“Luddite” is now a blanket term used to describe people who dislike new technology, but its origins date back to a 19th century labor movement that railed against the economic fallout of the Industrial Revolution. The original Luddites were British weavers and textile workers who objected to the increased use of automated looms and knitting frames. Most were trained artisans who had spent years learning their craft, and they feared that unskilled machine operators were robbing them of their livelihood. When their appeals for government aid and assistance were ignored, a few desperate weavers began breaking into factories and smashing textile machines.(History.com -- Who Were the Luddites?)

The first industrial revolution was driven by the advent of steam power in the 18th and 19th centuries and laid the fertile ground for the original Luddites mentioned above.

The second industrial revolution was driven by innovations in communications (radio and TV), transportation (planes and cars) and the mass availability of the electricity needed to drive it all. Lest we be too hard on the original Luddites, there are Luddites in the middle of every technology revolution. The president of the Michigan Savings Bank advised Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, not to invest in the Ford Motor Company: “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.”

The bulk of my career has been spent in the middle of the third industrial revolution, driven by computing. This era began in the 60s and 70s, but ramped into high gear in the 80s and 90s with massive increases in computing capability and connectivity, Moore’s Law decreases in technology prices, and mobile and cloud-driven business model disruption.

It is hard to overstate the dramatic changes that have occurred during this third industrial revolution. During the span of one single career, I’ve moved from dreaming about a $149 TI calculator to replace my slide rule to being able to summon 4 terabytes of storage directly to my door for $95 upon a mere voice command to a device in my kitchen. This is despite such well-known predictions as “I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse” (Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com) and “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share” (Steve Ballmer).

And all of this will pale relative to the changes that will be brought about by the fourth industrial revolution. The fourth industrial revolution will be driven by artificial intelligence and machine learning and will offer all sorts of opportunities for radically redefined and streamlined processes and ways of working.

I have always been a technology enthusiast, eager to try the latest technology. And on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution, I still am. But the future's not without a few clouds, and I don’t mean cloud computing.

At the risk of generating my own set of Luddite predictions that will look foolish 20 years from now, I worry about a rising sense of disorientation about what this fourth industrial revolution will bring. I don’t think we have to go as far as Ray Kurzweil in predicting that technological singularity -- the crucial moment when machines become smarter than humans -- will occur in our lifetime. But I do think that the rising forces of disorientation will threaten to undermine the speed with which the next generation of technologies will be adopted -- unless we all start collectively to address these concerns.

Disorientation 1 -- Rising concerns about technology itself.

All of the revelations about the violations of trust that have occurred in the social media space are generating a broad sense of technological unease in which technology innovation has shifted from a universal good to something more mixed.

I often think back to my invitation to Sir Tim Berners-Lee to be an AIIM keynoter -- in 1998! -- and his charge to the AIIM attendees -- many of whom had no idea who he was or why he was there. He urged the attendees to think about four key emerging challenges tied to the intersection of intersection of markets and culture and the web:

  1. [Automated] Agents: Will they stabilize or destabilize markets?

  2. Lack of geography [in the web]: Will it polarize or homogenize culture?

  3. Web access: Will it be the great divider or great equalizer?

  4. And his final: Will the web generate jealousy and hatred or Peace, love and understanding?

These challenges seem simple and naive in retrospect. But they were exactly the things we SHOULD have been discussing over the past twenty years as we adopted a model of innovation financed largely by trading access and privacy for convenience.

It is fascinating to watch the current generation of Millennial digital natives struggle with the broader implications of technology for their children. On the one hand, my granddaughter Lucy is in a kindergarten class with a Twitter account that does remarkablethings with technology. On the other hand, my son and daughter-in-law constantly wrestle with questions of how much screen time is advisable and the implications of how to teach someone to live in a world that is always on and always connected. According to the Pew Research Center, 32% of Americans feel that over the next decade, overall well-being will be more harmed than helped by digital life.

