The Satanic Mills of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Raised in a family of Manchester, UK natives, you naturally find attachment to things English.  One favorite is the song “Jerusalem” based on the William Blake poem. It is a delightful tune, but with acid lyric comment on the First Industrial Revolution. Blake speaks “of the dark Satanic Mills” spreading across the formerly green lands of England.  Blake was not a fan of the First Industrial Revolution. 

His complaint did little good. And England embraced those satanic mills and came to dominate that new world.

America stands today in the beginning stages of the cyber-driven Fourth Industrial Revolution (4R) - a time of universal access to information, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, the Internet of Things, and the ever-eternal fear of the replacement of people by machines. With bureaucracy and leadership steeped in the second half of the 20th century, so far for America, the transition to the new cyber-based, climate friendly Satanic Mills Revolution has been a rough one. 

Being Number One 

In the late 20th century, the United States was the preeminent player in the projections of nation state power in land, sea, air, and space.  We even had an early lead in cyber, which we essentially developed. US Government research monies drove American innovation.  And, our primary projection of power was our military dominance in land, sea, air, and space - a driving force as well behind research and development (R&D) funding in cutting edge technologies such as computers, and the internet itself.

Around the fall of archrival Soviet Union in 1991, a new American R&D “business” model began to appear. The “new new” technologies were now being developed in the private sector – primarily Silicon Valley.  The Federal government’s R&D declined sharply.  In fact, the USG was now buying “commercial off the shelf” from U.S. tech firms to support its own technical efforts. 

Silicon Valley private empires had begun to exert power and viewed themselves as “internationalists;” not bound by U.S. rules or politics off shoring production and information while dealing with nation states like China as peer equals.  

China Ups Its Game

The nation to take greatest advantage of these changes was a resurgent China looking to become a lead player on the world stage.  Led by a mercantilist policy of state directed capitalism, Beijing savvily saw 4R and believed that if it had the technology, it would lead the way in this new world.

So, China welcomed U.S. technical production in its plants. It equally welcomed a policy of “open borders” when sharing research of which Beijing logically took full advantage.  And, our cyber space security - viewed as a costly item with no tangible return on investment - remained weak at best and a hunting ground for Chinese government directed spying in support of technology development.  

With a rapid rising China buying and stealing new things with a single purpose and autocratic drive of reaching number one by mid-century, America seems destined to lose out as the number one world power. We are disturbingly like the British Empire of the early 20th century.

First in the superpower game of old, we bought a lot of now “old stuff” that is expensive to maintain and has outlived its usefulness. We continue - with some exceptions - to have a stove-piped bureaucracy better suited to a previous century’s approach to national security challenges. And even our aircraft carrier dreadnoughts which are our prime symbol of power projection appear weaker now potentially sliced through by cyber based, artificially intelligent powered Chinese hypersonic weapons.

America has also fumbled with the challenge of near universal access to information - good and bad. The Russians, who live and breathe the control of information, have been quite adept at using it to undermine elections and confidence in our government and systems.  Moscow has also successfully incorporated information dominance and agenda control into their military projections of power in areas like Ukraine and Georgia.

China is learning lessons from them.  We have yet to successfully counter this messaging and seem confused by exactly what to do.  

Joining The Revolution

The Fourth Revolution’s Satanic Mills are here and we will be living in their wake for the rest of the 21st century. And while the U.S. isn’t going away as a major player in world politics, the Fourth Revolution has made it a Five-Domain world in which its dominant place is in long run doubt.  Our old power bases of land, sea, and air are increasingly less important.  And we have equals in Cyber and Space with whom we have yet figured how to deal and who can also use their dominance in these domains to affect the older domains in which America still exercises some control.  

We are not without hope in terms of dealing with this new world. But this requires a large-scale Government wide effort; not a private sector one. Whatever its virtues, the development and support of national level technology policy is not their job.  Advice yes. Dependence on them alone, no.

The Biden Administration is making a smart move by proposing to invest heavily in and developing and applying high end technology with a large dollop of STEM education.  And it appears to be reviewing carefully what the military needs to get smart about projecting power taking advantage of the new domains; less money wasted on old weapons systems. More money spent on force multiplying technology like artificial intelligence.

A major, perhaps tougher, issue beyond money for the Biden Administration is the need to help America get beyond is the near hopeless tangle of 20th century government bureaucracies. It plagues the speed needed to move forward in 4R with the private sector and blunts the potential effectiveness of government policy itself.

The challenges are great.  It’s not easy changing with the times when you have been a leader in an era fading fast. Some will cling to the past and curse the Satanic Mills of the 4R and its inevitable march of change.  But, like Blake, they will not win.  But, America has a path forward and a huge role to play in the Fourth Revolution.  We need to be smart enough and disciplined enough to embrace it.

Ronald Marks is Term Visiting Professor, George Mason University, Schar School of Policy and Government. He is President of ZPN Cyber & National Security Strategies     

Image: Unsplash

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