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The fourth industrial revolution and blockchain

Geschreven door Ben van Lier - 21 oktober 2016

Ben van Lier
In 1954, German philosopher Martin Heidegger[1] argued that the essence of modern technology “shows itself in what we call enframing”. Heidegger uses the concept of enframing to determine how technology develops, surrounds us and conditions our perception of the world. For Heikkerö, the concept of enframing consequently refers to “a way of disclosing the world”[2]. Today, the process of technology enframing reality is characterised by networked applications such as smartphones, tablets and an unprecedented range of sensors that enable us and these devices to communicate and interact in both the physical world and the cyber world through networks. This is changing the world and our perception of it, without us wondering what the essence is of this technological shift and what how these changes will affect our lives and work over the coming years.

Technology and the technological applications it produces are, according to Arbesman[3], also becoming increasingly complex in people’s perception, partially due to their interconnectedness. This interconnectedness enables systems to autonomously make decisions on individual and joint actions. The proliferation of interconnected autonomous systems that are able to work together in random combinations is, in Arbesman’s view, creating a situation where “we become less able to understand them, no matter how smart we are or how prodigious our memory, because these systems are constructed differently from the way we think”.

Enframing by technology and the increasing interconnectedness of humans and technology are forcing us, in fact, to develop new knowledge and insights that, on the one hand, enable us to trust these technological changes. On the other hand, interconnected systems will make more and more decisions and share and exchange data and information ensuing from these decisions, entirely out of humans’ sight.

Interconnected systems will thus increasingly condition our daily lives and work, without us retaining any kind of understanding or oversight of how these decisions come about. One key element of this change is the willingness to gain insight into how this increasingly complex technology works, with a view to understanding what it means for the world that we share with technology.

Fourth industrial revolution

The ongoing global development and application of new technology will inevitably change the way we live and work over the coming years. According to Schwab[4], the development that the World Economic Forum has branded the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is the result of the “fusion of technologies and their interaction across the physical, digital and biological domains that make the fourth industrial revolution fundamentally different from previous revolutions”.

Digitalisation in the form of algorithms, software and data will enable systems produced by the fusion of technologies to operate autonomously in networks and communicate data and information, make decisions and interact within these networks. We are already seeing this development in phenomena such as the (Industrial) Internet of Things, which is based on the interconnection of a wide range of different objects, such as washing machines, televisions, lorries, cars, wind turbines and factories, etc.

This development will engender new systems that are referred to as ‘cyber-physical systems’. The US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)[5] defines cyber-physical systems as “smart systems that include engineered interacting networks of physical and computational components”[6]. Cyber-physical systems, such as a self-driving lorry, are characterised by the fact that they are designed to be connected in networks, to operate autonomously, to communicate and interact and to be able to independently make decisions in consensus with other cyber-physical systems.

The possibilities offered by a cyber-physical system are not limited to their physical possibilities, but rather determined by the combination of these physical functions with the possibilities offered by algorithms, software and data. This development will change the world around us, while our perception of the world will partly be conditioned by smart, autonomous objects that are able to make more and more decisions for us. We seem to be heading towards a society where man and object live, work and make decisions together as equals.


In Schwab’s view, the fourth industrial revolution creates “radically new approaches that revolutionize the way in which individuals and institutions engage and collaborate”. One of these new approaches is, according to him, blockchain. Blockchain, a unique example of a fusion of technologies, was developed and defined by Nakamoto. Mougayar[7] recently claimed that “the blockchain can be seen as a ‘meta technology’, because it is made up of several technologies itself. It is as an overlay of computers and networks that are built on top of the Internet”. Algorithms, software and data enable networked systems to reach consensus on mutual information transactions.

What is particularly revolutionary about this is that blockchain no longer uses centralised data and information storage, as decisions and associated data are stored at the distributed entities that took part in the transaction. In a recent remark, Lael Brainard[8] of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors stated that “regardless of the application, much of the industry is at a “proof of concept” stage of development. These proofs of concept are often simple, experimental uses of the technology on a small scale that help stakeholders understand the potential and limitations of the technology for a specific purpose”.

