The future is with us. Rethink it

Technologies such as block chain reinforce this in business, government, civil society and the academy, where ethical and transparent communication is key (John McCann/M&G)

Technologies such as block chain reinforce this in business, government, civil society and the academy, where ethical and transparent communication is key (John McCann/M&G)


The Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, has raised many questions about the future of the humanities and the disciplines they encompass.

Our future is marked by artificial intelligence, robotics and the internet of things and it affects all spheres of life. In fact, this is already our reality and we need to critically rethink what these technological developments mean.

The humanities are thought to be in a crisis, and this might well hold true. But it is probably more a question of what the humanities have come to be that is at stake. There are debates about the digital humanities, big data and how technological developments are substantially changing the humanities. Added to this are debates about the “new humanities”, in which older disciplines are jostling to stay relevant amid the growth of newer disciplines such as media and communication studies.

READ MORE: The future world of work is changing

This does not detract from debates in which the crisis of the humanities is framed from perspectives that emphasise the supposed higher relevance of the applied “hard” sciences over the “soft” sciences of the humanities. Nothing makes this more evident than the emphasis put on the Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in primary education. This has more recently been reconceptualised and rethought as Steam, to include the “arts” and design. It emphasises the need for industry to value the input of artists and designers in driving innovation. This has not carried through into tertiary education, where boundaries between the sciences are still enforced.

Here our thinking is still steeped in a Cartesian dualism that juxtaposes and divides what is thought of as the hard sciences or natural sciences and the soft sciences, found in the humanities and social sciences. There are those who say that the strength of the humanities and the “arts” lies in their disassociation from the “hard” sciences. For the purist, the hard sciences, with their positivist roots and framing, might taint the soft sciences and their humanist grounding and visions. The soft sciences might equally taint the hard sciences and render them less scientific and reliable.

Such juxtapositions do not give us any opportunity to consider the increasing overlap between disciplines, their opportunities for cross-fertilisation and their equal relevance for the world of work — and, for some, the securing of the relevance of the humanities.

Whichever way we choose to look at this, and for whatever motive, human evolution and enterprise are fuelled by fascination and an urge to learn, feel and experience the world around us, and here the sciences — whether hard or soft — draw on the same innate human capabilities often associated with creativity. Creativity is one of the main drivers of innovation and thus central to the technological advances associated with Industry 4.0.

The engineer who also draws on subjects from within the humanities and the social sciences, such as psychology, communication, drama and fine arts or a language, is thought to have been given a more holistic and creative education. The end result is a creative thinker better suited to finding solutions to problems facing humanity, whether these can be solved by technology or not. Conversely, the humanities student who studies subjects such as maths, physics and computer science will have equal input into the problems that face humanity.

This is particularly pertinent in South Africa where the education system has not provided for the breaking down of boundaries between the sciences, let alone between the disciplines in the humanities.

Ultimately, this is not an either-or scenario, and as much as we want to deliberate on the advantages and disadvantages of the developments and processes in Industry 4.0, the reality is the revolution is already with us. And as much as we might think of it as a revolution along the lines of the societal and paradigmatic shifts of the previous industrial revolutions, each builds on the other and brings about a renaissance in which technology is rethought and improved to serve new purposes, albeit with greater speed and with fundamental implications for humanity.

Above and beyond how Industry 4.0 is changing manufacturing, service delivery and healthcare, where the humanities really stand to add to Industry 4.0 is in the areas of ethics, communication and leadership; areas that bring forth how people are inherently geared towards learning through collaboration and sharing, and thus we evolve.

The study of ethics is core to the humanities disciplines, and emphasises how we cannot disregard fears about the technological determinism that has come to characterise Industry 4.0, which go against the more human aspects of a social constructivist approach in which people and the society we inhibat shape technology. It is difficult to ignore questions that arise about robotics and machine learning, and the resultant job losses.

And not only is it manufacturing jobs that are disappearing. Even more abstract skills are taken over by machines with the ability to emulate human intelligence and actions. Further to this, issues about technologies advancing the securitisation of society and the invasion of privacy are real concerns. Equally, and as an upshot, technology is crucial for dealing with global problems such as health, poverty, environmental threats and food security.

This also has implications for leadership. The importance of ethical leadership and social responsibility in businesses is crucial to human and societal development. For organisations, there is a risk that technology and digital transformations will be implemented without proper consultation with employees and a wider group of people, and without an alignment to overall organisational goals and structures. Ethical leadership would ensure equity and inclusiveness and applies to governance on local, national and global level as well.

Here, Industry 4.0 gives us not only the tools for implementing more transparent processes of business and financial transactions, for example, but also platforms for more inclusive and accountable leadership through flat networks that thrive on collaboration and mutuality rather than hierarchical structures with little oversight or chance of encouraging creativity and renewal. Contemporary businesses and organisations cannot thrive without growing and developing talent throughout the organisation.

READ MORE: Technology in the classroom is key to collaborative, effective and engaged learning

Central to this is communication. Artificial intelligence and the internet of things have the potential to augment, support and improve flat-based and nonhierarchical networks that put the emphasis on conversation, participation and co-creation. Technologies such as block chain reinforce this in business, government, civil society and the academy, where ethical and transparent communication is key.

This is particularly important in South Africa and on the continent and for the political, socioeconomic and cultural problems we face. With amplified and intensifying calls for transformation and decolonisation, technology gives us opportunities to develop new ways of interacting and of creating unique platforms, applications and ways of communicating that reach out to previously marginalised audiences. This also creates opportunities to leapfrog and lead in areas that advance on new digital, social, analytical and collaborative tools.

Technological developments have always provided humanity with a possibility to reimagine the future. We need to be conscious of integrating technology in ways that improve and empower, and that mitigate against barriers that prevent us from living better lives. Here, the humanities have a crucial role to play.

Professor Ylva Rodny-Gumede is with the department of journalism, film and television at the University of Johannesburg

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