Last month during the State of the Union, Donald Trump proposed a $1.5 trillion investment in infrastructure that would presumably be aimed at restoring bridges, roads, and improving telecommunications systems around the country. Though we’ve yet to see the specifics of that deal, the political debate about a new era of sustained infrastructure spending has largely been focused on who will pay for it, not what we’ll actually build.
“The debate between Democrats and Republicans centers around, ‘Will this be paid for by the federal government or local and state governments? Will it favor privatization or maintain infrastructure as public?’ That’s the whole debate,” Jeremy Rifkin, a social and economic theorist who has officially advised the European Union and China, told me in a recent phone interview. “What’s being lost is Trump is committing a trillion-and-a-half dollars to antiquated infrastructure designed for the 20th century.”
Rifkin teaches in the executive education program at the Wharton School of business at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of a series of books that argue America and much of the world have maxed out the economic possibilities and efficiencies of our existing infrastructure and economic systems—and in doing so, we’re quickly headed off an environmental cliff and into crisis and a potential mass extinction event. In The Third Industrial Revolution, a book and new film released by VICE, Rifkin argues that investment in emerging technologies must be combined with social and political buy-in to radically transform the global economy and stave off climate change.
The crux of Rifkin’s argument is that the internet (and soon, 5G communications infrastructure) has given us a zero marginal cost communications infrastructure—distributing one copy of a news article, song, or TV show isn’t dramatically different than distributing a billion copies of each—but that our transportation and energy infrastructures haven’t caught up. He describes three “internets”—a communications internet, energy internet, and transportation internet—that will disrupt or decentralize essentially every industry on Earth and will transform national economies that have been reliant on inefficient and expensive fossil fuels.
“The convergence of these internets are going to allow us to come together at very low fixed- and marginal costs and deal directly with economic and social life,” he said. “And avoid the global, vertically integrated corporations of the 20th century.”
Rifkin has worked with the Metropolitan Region of Rotterdam and the Hague, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, and Hauts-de-France to produce sophisticated, 500-page roadmaps of the types of technologies, political, social, and economic changes that will be needed to implement his plan. These plans speak of the convergence of technologies and ideals we’ve long covered here at Motherboard, and explore the possibilities of what might be possible if nascent tech can overcome some of the growing pains we’ve seen as they roll out.
"The political struggle of the millennials, their children, and grandchildren will be how to address these problems"
For example, we’ve begun to see individuals, local governments, and small groups of people begin to create their own power grids based on solar and wind energy. If those microgrids are locally owned and are used to power driverless electric cars that run a locally owned rideshare network connected to a blockchain-based smart contract system, you have created an economic system that eventually will cost essentially nothing to operate once the underlying infrastructure is in place. At the same time, traditional power companies, delivery companies, personal cars, and banking systems are being disrupted and political and economic power will be returned to local and regional communities.
“Nothing is more political than moving from centralized power that runs the world and the politics that went with that to distributed power and clean energy that can then be shared,” Rifkin said. “That is extremely political. There's lots of [early projects] but what hasn't happened is an overarching vision or narrative to put it together.”
We have seen all of these technologies work as research and pilot projects and experiments on some level in some parts of the world, but Rifkin proposes going all-in on investing on the infrastructure and technological advances necessary to get us there as quickly as possible.
“There is no revolution because they’re all siloed pilot projects that have not scaled,” Rifkin said. “What we haven’t done is begun the process of laying out the transformational infrastructure on which this all needs to be embedded.”
In The Third Industrial Revolution, Rifkin doesn’t ask what if these technologies work; he says that if they don’t, or if we don’t go all-in on them, our current reliance on dirty energy will kill us sooner than later.
As someone who has watched many of the technologies he’s talking about in their early stages of development, it’s exciting to see someone put them all together into a cohesive narrative and vision that may change the world.
But I’ve also seen the growing pains and early problems associated with many of these technologies: The early internet of things has been an unmitigated disaster, with millions of insecure, internet-connected baby monitors and home surveillance systems co-opted into a botnet to attack the internet’s underlying infrastructure, a new era of consumerism associated with product upgrade cycles for traditionally long-lasting appliances like fridges and washing machines, and smart devices made by companies that may-or-may-not go out of business in the next couple years, killing their devices with them.
The blockchain holds lots of promise, but cryptocurrencies are volatile, mining them is currently extremely bad for the environment, and they are even more centralized than the currencies they’ve been designed to replace (and, by the way, blockchain technology promises to create, for example, clothes that spy on us.)
Ridesharing and driverless cars have thus far been industries dominated by extremely powerful Silicon Valley companies who have unilaterally rewritten or ignored regulations designed to protect humans, and companies like Uber, Google, and Lyft threaten to monopolize industries that have been the backbone of our economy and a major source of jobs for decades.
Our telecom infrastructure is not only noncompetitive but also exists in a regulatory environment in which incumbent providers have just killed neutrality on the networks that most of this technology will rely on. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Apple are increasingly monopolizing the ways we consume information, are using algorithms to sort us into parallel existences and planes of truth, and are constantly working to obtain further control over their platforms and ecosystems.
"What’s happened is drivers are starting to say ‘What do we need Uber and Lyft for?’"
In order for Rifkin’s plan to work, then, we need to overcome all or most of these growing pains and entrenched political, social, and economic problems. Rifkin says he spends a lot of time thinking about these problems and says he knows we’ll need to overcome them: “I’m not a utopian,” he said. “I'm only guardedly hopeful. I don't believe we’re fated, but I don't think this utopia and I'm also quite worried.”
“How do we make sure no one is left out when everyone is connected? How do we make sure governments don't purloin this third industrial revolution infrastructure for their political ends or internet companies don't purloin this and capture all our private data to build monopolies? How do we protect data security when we're seeing malware disrupt the system every day?,” Rifkin said. “How do we ensure public platforms that's not monopolized by Google, Facebook, and Twitter?”
"I think it's naive if we think the Googles, Facebooks, the Alibabas will be among the few platforms that manage the world"
There are certainly many bright spots that point to a future where we can overcome these problems; it’s worth looking at what is beginning to happen with ridesharing and internet infrastructure, in which many smaller local revolutions are taking place. Local communities are starting their own Ubers and their own ISPs.
“Uber said we’ll put up a cool website, then we’ll get every car owner in the world to work for us,” he said. “They used a distributed, open, transparent platform at very low to zero marginal cost to set up a giant, globally integrated company financed by Goldman Sachs and Google. What’s happened is drivers are starting to say ‘What do we need Uber and Lyft for?’ You’re going to see ridesharing cooperatives emerge around drivers, you create them regionally, get bank loans for doing it, and the revenue stays within the community and region.”
Solving technological inequity is not Rifkin’s problem, it is ours. Over the last few years, it’s been easy to look at technology as a force that has made the world worse. But these technologies do at least provide us a plausible way out of the environmental crisis we’ve found ourselves in. The question is whether we can make technology work for us rather than against us, and if we can muster the political will to create a more progressive and equitable system.
“I think it's naive if we think the Googles, Facebooks, the Alibabas will be among the few platforms that manage the world—I look at these companies and I can't believe that millennials will allow there to be one platform for logistics, one platform for communication, one for entertainment. We know there's alternatives,” Rifkin said. “I think the political struggle of the millennials, their children, and grandchildren will be how to address these problems.”