New Divisions of Labour under Emergent Deglobalization

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New Divisions of Labour under Emergent Deglobalization
From the Edited Volume
Edited By:
Dr. John Walsh


Industry 4.0 refers to the new forms of production that rely increasingly in automation and the introduction of sophisticated cyber-physical systems. Frequently, such industry is directed towards spatial initiatives such as special economic zones for greater efficiency and enhanced regional development. These production systems are revolutionizing existing divisions of labour, which have already been revolutionized by the spread of globalization. Changes come both in terms of what work humans will be still required to do and of social and gender relations within the workplace. New competencies and skills are required in skilled positions, with physicality and actual location becoming less important, although both will remain significant in the many low-skilled and low-paid jobs that will persist. It is already possible to discern changes in divisions of labour in some places of production, with factory automation having restricted human input to marketing, design and control, in addition to maintenance and servicing. It is also evident in the general movement in both the private and public sectors towards the modularization of work, which has seen more and more work functions outsourced and the provision of services coming under the precarious gig economy. These changes have wider impacts in society and may be seen in family structure, urban design and housing policy. Most governments are currently under-prepared for the changes that are already taking place and require better and more informed policy suggestions. As the current division of labour has led to different countries becoming specialized in different stages of production, inequality among societies is likely to be intensified as similar work functions are affected in close order in different parts of the world. This paper provides an overview of these changes and the effects they will have on people in all categories. It aims to go beyond the factory to examine the changes that will affect people as members of families, communities and societies. In looking forward to inevitable future change, it interrogates the possibilities that policies such as universal basic income will offer fairer ways of ensuring personal security and social solidarity.

division of labour, gender, industry 4.0, labour, future of work


Excavations at Ribe in Denmark have revealed that medieval Viking society had a rather different aspect than is often thought: instead or perhaps as well as the raiding and looting for which they were feared, Viking people also lived in settled communities with mass production of cultural items such as musical instruments for a society that was organized into different sections depending on activity. There were seafarers, merchants, traders and musicians among others (Crouch, 2018). It is not entirely clear how people were allocated into the different categories, whether it was by choice, aptitude or the accident of birth. There have been plenty of examples of each of these different methods: in ancient Sparta, the slave class of Helots were born into captivity because, it is thought, of having been conquered by a newly arriving ethnic group who took their land for their own, while in India and Nepal today the complex caste system determines who performs which kinds of work and what kinds of lives they can expect. The nature of state formation – how a group or groups of people are joined together to form a single recognized political entity – determined the nature of the early division of labour. In mainland Southeast Asia after the spread of Buddhism, surplus resources extracted from the agricultural classes might be used to support monasteries, while the Central Asian tradition of a comitatus of heroic warrior companions of the king was transferred via the Scythians to European states (Beckwith, 2009:12-28).

The ways in which this happened in different parts of the world varied depending on the specific agro-ecological conditions prevalent at any particular moment. In the ancient Thai state of Ban Chiang, rice growing was combined with hunting for frogs and fish and the tools needed for these activities. The collection of cowrie shells for use as currency also needed to be conducted while crocodile skin was used as a marker of status in the form of jewellery (Higham & Thosarat, 1998). The types of activity required depended on the adaptation of daily life to local conditions and the decision as to who did what depended on the labour available. These were not permanent systems but rather relatively temporary ones, since there were numerous external events which could interfere with normal operations, from disease to environmental change or disaster to invasion by hostile forces. As Scott put it, “The agro-ecology favorable to state making is relative stationary, while the states that occasionally appear in these locations blink on and off like erratic traffic lights (Scott, 2017:30). Societies which were nomadic could simply move somewhere else as part of a regular lifestyle of movement and change but those societies which had become sedentary must have faced potentially catastrophic collapse.

