Modern civilization has undergone three significant socio-economic transformations known as industrial revolutions. The first industrial revolution was built around steam and transformed modern society by redefining transportation and the manufacturing process. Next, the advent of electricity ushered forth a second revolution by providing a highly efficient energy source and modernizing communication, which according to Thomas Edison, worked to “reorganize the life of the world.” Electricity then paved the way for our third (and current) digital revolution, liberating civilization from fossil fuels and putting technology into the hands of over 7 billion people worldwide.
The common thread that connects each great revolution is the idea that technology, broadly defined, allowed society to advance by redefining the ways we participate and contribute in an economy as a result of improved quality of life. The impending fourth industrial revolution is no exception, and according Klaus Schwab, it’s barreling toward us at breakneck speed. Are we prepared to take on the roles that this fourth revolution will introduce, and have our motivations and societal constructs evolved to match the challenges and opportunities that it will present?
Each transformation shifted our economy further from one based on brawns to one built on brains. In the past, social rank depended on the ability to do physical work. Now, in addition to skills like critical thinking and problem solving, other non-cognitive skills such as persistence, self-control, and curiosity play a role in the new stratification of class. In addition, there has been a steady change from innovations as tools that support a human’s work, such as assembly lines and steam engines, to those that take on the lion’s share of work with humans as moderators of machines and quality controllers of novel forms of artificial intelligence.
“Today, non-cognitive skills such as persistence, self-control, and curiosity play a role in the new stratification of class.”
Understanding how each successive transformation has altered the way we make decisions demonstrates how our current society might evolve to meet the challenges of the next transformation. By delineating the human motivations that drive our interactions in the digital revolution, we catch a glimpse of our potential to change culture and impact the quality of our lives in the fourth industrial revolution. As the interactions between man and machine become more personal, our motivations have moved from extrinsic to intrinsic. Extrinsic motivators such as income, prestige, and praise are being supplanted by intrinsic desires of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Never has this been more evident than in the surprising way we are motivated to participate in the open development of technology in the digital age.
Human Motivation: From Me to We
In his prominent TED talk, Dan Pink uses motivational theory to explain why we are contributing to the digital age in new and unexpected ways. Pink cites evidence of these intrinsic motivators in the all-volunteer contributions to the most popular web server, Apache, the world’s largest online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, and the free open-source operating system, Linux. Why are people using their “limited discretionary time” to contribute to the open source projects that fuel our current economy? In a word: purpose. The rise of the digital economy has shed light on the intrinsic motivator of purpose, which drives people to share their expertise in their limited free time, free of charge.
Creative leaders have always understood that engaging humans in purposeful work increases motivation and leads to greater outcomes. Innovative companies and educators harness this understanding by implementing the 20% time method, with which employees and students are encouraged to use a portion of their time to work on projects of their choosing. While still relevant to their work and study, these projects often breathe new life into the workplace, resulting in innovations such as the humble post-it note and Gmail. More importantly, the 20% time method has invigorated future members of our workforce to participate in meaningful work by solving problems in their daily lives.
Problem solving, communication, and collaboration are essential in this model of human motivation that drive the digital economy. Each new innovation is predicated on these non-cognitive skills that are cornerstones for success in the digital economy and will be even more important in the impending revolution. Our economic habits and decisions as individuals and as a society will fundamentally change our culture, which is why it is paramount to ensure that our basic needs are met so we can continue to contribute and participate in the fourth industrial revolution.
Finding Purpose and Pay in the Fourth Revolution
The distinction between physical, biological, and digital worlds may finally be indistinguishable from one another in the next industrial revolution. In this new era, the line between what exists physically and what exists virtually will disappear. The mash-up of biological and digital technologies is no longer a thing of science fiction as evident by the few leaks we’ve seen from startup MagicLeap, a company that recently procured an astonishing $1.4 billion in investments for a revolutionary technology that blends the physical with the digital in a featherweight pair of glasses. When the separation between the actual and the virtual is eliminated, the relationship between humans and technologies will undergo a remarkable shift. Will new business models in the fourth revolution require human work in the same ways they have in the past?
Assuming our basic needs for food, shelter, belonging, and self-esteem are met, our minds are free to work towards self-actualization and the sense of purpose we innately seek. Motivational research tells us that humans desire a sense of purpose in our work — a desire to contribute to society in meaningful ways beyond our paid work. Current technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) may tap into these desires in new and remarkable ways. There are countless potential applications for these technologies. For example, students can see the why of learning when an augmented reality application shows the human heart pulsing in real time, which might cultivate a revolutionary new generation of surgeons. When AR wearables increase employee productivity by 46%, the conversation rightfully shifts from automation causing job loss to increased efficiency when humans partner with technology.
“What happens when the human aspect of the human-to-technology collaboration is rendered obsolete; when the technology becomes efficient enough on its own, actively replacing the human in the equation?”
In the new hybrid economy where the lines between man and machine are blurred, there will be more room for human-to-human collaboration aided by immersive technological tools. The current trend is mixed reality (MR) with the current debate around the hardware that will be crowned king. Most people working in this space believe these platforms will reshape the nature of education, work, and entertainment once they’re ubiquitous. But in addition to human-to-human collaboration, we’ll also see human-to-technology collaboration, suggesting a paradigm shift where humans support emerging technologies instead of vice versa (read: assembly line). But what happens when the human aspect of the human-to-technology collaboration is rendered obsolete; when the technology becomes efficient enough on its own, actively replacing the human in the equation? Are we prepared to mitigate the cost of potential wide scale unemployment if the future of work shifts from human-powered to machine-powered?
Fresh Perspectives for an Uncertain Future
Some countries have begun wrestling with big questions of employment in the face of a changing economy. It is true that the nature of employment will continue to shift and that there will always be roles for humans, but it is also true that many of the current jobs may be done by intelligent machines. To get ahead of a transformation that may leave millions jobless, an assurance that people’s basic needs are met seems ever relevant. But how can we ensure that humans maintain a sense of purpose in an economy that has left them behind?
First proposed by Thomas More in his 1516 novel Utopia, universal basic income (UBI) could evade a wide-scale unemployment crisis brought on by the fourth industrial revolution. While there is no long-term research on a such a system, the famous Mincome study (“minimum income”) demonstrated no major difference in working habits for those eligible for these federal funds. What’s more, researchers found a decline in hospital visits and mental health issues possibly as a result of the security provided by such a program.
This unusual social experiment set the stage for new perspectives on how UBI might impact the quality of life during the fourth industrial revolution. In preparation for the automation that could cost humans their jobs, economists at the Roosevelt Institute used a macroeconomic model to study the impact of UBI. What they found is that the economy can not only withstand such a system but that “within eight years of enactment, growth returns to the same rate as in the baseline, with output at a permanently higher level.” Others are moving from models to active pilot studies of these systems, acknowledging that evolving technologies may result in fewer jobs for humans.
While we cannot predict the careers of the future, we can see how technology will transform the ways in which we work and play. But regardless of the changes in technology, human drive towards purpose will remain. Our ability to solve problems creatively is a uniquely human behavior; one that will secure us a critical role in the fourth industrial revolution.