Automation, the 4th industrial revolution and libraries

Published date12 February 2020
Date12 February 2020
AuthorPeter Fernandez
Automation, the 4th industrial revolution
and libraries
Peter Fernandez
Previous columns have investigated the
potential impact of emerging technologies,
such as artificial intelligence, the Internet
of Things and developments in faster,
more ubiquitous internet access. Each of
these technologies alone has potential to
shape our world. Yet, it is important to
consider what their cumulative impact
may be, as these and other related
technologies can allow for the future
automation of tasks currently performed
by humans. This column will explore the
evidence surrounding the impact of
automation for libraries and for patrons.
A common narrative touts that as
innovations develop, these developments
render human work obsolete in ways that
potentially wreak havoc on people’s lives
and on the overall economy. It is true that
new technologies are changing how we
work, which is a trend that is likely to
continue. Moreover, as the pace of change
continues at breakneck speed, with many
companies seeming to be on the verge of
their next technological breakthrough, it is
logical to posit that these technologies will
soon lead to an accelerated change in the
workplace. Indeed, if nothing changed in
our workplaces in the coming decades, it
would signal a tremendous loss of
opportunity to improve our lives.
Yet, the evidence about innovations’
potential impact is more complicated
than the simple narrative above implies,
with real implications for how libraries
should prepare.
Context: previous revolutions
Perhaps the most elegant way to
formulate this future incorporation of
technological advancement is through the
lens of the fourth industrial revolution. In
this framework, the first industrial
revolution was in the eighteenth century,
as steam and water was harnessed to
create new machines. The second
industrial revolution used electricity and
allowed for mass production, and the
third industrial revolution has been one
that many of us have lived through: the
digital revolution. The upcoming fourth
industrial revolution is imagined to be the
combining of these systems, combining
physical processes with the power of
refined digital and cyber technologies
(Schwab, 2015). The posited result is a
radical reshaping of our economy and, as
many fear, a radical devaluation of
human labor.
This view is put forward by technology
leaders, such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk,
and politicians, such as the UK’s Labor
leader, Jeremy Corbyn (Corbyn, 2017;
Daso, 2017). It is the premise of countless
papers and subtly informs much of our
thinking. Among librarians, it is often the
implicit backdrop that informs hand-
wringing about our own obsolescence and
vigorous assurances that center our value
on human interactions (Herring, 2014).
Why the concern?
One reason the threat of automation
may seem so acute is because of the
tremendous influence new technologies
have in information-intensive areas,such
as entertainment and socialization.
Digital publications, cell phones and
social media have transformed how
humans createand share information and
interact. Increasingly, people whose
lives have been changed by these
technologies are expressing deep
concern about the global impact of these
transformationson our society, including
shortened attention spans, rising
depression and social media’s impact on
our ability to form and sustain
community or shared facts (Anderson,
2019;Auxier et al., 2019;Doherty and
Kiley, 2019;Funk et al., 2018;Smith,
2018;Twenge, 2017).
Indeed, the internet has profoundly
transformed many aspects of life
through not only social interactions but
also the media we consume. As media
industries have consolidated and moved
online, it has transformed how people
consume books, television and movies
(Lee, 2018). In the USA, between 2008
and 2018, newsroom employment fell
25 per cent (Grieco, 2019). This latter
workplace transformation is of
particular concern, as the areas worst hit
by reduced employment often provided
local reporting that have not been
replaced. These parts of the information
economy provided clear and relevant
value but have struggled, as the
underlying advertising business model
has shifted.
This creates a situation where
technology disrupts many people’s
online lives, despite the fact that
technology provides enormous value
and efficiency. Additionally, it has an
outsized impact on the professionals
who write and produce information.
These concerns are not baseless. Some
estimates predict that half of all current
work could be replaced by automation
(Manyika, 2017). Others, like the
Brookings, estimated that 25 per cent of
the existing economy will face “high
exposure” to the effects of automation,
which would have profound second-
and third-order effects (Muro and
Whiton, 2019). All of this makes it easy
to imagine an apocalyptic future where
the malleable changes that have
happened online suddenly become the
norm for the physical world (for
example, driverless cars replacing the
trucking industry) leading to massive
Is this really a problem?
In this context, it can be illuminating
to examine what our current economic
data shows. In many advanced
economies, productivity, a measure of
how much the economy produces per h
of work, has slowed significantly when
compared to previous decades for
LIBRARY HITECH NEWS Number 3 2020, pp. 23-26, V
CEmerald Publishing Limited, 0741-9058, DOI 10.1108/LHTN-11-2019-0088 23

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