Owing to the uneven distribution of resources around the world, comparative advantage is available to some people in some places for some periods of time. Comparative advantage, the development of which is most commonly associated with the work of David Ricardo (1772-1823), is based on the idea that less labour is required to produce one item than another (Ricardo, 2004). The second place is likely to have another item which it can produce more efficiently. Consequently, it is beneficial to both places to trade the goods with comparative advantage with each other because this increases the amount of labour available to each. The classical example is wool from Britain and wine from Portugal. In the case of trade taking place, the amount of time that British workers would spend (no doubt fruitlessly) trying to grow grapes could be more usefully spent on raising sheep and making woollen cloths for export. The result of this is the is the specialization of labour: areas where precious natural resources are located (e.g. gold, caviar producing sturgeon or bird guano, depending on the development of demand for these items) will specialize in producing them, with the amount of labour available depending on the ability to ensure food security through agriculture. Those places where all available labour is required to feed the people of the society concerned may never be able to afford to specialize and so will remain in the same state of relative penury in perpetuity.

The comparative advantage concept requires exchange of goods for it to be effective and that exchange must be located in a physical site known as a market. Markets are likely to be located in places where different ecotones meet. An ecotone is the place where two or more biomes meet and these are attractive places for sedentary communities to locate themselves because they offer two or more sources of food, for example open land for farming and a river or sea for fishing. Having a diversity of sources for food reduces risk and may help a community to survive external environmental shocks. It also contributes to the need for specialization of labour. From these dynamic forces, complex societies and networks of relations between them will in due course grow. One of these is the division of labour, which has progressed from the imperatives suggested by the move from nomadic to sedentary, agricultural societies to sophisticated multi-country systems such as those described by the concept of Industry 4.0, which are discussed in this paper. The start of this progression is tackled in the next section.

The Division of Labour

In pre-modern and pre-industrial societies, the family is the basic unit of production in an agricultural milieu. Within families, it is most common for the domestic production tasks to be divided among family members along gender and age lines. Similar patterns may be seen across disparate agricultural systems and encompassing both nomadic and sedentary societies. The principal division is within or close to the house and outside the house. In general, males undertake work outside the house while females work within or close to the house. Males are more involved with agricultural production, mostly for subsistence farming but also for sale to market in some cases, while females are more involved in reproducing social relations by providing emotional and domestic labour. This explains why girls are often required to spend their time collecting water from wells located away from the house, since water is required for domestic labour. Boys will be given tasks related to animal husbandry that take place outside of the house, while in those societies in which livestock (e.g., children) are kept inside the house, women and girls will tend to them. Around the core members of the family household, additional members (e.g. grandparents, cousins, children of other parents living in the house) will be accorded tasks dependent on their status and ability. Senior members of the household will be expected to take a more executive approach to these tasks by delegating the actual work to other household members.

There are some variations in these basic roles for societies which have different household arrangements. For example, in matrilocal societies, incoming sons-in-law will be given male roles within a hierarchy that typically favours already resident males. In matrilineal societies, meanwhile, the female roles may be considered more important and their status higher but the actual work that they do remains the same. In multiple family households, such as Muslim households with multiple wives, it is expected that each wife and her family be treated equally and so the division of labour in the house of the first wife is replicated in the houses of additional wives. In nomadic societies, women are nevertheless restricted to activities inside or in the vicinity of the mobile telecommunications. The division of labour is replicated in miniature in societies in which labour must be pooled to complete tasks which are beyond the resources of a single household to complete, for example, gathering a harvest of rice or constructing a new house or agricultural building. In such cases, the men gather to manage the physical labour, while the women organize catering and support services. In contemporary building sites in India and Southeast Asia, where a group of migrant workers, including women as well as men, the work involved is redefined such that some tasks (e.g., carrying bricks) may be deemed as low in status and suitable for women.

This division of labour on gender and age bases are supported by sacred texts in the majority of all societies. Confucian texts, for example, explain that all people are inextricably bound in social networks that require the senior partner to take care of the junior partner, who must obey the senior one. Seniority is defined in part by gender and age. The Bible and Quran also contain various sections in which it is claimed that social hierarchies are the will of God. Very often, the superior status of people abiding by the sacred texts is manifested in the fact that only men are permitted to enact them. Even in women-friendly polities, the entrenched system of learned social values remains in force. In the Paris Communes, the intention to build socialism did not extend to amending gender relations: “For insurgent women … the male-dominated socialist agendas, focusing almost exclusively on class and religious oppressions, remained solely deficient in recognizing, theorizing, and addressing gender subjugation (Eichner, 2004:18). This experience has been repeated in the Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese and other liberational revolutions which also relegated gender inequality to a less important priority. Indeed, the treatment of women has worsened in some cases, These rules of behaviour are socially determined but powerfully ingrained in many or most people. What seems to have been created by centuries or millennia of human practice was recreated for the first industrial revolution. The economist Adam Smith considered the division of labour from two perspectives. In Book 1 of The Wealth of Nations (1982), Smith speaks as an economist and therefore praises the specialization of labour within the factory increases productivity and, because of the growth in the company and economy as a whole, has a positive impact on the physical and mental welfare of the workers. Later, in Book V, he acknowledges the opposite impact on workers, which is described as “morally degenerating and mentally stultifying (West, 1964).”

