Now, I no longer have to worry about not having enough food at night. Simply choose from a variety of menus on my smartphone app, and within 15-30 minutes, someone will knock on my door with a packet of food. No need to shell out cash, as all payments are made on my smart app. I also don’t have to worry about traveling alone to the middle of nowhere. Just ask Google Maps, and it will tell you all the alternative roads to take, including rat roads, along with the estimated travel time.
This is just a fraction of the bigger game. The farmer in the US, Australia or Europe works like an office manager, controlling all aspects of the farm from his smart computer in his cramped office space. Sensors detect soil moisture and air humidity, for example, and instruct sprinklers to automatically spray water if they are deemed too dry. Pesticides and herbicides are no longer needed, as every pest and weed can be detected by sensors and shot using lasers. On farms, every sheep that is raised in the field has a geospatial tag in its ear whose signal is captured by satellites, so even the behavior of a sheep that is slightly different from the herd can be considered an abnormality. The drone will then take a closer look at what is happening and report the field findings via photos or videos to the manager. Aware of the need to move, the manager enters the coordinates of the sheep into his ATV motor, and the motor will take the farmer to visit the livestock and treat them .
Welcoming the industrial revolution 4.0
What we are witnessing today is the so-called industrial revolution 4.0, an era that is (supposedly) characterized by changes in various sectors of life, where computing technology, information systems, robotics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology are closely intertwined in our daily lives. We are facing an era that will (again) change the way we think, feel, move and live. We welcome the industrial revolution 4.0 like a commoner cheers a war hero. It is the solution to all the world’s problems, one might said. Just imagine, when the discourse about the green revolution, environmental damage, deforestation, or GMO-derived risky food reverberates, technology in industry 4.0 offers an alternative narrative: Farming can be more environmentally friendly without excess pesticides and synthetic fertilizers if we apply smart or precision farming, satellite-based smart monitoring systems can be used to identify hotspots and prevent forest fires, we can live healthier without chemical drugs if we can monitor our heart rate, sugar or cholesterol levels in an automated manner, or even map every gene in our DNA to ensure that we do not have dangerous hereditary diseases. Everything would be healthier, more natural and environmentally friendly; everything, of course, except the technology itself.
But what is industrial revolution 4.0 anyway? And where did the other industrial revolutions go? Surprisingly, no one can really answer for sure. It was Angela Merkel, the German Counsellor, who in 2011 was faced with the challenge of industrial development in Europe, and Germany had huge funds to facilitate it. Some thinkers offered an interesting gimmick: the industrial revolution 4.0 is the next big thing in industry, they argued. They compare it to the stages of the first industrial revolution that relied on steam engines and coal, the second industrial revolution characterized by Ford car factory-style assembly lines (henceforth known as Fordism) for mass production, the third industrial revolution on automation systems in large factories, replacing factory workers with industrial machines, and the 4.0 industrial revolution with all that has to do with computing, the internet, big data, and (once again) the internet! Huge funds were poured into universities and research institutes for all forms of research related to “computers and the internet”, or in today’s language, the Internet of Things (IoT). The United States, although traveling at a slightly different pace (as Silicon Valley and the private sector were first to dominate industry 4.0), is also heading down the same path.
In fact, as predicted, the industrial revolution 4.0 has indeed changed many aspects of our lives. I have become more sensitive to my health; I get anxious if I haven’t walked 10,000 steps in my fitbit record today. My relationships with friends have changed because people I thought I knew suddenly speak out about completely unfamiliar things on their Facebook accounts. I am now more concerned with how many likes I received today than how much work I got done. In the midst of the reality of the industrial revolution 4.0, we also need to realize that there are more things hidden behind all things digital and internet. Industrial revolution 4.0, I might say, is both a reality and an illusion.
Indonesia’s KBBI defines illusion (n) as “an observation that is not in accordance with the senses”. Cambridge Dictionary offers two definitions, “an idea or belief that is not true” or “something that is not really what it seems to be”. In illusion, what we perceive in our senses is not necessarily what it really is. This means that there is something bigger than what we understand about a reality. Illusions are rooted in our unawareness of reality. We perceive that illusions are reality itself. Erich Fromm, a German sociologist/psychologist, in his book Beyond the Chains of Illusion, explains that when we perceive illusions as reality, we tend to get entangled in them. Think of the movie The Matrix, where the inhabitants enjoy life as if it were reality – until they take the red pill!
