Jeremy Rifkin is a sociologist who believes he always has the Next Big Idea that’s going to change everything. I’ve been following his work since I was first introduced to it at a lecture on ‘entropy as a societal phenomenon’ in 1980 in Youngstown, Ohio. (I was in college in Ohio for a couple of years). It made no sense to me then, but I have since studied systems theory, energy modeling, technology, ecology and networks, and now, of course, it makes a lot more sense. But now he’s really convinced that he’s got it all figured out. It’s what he calls the Third Industrial Revolution, which is the convergence of three internets: the internet of things (material production); the internet of renewable energy; and the internet of analytics (communication and transportation). I think he has lots of it figured out, so long as everything works out exactly the way he says it will. No chance that it will all go wonky at some point though eh?
According to Rifkin’s techno-optimist salvation story, the Third Industrial Revolution will bring about a low-carbon, decentralized eco-democracy built on ultra-automated, distributed AI technology, and THE END OF CAPITALISM. Not global unemployment, mass migration, eco-cide, fascism, drone wars and control by a tiny plutocracy of trilionaire techno-elites. As we’ve seen already.
But I’m presenting this right after Shoshona Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism so that you can see what could go wrong with this Internet of Everything/3IR. You can see why China set up a social media rating system that now blocks 14.5 million ‘bad’ Chinese from accessing air travel (which is good for the atmosphere, I suppose). You can see why Russia is about to shut down the internet in that country so they can reconfigure it to be centrally controlled by Putin and the GRU. Let’s hope his protege Donald Trump doesn’t get the same bright idea in the US. Trump has already declared a ‘national emergency’ that would give him the special authority to shut down the internet in the US if he thought it would keep him in office as President and out of prison for the rest of his life.
And though he claims to be an expert in energy modeling, nowhere does Rifkin explain where the supply of renewable energy is going to come from to power this Internet of Everything/3IR, which, by the way, will use blockchain throughout the entire system. The embryonic form of blockchain, i.e. bitcoin, already uses “an estimated 31 terawatt-hours per year and …. By February 2020, it will use as much electricity as the entire world does today.” (Holthaus, Wired, 12.06.17). Notwithstanding, Rifkin believes there will be enough renewable energy to power this global supernetwork, so don’t worry about global carbon emissions rising.
From a dharma perspective, Rifkin sees this Third Industrial Revolution being built around a humanist value system of empathy, sharing and a biosphere consciousness. Not paranoia, tribalism, conspiracy theories and political extremism, as Jaron Lanier has carefully demonstrated. Rifkin directs all of this to the Millennial Generation, telling them it is their unique responsibility in all of human history to engineer this Third Industrial Revolution and thereby save the planet and the human race. Don’t stress out about it, though, Millennials. Not only do you have to worry about how you are going to feed and house yourself in this broken economy, but it’s now your job to save the planet as well. Good luck.
(UPDATE: This just in—Facebook is gearing up to become the world’s biggest digital currency bank. Nothing gets in the way of these plucky techno-optimists!)