Workers in factories are reduced to and referred to as ‘hands,’ since that, it was considered, the hands were the only part of the worker that was valued. Workers moved from a world in which they rose to work with the dawn and continued doing so while there was natural light available. Life followed the seasons and people felt some kind of control over the lives that they lived with respect to the production of goods in the land they farmed. They moved into factories where natural light was banished, where the working hours were regulated by the artificiality of the clock and where, above all, they had no control over what they were producing and, indeed, were involved in only the same small stage of production over and over again. This brought about the state of alienation: the process of workers ceasing to feel like they are human beings because of the effect of the work they had to perform.

Gender Aspects

In all societies, whether they were engaged in the free or semi-free trade implied by the theory of comparative advantage, labour specialization has taken place to some extent. Even when societies are so food insecure that they cannot spare labour to produce goods for exchange, division of labour based on gender took place in the household. In general and depending on the type of agriculture on which the society was based, men were likely to be involved in direct production away fro the home, i.e. fishing, raising livestock, growing crops, while women were more likely to be working closer to or inside the household providing the domestic and emotional labour on which harmonious households depend. Specialisation intensified depending on the resources locally available and the emergence of technological means to take advantage of them. In societies where the climate could be harsh, as in the Korean peninsula, food preservation techniques became essential means of surviving the winter months while intensive labour could be invested in making edible items such as acorns which would otherwise be inedible for humans. By contrast, in tropical regions where food is abundant all year round, the focus is on gathering fresh food daily.

Depending on prevalent social and cultural norms, women could be permitted more less freedom to work and take social roles outside the house. In societies in which corvée labour was enforced on men, necessary household production tasks would have to be taken by women for at least some periods. Overall, irrespective of the social and cultural conditions, women and children were treated as the property of men. This led to the widespread belief that the work that women did was of lower status than that done by men and of less value purely by virtue of the fact that it was women who were involved in doing it. This led to an ossification of relations within the household and its attendant division of labour. Of course, it is possible to find examples of apparently aberrant behaviour that contradicts this overall scheme but it is prevalent in human society generally.

The emergence of capitalism and the working of comparative advantage brought about radical changes to the pre-modern systems. New types of activity offered opportunities for people, women as well as men, to take up new jobs which might offer them a better standard of living. Yet men were, at a societal level, unwilling to give up their power and status without a fight and so sought means of reinventing their status in new forms. The emergence of different social institutions supporting and developing the modern capitalist system challenged the operation of the previously existing system but the means of reinvention was found in familiar concepts:

“… a direct personal system of control was translated into an indirect, impersonal system of control, mediated by society-wide institutions. The mechanisms available to men were (1) the traditional division of labor between the sexes, and (2) techniques of hierarchical organization and control. These mechanisms were crucial in … the extension of a sex-ordered division of labor to the wage-labor system (Hartmann, 1976).”

This has resulted in the institutionalization of the perception of what work is suitable for women and how they should be compensated, For example, nurses tend to be women and doctors to be men, owing to differential opportunities to receive higher education, although this division is being rapidly eroded in some countries. Nurses may be loved and valued by patients and their friends and family but they are paid very little compared to doctors. In the contemporary world, the low level of pay that nurses receive has led to home country people being unwilling to do the work and the emergence, therefore, of an international trade in nurses. At the same time, with life expectations increasing and deaths from accident or violence reducing in number in developed countries, the rational approach to improving cost efficiency in health service delivery is to empower nurses to become nurse practitioners able to offer various services at a much lower labour cost than doctors are able to do. As nurses increase in status and income, it is to be expected that more men will be interested in taking these jobs, particularly at the more skilled levels. This is one example of the kind of conflict that the influential French sociologist Emil Durkheim considered to be symptomatic of a modern, advanced capitalist society. He saw the transition from a primitive society to a complex one with division of labour to be a movement from mechanical solidarity, in which all people effectively think in the same way, to organic solidarity, in which people would be able to resolve conflicts through the application of economic regulations together with supplementary regulations related to moral issues. This progression never truly ends, since primitive aspects of societies never fully disappear and conflicts mutate and evolve:

