The history of digitization

A journey into the history of the computer

How long has digitization existed? An exciting question, because the topic has only really been present in the media in recent years, while technologies such as computers or the Internet have been around for much longer. In the first part of this series, we went on a search for the history of digitization and the first digital computers. Now let’s take a closer look at the history of automation to get an answer to our initial question.

In German, as mentioned in the first part, we like to use the term “Industry 4.0” as a synonym for digitization. It comes from an initiative of the “Promotion Group Communication of the Research Union Industry – Science” of the Federal Government and was presented for the first time on April 1, 2011.

The term builds a bridge to the three industrial revolutions in the history of technology. The first revolution is the transition from manufacturing to mechanized production in the 19th century. Examples of this are mechanical looms and the use of steam engines in factories. It is accompanied by a massive change in the working and living environment. It marks the change from an agricultural to an industrial society. It was accompanied by phenomena such as revolts against machines and the elimination of manual labor and homework.

The second industrial revolution marked the assembly line work and Taylorism of the early 20th century. A new organization of work paired with technical progress made the mass production of goods and goods possible. People became part of a strictly synchronized production chain with strictly defined, monotonous work processes, according to the organizational ideal of the time. The ability to produce goods in large quantities, rising wages and profits lead to increased demand. The consumer society begins with it.

The third industrial revolution began with the invention of the microprocessor – the triumph of the digital. Thanks to computers, sensors, robots, and circuits, industrial machines have been able to work more productively and independently since the 1970s. The invention of the programmable logic controller in 1969, with which machines became “digital” for the first time – that is, controlled by computers, is often considered a milestone. This is where the era of the service society begins because the proportion of people working in the industry has been falling regularly since increasing automation; today it is still a quarter in Germany.

All of these revolutions have one common denominator: the increasing degree of automation. The fourth industrial revolution “Industry 4.0” is now also set to usher in a new era of automation:

“With the so-called Industry 4.0, there will be mass production according to individual customer requirements, new business models, and new perspectives for employees.”

This is what the federal government’s “Plattform Industrie 4.0” writes in a nutshell, which can be read in more detail here. Many buzzwords and technologies are grouped under the term: Big Data, Cloud, the Internet of Things, Smart Industry, Robots, and Artificial Intelligence, Intelligent Factories, and so on. All of these technologies have fundamental principles that make them possible: Self-organization and self-optimization through intelligent processes, new value chains and changed work and consumer behavior. The term is intended to mark the transition to the information and knowledge society.

The Internet is the new dimension, which, like the steam engine or the programmable logic controller, is intended to define the milestone for a new age. Many of these new business models are only possible through networking and comprehensive data use, both within a company, a factory, and across company boundaries.

All well and good, this whole Industry 4.0 thing. But there was not yet a date for the start of digitization!

That’s such a thing. The term “Industry 4.0” is a marketing word proclaimed to describe a process, a social and economic change. It is not a historically accurate technical term – which can only be assigned in retrospect and not in advance. History will judge us, not the other way around.

Determining a date would be difficult anyway. You could now see when some of the technologies mentioned above came onto the market – for example, the Internet, which is an important basic requirement for Industry 4.0. The first approaches already existed in the 1960s, in the 1990s the Internet for private use spread, but in 2003 the number of Internet users in Germany was just over 50 percent. To take the start of the “World Wide Web” system in 1991 as the beginning of Industry 4.0 seems presumptuous. Because back then there were no industrial processes that were organized or fundamentally changed by the Internet.

Other internet technologies, which are indispensable today, also began surprisingly early. About the cloud. Wikipedia tells us that the American cloud pioneer salesforce was already offering its services in 1999. However, we have only seen the widespread use of cloud technologies as a means of adding value and increasing effectiveness in the past five to seven years. The situation is similar with other digital technologies, which have been around for years and decades, but whose significance in terms of digitization is only gradually penetrating to us.

