of the “3rd” industrial revolution. But for some other technologies (e.g. “internet of things”), it’s hard to tell a story for how it could possibly be as big a deal as the original industrial revolution.

  1. E.g. answers differ depending on how you ask the question, we should worry about response bias, and it’s not clear whether AI scientists or anyone else can make reliable long-term forecasts of this sort. {}


  1. Nile says

    We might also consider that those lines were trending upwards already, before the drastic upturn in the late 18th Century.

    The acceleration in energy demand, led by ‘manufactuaries’ of looms and pottery kilns, and fulfilled by water- and then by steam-power, gave the society of the day the power to do more of what they were already doing.

    What then, are the effects of another acceleration in the current trends to concentrated wealth and greater inequality, decreasing life expectancy, pervasive surveillance, and the hollowing-out of democracy by an ‘information revolution’ that is no longer about the information we might use to our benefit, and all about the information we are fed?

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