Despite current technological limitations, research into possible applications of this new technological combination is being carried out all over the world. One example is a project by Ant Financial, a subsidiary of China’s Alibaba Group[9], to develop a blockchain that raises people’s trust in charities and inspires them to donate. Such a blockchain not only potentially increases transparency on the destination of donations, but also allows people to check what funds were actually spent on. Another Chinese company, Wanxiang[10], one of the world’s largest manufacturers of automotive parts, has announced plans to develop a blockchain that can be used in their production lines. The company hopes that this technology will not only help them cut costs, but also “enforce property rights, and manage IoT and inter-device interactions”.


In Simon’s[11] view, a complex system is made up of a “large number of parts that interact in a non-simple way. In such systems, the whole is more than the sum of the parts”. Intercommunication and interactions between a diverse range of systems creates a new unified whole, whereby the behaviour of the whole cannot be traced back to its constituent parts. The development of the whole and the ensuing behaviour is referred to as ‘emergence’. Bedau[12] defines emergence as the “aggregate global behavior of certain systems. The system’s global behavior derives just from the operation of micro-level processes, but the micro-level interactions are interwoven in such a complicated network that the global behavior has no simple explanation.”

In the world of the fourth industrial revolution, we will see more and more fusions of technologies such as the blockchain arise, which will automatically lead to a further progressing process of enframing. This process is driven by an unprecedented number of interconnected systems that communicate, make decisions and interact, and which are thus able to condition our perception of reality. These networks and interconnected systems provide foundations for concepts such as the (Industrial) Internet of Things, smart grids, smart cities and mobile healthcare, as well as Network Centric Warfare.

The new wholes of interconnected people and systems produce new features that are not only unpredictable, but will also inevitably change our perception of the world. In light of this development, we owe it to ourselves to learn more about the new combinations of technology, algorithms, software and data, and about the resulting fusions of technologies that enable this development and that will be a key factor in how we view the world. Without the willingness to learn about how this interconnectedness works and conditions us, we will increasingly feel caught off guard by the development of features that are created in the new wholes into which we are incorporated.

  • [1] Heidegger, M. (1977). The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harpers and Row.
  • [2] Heikkerö, T. (2010). Ethics in Technology. A Philosophical Study. New York: Lexington Books (ISBN 9780739191958).
  • [3] Arbesman, S. (2016). Overcomplicated. Technology at the Limits of Comprehension. New York: Current (ISBN 9781591847762).
  • [4] Schwab, K. (2016). The Fourth Industrial Revolution.
  • [5] National Institute of Standards and Technology (May 2016). Framework for Cyber-Physical Systems Release 1.0. Cyber-Physical Systems Public Working Group.
  • [6] National Institute of Standards and Technology (May 2016). Framework for Cyber-Physical Systems Release 1.0. Cyber-Physical Systems Public Working Group.
  • [7] Mougayar. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/businessreview/2016/07/07/working-as-a-layer-on-top-of-the-internet-blockchain-is-an-instrument-of-change/
  • [8] Brainard, L. (2016). Distributed Ledger Technology: Implications for Payments, Clearing and Settlement. Remarks by Lael Brainard, member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Institute of International Finance Annual Meeting Panel on Blockchain, Washington D.C. October 7, 2016.
  • [9] Alibaba. https://news.bitcoin.com/ant-financial-blockchain-philanthropy/.
  • [10] Wanxiang. Blockchain is Behind a Massive $30B Smart City Project in China. http://futurism.com/blockchain-is-behind-a-massive-30b-smart-city-project-in-china/.
  • [11] Simon, H. A. (1969). The Sciences of the Artificial. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • [12] Bedau, M. A. and Humphreys, P. (eds.) (2008). Downward Causation and Autonomy in Weak Emergence. Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (ISBN 9780262524759).

Ben van Lier works at Centric as Director Strategy & Innovation and, in that function, is involved in research and analysis of developments in the areas of overlap between organisation and technology within the various market segments.


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