Watch out, the transformational breakthrough robots are coming, trailing exponential and disruptive impacts, the like of which you’ve never seen before. It’s all so radically innovative and, did I mention, transformational. Eye-poppingly, brain-meltingly transformational.
That’s right, it’s the Fourth Industrial Revolution! You didn’t know there’d been three already? Do try to keep up. Thankfully, Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, the organisation that hosts the annual corporate jamboree in the Swiss village of Davos, has his finger on the pulse.
He published an article in Foreign Affairs last month drawing our collective attention to this impending revolution. And thank goodness he did, because it sounds like it’s going to be a big deal. Here’s how he begins:
“We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.”
Blimey. I feel a bit dizzy and exhausted already. But it gets better:
“The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.”
Yeah those previous Industrial Revolutions were really pathetic in their linearness. James Watt and his steam engine may have changed things back in the 1780s, but it was all boring snoring straight lines. None of these sexy exponential curves.
But sometimes exponential’s not good enough. Sometimes you want the holy grail of radical, transformational change: unlimited.
“The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited.”
And then, what happens if you take unlimited possibilities and multiply them?
“And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.”
I have to admit I don’t really even know what all those things are, let alone understand their true potential to multiply the unlimited possibilities we’re faced with. 3-D printing and energy storage I can cope with, but I’ve never quite managed to get my head round the Internet of Things. As for quantum computing – even if you tried to explain it to me, I’d probably just glaze over.
Having reached the limits – and then some – of the mathematical approach to hyperbole (“to infinity and beyond!”), Mr Schwab reaches next into the realms of the mystical:
“In the future, technological innovation will also lead to a supply-side miracle, with long-term gains in efficiency and productivity.”
A pedant (aka yours truly) might argue that if you know something is going to lead to something else, then the outcome isn’t really, technically a miracle. Miracles tend to take people by surprise, leaving them grasping at supernatural explanations for what they’ve witnessed because no natural ones seem to apply. Now that Mr Schwab has kindly forewarned us about the long-term gains in efficiency and productivity we should expect as a result of technological innovation, I for one won’t think it miraculous when these gains come to pass.
But, pedantry aside, our friend Klaus hasn’t gone through all his gears yet. Next, we get existential:
“The Fourth Industrial Revolution, finally, will change not only what we do but also who we are.”
I can already feel the terror creeping over me at the thought of being stranded in a world of self-driving cars, 3-D printed drones and robots that are smarter than humans, wondering, “who am I?” Descartes’ famous maxim – “I think, therefore I am” – may have survived three industrial revolutions, but we won’t be able to rely on the comfort blanket of philosophers from the last millennium in this unprecedentedly brave new world.
Then, since his language has been so understated so far, Mr Schwab decides to ratchet up the rhetoric a bit in the final paragraphs to make sure we haven’t missed the point. Channeling the spirit of Churchill and JFK, he concludes:
“There has never been a time of greater promise, or one of greater potential peril.”
Well, who can argue with that?
It’s not really fair of me to pick on Mr Schwab like this, because he is only an extreme example of a trend that has swept across the corporate world in recent years. We are in the midst of an epidemic of hyperbole. So much so that even some of the former apostles of hyperbole are trying to turn back the tide.
Professor Clayton Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation” twenty years ago. Since then it’s spread like wildfire through boardrooms across the globe, appealing just as much to the disrupted as to the disruptors. There’s something about the dog-eat-dog, wrenching brutality implied by the term that appeals to CEOs. It feeds their sense of self-importance and high drama.
Last month, Professor Christensen took to the pages of Harvard Business Review to try and put the genie back in the bottle. His term is being applied to all sorts of scenarios where it simply isn’t appropriate, he ineffectually whimpers. I don’t expect anyone at Davos will take the blindest bit of notice.
A consensus seems to have emerged amongst the corporate elite that unless you set yourself laughably implausible aspirations, you don’t deserve a place at the top table. Gone are the days when talk of changing or feeding the world was confined to charities and over-zealous pop stars. Now every self-respecting multinational must have a mission statement that places the value of its products and services in a global context.
The Big Four accounting firm EY has set itself the frankly rather second division goal of “building a better working world.” I mean, why only working world? SAP, a software company, is more of a premier league kind of outfit: its mission is to “help the world run better.” Now that’s more like it.
Who’s to blame for this slavish devotion to hyperbole? I’d suggest Steve Jobs has a fair amount to answer for. There’s a wonderful moment in the Aaron Sorkin/Danny Boyle film about Jobs, which came out in 2015. It’s the final rehearsal for the launch of the first Apple Mac in 1984 and Jobs wants a full blackout as he unveils the computer up on stage. But one of his flunkies tells him that the fire marshal won’t permit them to turn off the emergency exit signs. Only half joking, Jobs retorts: “have you explained [to the fire marshal] that we’re changing the world in here?”
Like most things in business, I suspect the current fad for hyperbole isn’t immune to the laws of boom and bust. Messrs Schwab and Jobs and their acolytes have stretched the English language to breaking point. They have tested the limits of their audiences’ credulity. And they have drained words like radical, transformational, disruptive and exponential of their meaning through over-use.
Soon, the bubble’s bound to burst and we’ll all be celebrating incremental improvement and the art of muddling through. Let’s hear it for smooth, un-disrupted, linear change!
We may be on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution, but the thing Mr Schwab’s article convinces me of most is that we are surely approaching the high-water mark of the age of hyperbole.