The Fourth Revolution

There is no denying the fact that we have reached an era governed by social media. The millennium brought about a wave of net-induced euphoria that swept up many of the nineties generation whilst still at primary-school. Over a decade later, we have reached the point where a burgeoning counter-culture has arisen. In recent years certain articles will have us believe that click-communication is the bane of the modern world, ‘rotting our minds’, inflating our egos and proving detrimental to traditional methods of socialising. So while heated debates centre on the possibility of internet addiction, it is worth considering that there are perhaps more seismic forces at work behind this leap into the digital age.

A couple of years ago a Philosophy Bites spree led me to Luciano Floridi’s theory on the Fourth Technological Revolution. Floridi is a philosopher of information who has previously spoken at TEDxMaastricht. He believes that our perception of reality has been fundamentally altered on three particular fronts since the dawn of civilisation. The first ‘revolution’, as dubbed by Floridi, was heralded by Copernican thinking. Mankind was forced to re-evaluate its position in relation to the whole universe when the heliocentric theory proved that the Sun does not revolve around the Earth. Second came Darwinism, which asserted Homo sapiens as a species firmly within the animal kingdom, rather than as distinct from other creatures. The Freudian revolution pronounced the third stage of change, as the psychoanalyst’s theories suggested that even in the realm of the mind, the human is not sovereign – instead being ruled by subconscious desires and repressive mechanisms. Now we are on the brink of the fourth shift: the technological revolution.

Floridi attributes this revolution to computer scientist Alan Turing and notices how we have increasingly depended on information technology since the fifties, to the point where we no longer see ourselves as standalone entities but rather as interconnected informational organisms or ‘inforgs’. Supposedly, we were born to be this way and all of us have shared a global ‘infosphere’ environment with other biological, artificial and hybrid agents since before we can even remember. So previous revolutions decentralised our perception of the human being within his or her sphere of operation, be it cosmic, zoological or psychological. Now the fourth revolution forces us to realise that existence may not be restricted to organic, substantial entities such as ourselves.

To understand this process of ‘de-physicalisation’, Floridi asks us to think of the evolution of music. In the student generation alone we have experienced the switchover from CD to MP3. A music file, as piece of software with no physical baggage, is something perfectly cloneable. Our metaphysics is being transformed from a materialist view to an informational view. In other words, for something to exist, it no longer needs to be tangible, only ‘interactable’. Our existence in informational terms is no more significant than that of a blackberry.

It is now somewhat in vogue to shy away from this ever-expanding tide of online communication platforms (this blog included), in hope of reverting back to the idylls of frugal, offline living. We all have a friend who has deleted their facebook. They wish not to leave a footprint in the digital realm. And they may get their wish… but at what cost? Greater merging of digital and analogue life will mean that in time the online and offline world will be incredibly difficult to separate. In the wake of the fourth revolution we must now realise that to be offline is to cease to exist.

Bea Xu,

Bea studies English Literature at Keble College and is part of the TEDxOxford 2012 team.