Life as we know it would not have been possible without three Industrial Revolutions. These revolutions, which should be thought of as ongoing processes rather than discrete and mutually distinct eras, occurred at varying times over the last three centuries (and continue to evolve today). Each transformed the way humans live and think and work.
Since 2011, when the phrase “Industry 4.0” was coined at the Hannover Messe trade fair in Germany, it has become en vogue to speak about how the emergence of Industry 4.0, i.e., the Internet of Things (IoT) and the “smart” economy, constitutes a Fourth Industrial Revolution. The rollout of standalone 5G networks over the course of the next decade means that the realization of this long-imagined Fourth Industrial Revolution is finally nigh.
Industry, however, does not exist in a vacuum. Politics is the context in which all economic life occurs. When politics works efficiently, economics flows easily: we make things, buy and sell things, go to restaurants, build houses, have children, get sick, discover resources, invent technologies, and more.
When politics is not working efficiently, economics – the aggregate sum of all the little decisions we make in our daily lives – stalls. Politics is an abstraction, a human-made construct designed to enforce order by setting rules and making sure everyone plays by them. Economics is a reflection of our actual lived experience. It almost always takes politics time to catch up to economics – and when it does, politics tries to reassert control.
That is why every major industrial revolution of the past 300 years has been followed almost immediately by a corresponding geopolitical revolution – and why a Fourth Geopolitical Revolution (“Geopolitics 4.0”) is underway.
The First Industrial Revolution was sparked by the advent of steam power in late-18th century Britain. From roughly 1760-1840, mechanical production led to massive increases in capacity and productivity. More efficient and fertile food production led to increases in population and reduced the need for young people to stay home on the farm. Those same young people went to work in factories. Industrial mega-cities emerged, as did regional and global market economies.
The political fallout was no less transformative. The politics of identity broadened from one’s village to one’s nation. The American and French Revolutions birthed new republics. New nations emerged in Italy and Germany. Europe’s hunger for markets led to the Opium Wars – and the eventual collapse of the Qing Dynasty. The United Kingdom, after winning the Napoleonic wars, gave the Mughal Empire the coup de grâce and created the basis for modern India. Vast multiethnic empires fell one by one, replaced by more homogeneous nation-states. The divine right of kings was supplanted by Rousseau’s social contract because the people possessed more power than ever before.
By the end of the century, a Swedish professor named Rudolf Kjellén coined a new word to describe the international relations of the First Industrial Revolution: “geopolitics.” (This may come as a surprise to those who think Thucydides was the father of geopolitics. Geopolitics is actually a very modern concept.) In his magnum opus, published in 1916, Kjellén describes the state as a “living organism” – a living, breathing, biological being composed of a land and its people. He believed Geopolitics 1.0 depended on how one organism in particular was going to evolve in the future: the recently unified German Empire.
The Second Industrial Revolution, roughly dated from 1870 to 1914, was powered by electricity. Steam power meant humans were no longer beasts of burden. Electric power meant those same humans could create assembly lines and produce at massive scale. The invention of the telephone began to connect humans around the world. Decreased travel times and eventually the internal combustion engine made hitherto unimaginable treks a regular occurrence. Science and technology and the progress they unleashed seemed unstoppable. Economic interdependence would end all future wars.
The world’s next great geopolitical thinker, Halford Mackinder, saw it differently. Mackinder believed that “The Heartland” of the Eurasian continent – what is today roughly equivalent to Eastern Europe – was the geographical pivot of history. Nervous of Germany’s rising power, Mackinder believed Germany or Russia would try to conquer this strategic territory – and must not be allowed to control it.
Thus followed, in quick succession, World War I and World War II. These immensely destructive conflicts were all for control of Mackinder’s “Heartland.” Geopolitics 2.0 also represented the fusion of two of the previous revolution’s most significant byproducts: nationalism and renewed faith in scientific progress. Geopolitics became survival of the fittest and nationalism became aggressive tribalism and both eventually metastasized from Europe to the rest of the world.
The Third Industrial Revolution, often referred to as the Digital Revolution, began shortly after World War II but did not kick off in earnest until the 1960s. Computers began to sort through huge amounts of data. In quick succession, semiconductors, mainframe computing, personal computers, and the internet transformed the world. Multilateral global institutions began to regulate trade, security, and international law. The developing world rapidly adopted the First and Second Industrial Revolutions and, in some cases, sped ahead of their predecessors, creating a whole new class of states and markets.
In geopolitics, the Iron Curtain descended. Two would-be global powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, competed for world domination. The invention of nuclear weapons meant they dare not attack each other directly, so Geopolitics 3.0’s primary military theater was various proxy conflicts throughout what Nicholas Spykman called “The Rimland” – and even in the heavens above.
This was a Cold War between two mutually exclusive ideological systems: capitalism and communism. Both the US and the USSR believed in the universality of their principles and sought to remake the world in their respective images – and to use the tools of the Digital Revolution to do so. Ironically, their competition laid the groundwork for globalization after the Soviet Union collapsed. The Digital Revolution made the world even more interconnected, complex, and smaller, and Geopolitics 3.0 meant the US got to define the shape of that world.
Now comes the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The digital economy will become “smart.” The ultra-fast speeds and low latency provided by 5th Generation (5G) wireless networks will allow a whole range of processes to reshape the way the world does business for a fourth time in the modern age.
The Internet of Things (IoT) will create interconnected manufacturing systems in which machines constantly record data and communicate with each other. Artificial Intelligence and machine learning will generate autonomous systems that do more of the work humans used to do (and probably do it better). The line between physical and digital will blur. “Data” is the new steam engine, the new electric current, the oil that will power Industry 4.0.
Each successive industrial revolution made the world smaller, more interconnected, and more reliant on technology. The Fourth Industrial Revolution promises to do the same and on an even greater scale. The more interconnected our world, the more globalized our problems. COVID-19 is just a taste of how true this has become, with climate change hot on its heels. The future is not anarchic, Asian, or American. The future is global, and Industry 4.0 will become the circulatory system of a truly globalized world.
Unfortunately, getting there will not be easy or bloodless. Each previous Industrial Revolution created new political conflicts that had to be settled before the benefits of the revolution could be enjoyed.
It is already possible to trace the contours of that conflict in the U.S.-China relationship. What began as a trade war has escalated into a battle royal for who gets to control the 5G networks that make Industry 4.0 possible. Nor is it simply a U.S.-China conflict. India wants its own 5G networks – all made in India. Turkey wants to block what internet users in Turkey can see on their devices. Russia has been building its own internet for years for fear of being cut off from the global internet at a moment’s notice by the United States. The data arms race is on.
Networks are the all-important geography of the 21st century, the geographical pivot of our time. Who will control the physical infrastructure and the technology that makes the functioning of networks possible? Backhaul fiber, radio access networks, communications satellites, big data – the things that power the Fourth Industrial Revolution are the frontlines of Geopolitics 4.0. Who rules the data centers commands the world. Before the Fourth Industrial Revolution can realize true potential, the Fourth Geopolitical Revolution must now run its course.