“The determining cause … is found in the increased size and density of population with the usual, if not invariable, concomitant, increased social interaction. This so intensifies the struggle for existence that only through progressive differentiations of functions is survival possible because for many who would otherwise be doomed to extinction (Merton, 1934).”

Durkheim, that is, saw a general division of labour to be an essential means of maintaining harmonious relations in a complex society.

The New International Division of Labour

By the 1970s, opportunities for the accumulation of capital across the developed world were declining as the power of organized labour ensured a relatively equitable distribution of wealth. In response, capital was moved abroad in search of new opportunities in the developing world, assisted by new technological developments. This is part of the process that has come to be known as globalization and it involved the spread of production and consumption around the world. This was not a peaceful process or even the normal spread of capitalism in its mode of creative destruction. It involved, as Harvey (2007) argues, the process of accumulation by dispossession:

“… the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations … conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into excessive private property rights … suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption; colonial, neocolonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade (which continues particularly in the sex industry); and usury, the national debt, and, most devastating of all, the use of the credit system (ibid.: 159).”

These processes can be seen working together in the form of the special economic zone (SEZ), which is an area bounded in space and time in which the normal laws of the country are replaced by special rules and regulations which are aimed at attracting foreign investment by privileging the value of capital over labour. The SEZ approach became popular with governments across the developing world because of the example of China, where it had enabled hundreds of millions of people to be lifted out of poverty while not making any concessions to the demands for political plurality. Governments and investors quickly realized that previously low value land occupied by subsistence farmers could be transformed into high value industrial land once the farmers had been removed (Shrivastava & Kothari, 2014:274) and this soon becomes a case of rentier interests, in India at least, being able firstly to acquire cheap land and then through real estate speculation take the opportunity for achieving significant profits (Whitehead, 2016). These are not wholly new ideas, of course. After the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror established forest law, forest meaning apart or outside, on his personal hunting grounds where special laws were in place to protect king’s economic interests from the people who had happened to live there (Morris, 2015:132).

Into these newly classified SEZ spaces can investment from overseas begin to flow. In Southeast Asia, Japanese corporations began to offshore their manufacturing operations to take advantage of lower labour costs available locally. They were followed by Korean firms, together with smaller amounts of investment from the other developed countries and the former colonial powers: “The relocation of parts of production into countries with vast industrial reserve armies and low prices of the commodity labour force commenced in countries with close geographical and commercial links to existing industrial centres (Frobel, Heinrichs & Kreye, 1976).” The presence of a history of colonialism provides a degree of intimate knowledge of the other that short circuits geographical distance.

Displaced from their customary ways of life, people in the host countries were obliged to sell their labour power to the new factory owners and become part of the Fordist revolution, which had significant implications for both social relations and gender relations. Such changes are not always entirely negative: for example, Hui (1996) describes a process by which rural Malaysian women are brought into the industrial workforce through working at newly opened factories and reinventing themselves as people with agency and money of their own to make personal consumption decisions, instead of being the unwaged providers of domestic and emotional labour that they had been. Nevertheless, there are numerous other examples in which people who enter this system find their vulnerabilities exploited by investors who are able to ensure the majority of profits are retained by themselves. For example, a recent research report investigating the Wah Tung factory in Heyuan in China, which manufactures Disney brand toys and dolls revealed: “… evidence of excessive and illegal overtime, basic pay rates as low as 85p (US$1.07) an hour, no holiday or sick pay and high levels of exhaustion among the largely female workforce (Chamberlain, 2018).” This is just one example among a litany of reports from the new international division of labour (NIDL), which moved manufacturing jobs away from developed countries, where workplace conditions were generally moderated by functioning labour unions, government inspections and transparent regulations, to less developed countries where these protections are generally not available. Even in counties nominally ruled by and on behalf of the people, the logic of the SEZ trumps the well-being of the workers in a world in which all countries of the Global South are pitted against each other to be sufficiently competitive as to attract the desired investment (Chan & Ross, 2003).