So, what does illusion have to do with the industrial revolution 4.0? I’ll try to discuss at least three things that might dismantle the illusion of industry 4.0:
First, we are talking about ecology. Industry 4.0 is characterized by computing systems and wireless internet. We often take this for granted. But behind the wirelessness of 4.0, there is a much more complex physical infrastructure. For every geographical point where you can enjoy 4G, there is a huge infrastructure of cell towers, servers, and millions of workers that produce your handheld devices. A study by Costenaro and Duer (2012) reported that for every megabyte of data transmitted, megawatts of energy are expended. They said that for every GB of data, it takes about 5 kWh of electrical energy. Now let’s do a little math. A.T Kearney (2017) data states that in Indonesia, there are approximately 150 million people connected to the internet through their gadgets. Assuming that each person uses 5 GB of data per month, this means that every month we spend more than Rp. 5 trillion to explore the digital world. The problem is that 62% of the energy (and cost) spent is borne not by the users of computers or devices, but by data centers and distribution channels. This means that we have a ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation, where because there is more than Rp. 3 trillion/month of energy cost burden that is not borne by the user (externality), this portion becomes wasted common property.
In line with the energy exposure above, the lifestyle changes brought about by Industry 4.0 have not completely reduced the negative impact on the environment. Let’s put it this way: before e-commerce developed, I had to think twice about shopping. This was not only because I was considering my expenses this month, but also because the effort required to shop (leaving the house, driving, queuing at the checkout line) was enough to discourage me. Now that technology has made everything more efficient, we no longer have that mental barrier. In this context, efficiency encourages more consumerist behavior. But is the environmental burden of these activities reduced? In fact, the flow of goods delivery (through courier services) is even higher. Online motorcycle taxis contribute to road congestion. If we only count the visible costs, it is clear that the 4.0 system is more efficient. But if we internalize all the environmental externalities, I suspect the cost burden of industry 4.0 will be even higher.
Secondly, we are talking about society. I refer back to a TV series called Persons of Interest, which tells the story of a program on a supercomputer that has complex algorithms based on each person’s personal data (social media profiles, social security data, bank accounts, health records) and predicts whether someone is a potential threat to the country. Overly dramatic and exaggerated indeed, but it cannot be denied that our society is more or less moving in that direction. Recently, for example, it was reported that AI can model and predict when someone will die. Big data turns humans into numbers and patterns that are used for the benefit of the owners of capital (or also the government).
Gilles Deleuze, a renowned French philosopher, named our current society as a society of control, which is governed, supervised and controlled by the dispersed power of society itself. A prescient prophecy from his 1991 paper, Deleuze predicts that the power to discipline society no longer lies in the hands of the government. According to Deleuze, everyone is watching everyone else, and eventually we are all being watched by the company that has access to the Big Data (let’s call it Facebook). What follows is that with information being so plentiful and easily accessible, the challenge for society today is no longer finding information in an empty space, but finding the right information among billions of irrelevant data. Since we are always offered with information (valuable and not) on our screens, the most effective way to convey information is to make us want to look. This era is known as the attention economy. People don’t need true or accurate news, but news that captures their attention. The conspiracy behind 911, the dramatic story of an orangutan shot with a rifle, the plastic trapped in the stomach of a whale carcass washed up on shore – all grab our attention faster than the underlying knowledge (bioaccumulation, deforestation, or conflict). There’s nothing wrong, perhaps, if we can package a good message with a unique catchphrase. But what I worry about is the opposite; take US President Donald Trump who blasts out a hundred tweets on Twitter, no matter what they say, and then casually replies, “I got your attention, didn’t I?”
Finally, the biggest illusion of Industry 4.0 is that the vast majority of the world, those who do not have access to all this sophisticated infrastructure, are in fact going about business as usual. Our study on the impact of agricultural digitization on smallholder farmers so far shows that Industry 4.0 is not that powerful a positive influence. Many farmers do not own or operate smart devices, and even if they do, what are they using them for? The economy that circulates around them is a classic economy involving village elites, dealers, middlemen, loan sharks and bonded labor. The entry of young people to get involved in helping farmers, for some, does not provide a solution, but instead adds new problems. The supply chain gets longer. The role of bonded labor is being replaced by these startups. Some say that loan sharks may still be better, because after all, they are also local people with psychological closeness, who can always be asked for a loan for a farmer’s child who is sick or getting married. It’s the same in the city, where the poor will be the last ones to shop at the market and ride our public transport through the city, this time with more traffic density.
I’m not anti-development or anti-technology. I think civilization will always evolve at a rate that we can never predict (after all, who would have thought that the technology dreamt up in Back to the Future could also be realized in the present day?) Nonetheless, we must realize that illusions exist, and it is our calling to escape (and release others) from them. Only then will we be able to see all the advancements of this era more wisely. At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that technology is just a medium – it’s not technology that can solve humanity’s problems, it is humans themselves.
Costenaro, D., & Duer, A. (2012, August). The megawatts behind your megabytes: going from data-center to desktop. In ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings.
Deleuze, G. (1995). Postscript on control societies. Negotiations: 1972-1990, 177-82.
Fromm, E. (2001). Beyond the chains of illusion: My encounter with Marx and Freud (Vol. 780). A&C Black.
The Matrix Trilogy (feature film)
Persons of Interest (TV series)
Back to the Future: Trilogy (feature film)
 Check out the excitement of smart farming systems here: http://bit.ly/smartfarmvideo