This technology disorientation inevitably carries over into the workplace. The Guardian(Will 2018 be the year of the neo-luddite?) notes, “The downsides of technology’s inexorable march are now becoming clear – and automation will only increase the anxiety. We should expect the growing interest in off-grid lifestyles to be accompanied by direct action and even anti-tech riots.” At SXSW 2018, Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla and SpaceX) noted, "I'm very close to the cutting-edge of AI, and it scares the hell out of me….It is capable of vastly more than anyone knows, and the rate of improvement is exponential.”

Disorientation 2 -- Radically redefined work and workplaces

The exponential rate of change that is the hallmark of the fourth industrial revolution will inevitably change the nature of work and where and how work is done. According to McKinsey & Company (What the future of work will mean for jobs, skills and wages):

We estimate that between 400 million and 800 million individuals could be displaced by automation and need to find new jobs by 2030 around the world….For advanced economies, the share of the workforce that may need to learn new skills and find work in new occupations is much higher: up to one-third of the 2030 workforce in the United States and Germany, and nearly half in Japan.

That’s a lot of disruption! Even though there is a strong argument that the 4th industrial revolution will create more jobs than it destroys, AI and machine learning will undoubtedly impact how and where those jobs are distributed and to whom. Christopher Hernaes notes (Is technology contributing to increased inequality?), “The next wave of intelligent automation will strike hard at...the middle class: Classic middle-income white-collar jobs, such as bank tellers, insurance underwriters, loan officers and case-file workers. Basically, every job that includes following the rules and making few decisions.” The Washington Post echoes this, “With advances in artificial intelligence, any job that requires the analysis of information can be done better by computers. This includes the jobs of physicians, lawyers, accountants, and stock brokers.”

Disorientation 3 -- Uneven distribution of the benefits of technology

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the fourth industrial revolution is this -- while it is difficult to deny the productivity benefits that will be generated by the next wave of technology innovation, it does not necessarily follow that these benefits will be equitably distributed. Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson (In The Great Decoupling of the US Economy and in many other places) have done great work highlighting the distributional impact of technology in a disruptive era: “…while digital progress grows the overall economic pie, it can do so while leaving some people, or even a lot of them, worse off.”

The set of issues that this generates are complicated because they cut to the heart of a lot of core assumptions about the economy and who were are or imagine ourselves to be, especially in America. It is a set of issues that neither political party in the U.S. seems to fully understand.

Back in its Horatio Alger days, America was more fluid than Europe. Now it is not. Using one-generation measures of social mobility—how much a father’s relative income influences that of his adult son—America does half as well as Nordic countries, and about the same as Britain and Italy, Europe’s least-mobile places.(The Economist, Repairing the Rungs on the Ladder)

When it comes to how these three disorientations and tensions manifest themselves in the workplace, there are currently very skewed perceptions about AI that cut very differently depending on where you sit in an organization.

Gartner recently surveyed employers and workers about the impact that AI will have.


The chasm between these perspectives is a core change management challenge -- a core conversation -- that must be addressed if organizations are to fully maximize the benefits of automation. The gap that Gartner identified is an important one.

To return to the original Luddites, that story did not end well for them. But importantly, nor did it halt the march of technology. Per Wikipedia:

The British government sought to suppress the Luddite movement with a mass trial at York in January 1813, following the attack on Cartwrights mill at Rawfolds near Cleckheaton. The government charged over 60 men, including Mellor and his companions, with various crimes in connection with Luddite activities. While some of those charged were actual Luddites, many had no connection to the movement. Although the proceedings were legitimate jury trials, many were abandoned due to lack of evidence and 30 men were acquitted. These trials were certainly intended to act as show trials to deter other Luddites from continuing their activities. The harsh sentences of those found guilty, which included execution and penal transportation, quickly ended the movement.

As we move into the fourth Industrial Revolution, it will not be enough for solution providers to simply develop great products. Collectively -- and this is a place where I think technology-based associations can play a meaningful role -- solution providers must be part of a broader societal conversation about technology. This is a conversation that is not just technical -- the terms that are the most comfortable for most technology people -- but societal.