In the vacuum of competing ideology following the collapse of the Soviet system, the spread of neoliberalism led to the domination of political discourse by those who argued that ‘there is no alternative.’ The purpose of governments around the world was redefined as doing whatever was necessary to increase aggregate levels of economic growth. As long as there is growth, no other considerations should matter and the rights of individuals became subject to the whim of corporations. Around the world, hard-won concessions were removed from working people as labour unions were dismantled and their ability to conduct collective bargaining significantly reduced. Deindustrialisation and deregulation of labour practices weakened the ability of labour unions to resist these assaults and the brief era of large-scale unionization dissolved (Milkman, 2013). Statistics show that, for the period 1970-2003, unionization declined by 11.3% in the USA, by 25.7% in Australia, by 47.1% in France and 35.2% in the UK, although there were increases elsewhere as the period from 1970-80 saw new memberships in countries benefiting from new forms of investment (e.g. South Korea) or in Germany which passed through reunification and the absorption of a large number of new workers (Visser, 2006). It is also notable that unionization was increasing maong many populations of women, indicating other changes in working practices.

This process of deunionization has been accompanied by increasing levels of inequality. To some extent, this is the result of the typical processes of capitalism. After all, capital accumulation is much easier for people who already have capital or who inherit it (which explains the business career of Donald Trump). However, there have been new factors at work, both at the top of the income tree and at the bottom. Therborn (2013) explains it thus:

“In terms of inequality mechanisms, financialization, pooled finance and electronically amplified ‘star’ performances have brought about an enormous distanciation of the top from the rest. At the bottom, political exclusion from (or lowering of) social protections and managerial re-hierarchization (with de-unionization) have pushed the most vulnerable further down the stairs (ibid.:130-1).

As part of the attempt to enhance the profitability of corporations, corporate leaders began to remove layers of middle and junior management that has previously been deemed necessary to run an organization efficiently and to rely, instead, on the new technologies of computerization and mobile telecommunications that were becoming available. The stimulus for delayering, “… a process by which people who barely know what’s going on get rid of those who do (Mintzberg, 1996),” was privatization. Privatisation was one of the principal goals of neoliberals who saw markets as working better than governments to such an extent that the public sphere of action should be reduced to the greatest extent possible. Government bureaucracies were believed to be bloated, inefficient and lacking in incentive to perform with the efficiency that markets could offer. They were, in effect, often little more than opportunities to provide unnecessary jobs so as to maintain employment levels. Consequently, in order to make ownership more attractive to potential investors, those unneeded positions were to be eliminated. As might be expected, this led to a significant decrease among remaining managers’ commitment (Littler, Wiesner & Dunford, 2003) and mixed results. All kinds of other initiatives were introduced into management practices at this time Perhaps principal among these has been the speed of electronic communications to keep track of people and to manage their working lives. In the course of a few years, mobile telephones have become ubiquitous in nearly all sectors of society and people have become accustomed to being in connection with the internet constantly. This has enabled managers to introduce a new form of the panopticon into organizational life. Call centres were one of the first places at which the total surveillance and, hence, control of the people worked there was claimed (Fernie & Metcalf, 1998). More than one million people work in calls centres in the UK now, which is nearly 4% of the overall working population. Telephone dialing is automated and workers are expected to make 3-400 calls in a shift. Most of the workers (80%) are women. All activities are monitored and admonishments quick to arrive: 21% of workers are absent more 10% of the time and 71% of call centre companies report this form of absence to be a problem for them (Woodcock, 2016). Control of this sort within the workplace is of course resisted by those whose lives are to be circumscribed by technology and managerial design.