In this context, it is also interesting to take a look at Bremen as a high-tech country: This is how Europe’s first 3D printer was created in the 1990s at the BIBA Bremen Institute for Production and Logistics. 3D printing is one of the key technologies for Industry 4.0 because it enables individual, decentralized production in industrial quality. But 3D printing wasn’t widespread in the 90s – and it isn’t even today. The triumphant advance of this technology is still to come.

So it is very difficult to pin the beginning of “Industry 4.0” on a date that is historically accurate in the sense that it includes technology as well as social dissemination. And to make it really complicated: The term “Industry 4.0” is hardly used in English. Here one speaks more of digitization – and does not make a sharp demarcation from the third industrial revolution. In English, it is a simple continuation of the increasing computerization with now new means – the information age. Instead of a revolution, one speaks much more often of an evolution: Because many of the technologies relevant today have been around for a long time, as we have just shown, while their widespread use is only gradually establishing itself.

Why is the subject of “Industry 4.0” and “Digitization” so well represented in the media at the moment when there is such a long history of digitization?

As explained above, the buzzword “Industry 4.0” has been favorably received by the media and society since its introduction in 2011 in order to give a name to the strong economic and social upheavals that digital technologies have brought with them in recent years. The situation is similar to the term “digitization”, which is understood more generally in German and does not refer to pure industrial processes. Digitization encompasses the increasing spread of the Internet and computer-based technologies in all areas of everyday life – whether in agriculture, in our shopping behavior, or in media use.

There are many signs of this change: On the one hand, there are the successes of Amazon, Apple, or Google, currently the most valuable companies in the world. Companies and technologies are changing entire industries, whether in retail, such as Uber in the taxi business or Airbnb in the hospitality industry. On the other hand, new media such as social networks are emerging and changing the way we communicate. As a result, our consumer behavior is changing: in 2014, for the first time, more than half of Germans had smartphones. Mobile internet is replacing surfing on the PC. Young people spend significantly more time on their mobile phones than in front of the television.

For companies, the ways in which value is created are changing with the new technologies. Used correctly, technologies such as robotics, big data, or artificial intelligence, which are becoming cheaper and easier to use, can lead to completely new products and applications – as with “Uber”, the famous “largest taxi company in the world without its own taxis”.

According to the principle “what can be automated is automated”, advancing digitization is also increasingly changing the world of work. The new technologies not only automate production jobs – which has been happening for centuries – but increasingly also intellectual activities. Whether automated insurance companies, stock exchanges without brokers or texts without editors (NO, THIS TEXT DOESN’T COME FROM A ROBOT. CERTAINLY NOT), all of this is already a reality.

This process fuels fears – the study by the University of Oxford (PDF) published in 2013 became famous, which saw 47 percent of the jobs of the entire US population at risk due to increasing digitalization. This uncertainty is definitely a sign of change – similar to the machine storm in the early phase of industrialization. Whether this will become a reality, however, is an entirely different story. Because until now, jobs lost in one sector could be absorbed by new jobs in other sectors. Apart from economic crises, employment has been reaching new highs for years. Experts are still arguing about whether this trend will continue or whether it will reverse through automation.

Ok, I got it. The history of digitization cannot be given a clear date

Correct. We are in a time of change – it started with the invention of the computer, the ZUSEs, ENIACs, and TRADICs. A profound change in social, economic, and political processes through the computer did not occur immediately. This development is creeping, although in the past few years it has been more like an avalanche, it continues and can be felt more and more in our everyday lives – let’s just think of “Alexa” or “Siri” as attempts to integrate voice-controlled computers into our everyday lives. Or Watson and AlphaGo – the artificial intelligence that became famous for their game strategies and defeated all human players.

In this development, we are probably not even close to a “summit”. Digitization in this sense has only just begun and will continue for a long time.

The invention of the steam engine did not suddenly lead to the industrial age – it too had to spread over the years and decades and brought with it other revolutionary technologies such as the railroad. Similarly, we will judge the digital age in retrospect and perhaps take the first digital computer or the Internet as an example of the beginning of the knowledge age. But only time will tell.

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