Early divisions of labour were based primarily on demographic factors within the household: the pre-existing agricultural practices suggested men should work outside on husbandry and crops while women worked mostly inside on domestic and emotional labour tasks. When new forms of organization emerged, such as within factories, it was therefore logical for women and children to be incorporated into that sector of the workforce. When business became internationalized, new cultures and political-economic systems were incorporated into global divisions of labour and so different forms emerged. By the time that Industrial Revolution 4.0 has emerged, the global manufacturing system has stablised around the concept of extensive and flexible supply and value chains that snake around the world (and have been found to be vulnerable to the impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic). Value tends to adhere to the activities at the beginning (e.g. research and development, design) and the end (e.g. branding, retailing) of the value chain and these activities tend to be reserved to the corporation’s home nation, where they are conducted generally by the ablest people available. The activities towards the centre (e.g. manufacturing, assembly) add less value and so are worked on by semi-skilled factory workers in countries with low labour cost competitiveness. Within factories, certain activities are deemed to be suitable for men and others for women and these are compensated accordingly. Globalisation has led to differential divisions of labour around the world.

The Impact of Deglobalisation

Globalization has led to the creation of complex, sometimes labyrinthine supply and value chains that can cross and recross national borders in the search for efficiency. Efficiency is measured in terms of production price but also in terms of the ability of the chain to deliver goods as they are required according to the just-in-time concept. Where once firms would pay for warehouses and their attendants to make sure that additional stock was available when required, now almost universally the Japanese-derived concept has been adopted that eliminates these costs and passes them on to supplier partners, who are entrusted with the duty of providing needed inputs as and when they are required. Strong relationships between partners are required because otherwise any problem encountered along the way could lead to a breakdown in trust and the imposition of checks and quality assurance tests which greatly erode the cost benefits of the just-in-time system altogether. However, recent events have shown just how fragile that situation is. The coronavirus pandemic caused slowdowns in economic activities, particularly a mass dampening of demand, which led to a diminution of supply (which was constrained in many cases anyway by the prohibition on movement of many workers) and this has led to, inter alia, disarrangement of containers and container ships.

One way of looking at the future of work and the division of labour is to consider the implications of current and emergent technologies and to imagine that such technologies may become dominant and, powerful as they are, will help to annihilate space through time. In other words, the immanence of technology makes irrelevant the spatial configurations of productive resources and facilities. In a world of 3D printing, for example, there is no need for a great variety of different materials, which can be effectively substituted by a small range of alternatives. This way of thinking is central to the concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which offers a convenient approach to envisaging future changes in the division of labour. The Fourth Industrial Revolution unties the online world with the physical world in ways that, according to its proponents, will radically change the way we live our lives and, even, how we view ourselves. Klaus Schwab (2017), an influential voice in this movement, has claimed that “The Fourth Industrial Revolution is changing everything – from the way we relate to each other, to the work we do, the way our economies work, and what it means to be human (ibid.).” Such changes are very dangerous, of course, although they provide numerous opportunities for people and organizations.

Previous industrial revolutions unfolded at a comparatively relaxed place. In the first revolution, for example, annual GDP growth in the UK never exceeded 0.25% (Crafts, 1996), which is far removed from the double-digit growth that has been recorded in a number of developing economies in recent years. The fourth revolution will be different because, it is argued, of the velocity of change resulting from the interconnectedness of contemporary economic activities which leads to exponential rather than linear growth increases. Second, there is the breadth and depth of change, with multiple technological transformations taking place simultaneously giving rise to changes that affect human identity as well as the processes by which things get done. Third, there is the system impact that results from the fact that entire industries and economies around the world can undergo rapid change almost instantaneously (Schwab, 2017:3). An example of how these changes work in parallel is the issuing of an update to a major software operating system, perhaps to counter a new instance of cyberwarfare or else to connect more effectively with a new form of hardware. This update can be distributed for free over the internet and so provide more or less instantaneous improvements to all kinds of different applications for it. Not all applications of an enabling technology will be beneficial to society – consider, for example, all the hate speech and electoral fraud that has been made possible by a digital platform as ubiquitous as Facebook.

As more and more devices used in personal life become fully functional only with the use of online connectivity, people become more and more reliant on the successful interaction between the devices and the online world. This has its problems, as those who have observed ‘death by GPS’ know, as people place total trust in the device that directs them to drive into ditches or lakes that are not supposed to be there (Milner, 2016). Nevertheless, it is anticipated that superior management systems will be put into place to ensure that these kinds of problems will be avoided in the workplace. The close interconnections between physical items and the software that enables them to function are giving rise to cyberphysical systems (CPSs), which will connect with each other in a variety of ways, many of them no doubt in unanticipated ways and with unintended effects which will “… empower the transformation of industry and business at large to a digital, adaptive, networked, and knowledge-based industry with significant long-term impact on the economy, society, environment, and citizens (Colombo et al., 2017).”

The National Science Foundation (NSF) of the USA outlines some practical applications for CPS technology: driverless cars coordinating with eyes in the sky to ensure smoother running of traffic in urban areas; drones providing wifi connectivity to disaster zones; in-home censors monitor health conditions in real time and can make interventions when required and firefighters will have much better information and capability in dealing with fires and oil spills (NSF, 2018). These kinds of applications are intended to create obvious public goods and are likely to be increasingly necessary to deal with the ever more obvious impacts of global climate change. How the private sector uses such technology is less predictable. The search for profit which underlines all private sector activities leads to all kinds of unexpected results and ideas. It seems likely that there is a big market for human enhancements through additional cyber or physical upgrades. Some existing applications, such as reading glasses or prosthetic replacement limbs are not controversial. However, there are whole realms of possible enhancements that are intensely controversial. For example, the medical researcher He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen has claimed to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies, specifically by enhancing their ability to resist future possible infection by HIV (Staff and Agencies, 2018). This area is always likely to be strongly contested and highly emotional because of the baleful history of eugenics and the relationships between people with disabilities and the use of abortion or euthanasia. In this particular case, many people would be more willing to agree to gene-editing style techniques if they prevent children being born with mental or physical disabilities than can be avoided but less willing to accept children being given advantages such as superior intellect, physical prowess or bright blue eyes. In various ways, then, these will be disruptive technologies which will change, as Schwab (2017) observed, who we are as well as what we do.

Schwab (ibid.:120-72) itemizes a series of technologies in which it might be imagined that disruptive chages such as this might manifest. These changes will have social and ethical as well as operational and practical implications:

– Implantable technologies;
– Our digital presence;
– Vision as the new interface;
– Wearable internet;
– A supercomputer in your pocket;
– Storage for all;
– Smart cities;
– Big data for decisions;
– Driverless cars;
– Artificial intelligence and decision making;
– AI and white collar jobs;
– Robotics and services;
– Bitcoin and the Blockchain;
– The sharing economy;
– Governments and the Blockchain;
– 3D printing and manufacturing;
– 3D printing and human health;
– 3D printing and consumer products;
– Designer beings;
– Neurotechnologies.

Many of these forms of technology rely on the creation of enormous databases of information (i.e. big data) which it had not previously been possible to analyse in a usable timeframe because of limited computational power. This should mean that decisions taken in daily life should be rational in nature and based on the best decision-making criteria available. However, there is continued evidence that large numbers of people are willing to reject rationality in favour of instinct or ideology when it comes to realities they do not wish to face. There have always been people willing to believe in conspiracy theories, of course but these have also been confined to the outskirts of healthy societies. However, these beliefs have entered the mainstream in the Republican Party of the USA’s embrace of climate change denial and then with the far right misogyny and racism expressed by the Republican former president Trump, which has permitted a recrudescence of bigotry, thuggishness and anti-semitism in the governments of countries such as Hungary, Turkey and the Philippines. Consequently, it is necessary to prepare for a world in which the same technology is used for nefarious rather than societally beneficial purposes. It is, after all, the same facial recognition software that permitted the staff of Taylor Swift to check for the presence of stalkers at a concert (Snapes, 2018) is also used by the Chinese government, which is said to be using it to create a social credit rating system for all of its citizens with a view to imposing sanctions on those detected to have committed acts of political or social dissidence (Jiaquan, 2018).


Increasingly, the diffusion of mature technologies around the world has broken the connection between investment in manufacturing facilities and the production of high-value items. Industry 4.0 activities are divided into sections depending on their relative contributions to overall added value associated with a product. The logic of the division of labour for each stage varies and acts as a barrier to the mobility of peripheral economies and their ability to join the developed core of nations. The new aspiration of the US, it has been argued (Tooze, 2021), in a world in which its rival aims to match its GDP, is to break the link between power and GDP by the rearrangement of access to those technologies identified as being of crucial strategic importance. If this is a genuine possibility, then it will mark a new stage in the development of industrial production.


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