Are we undergoing an industrial revolution or a phase change?

Good morning.

Bill Davidow, one of Silicon Valley’s pioneers, stopped by the Fortune offices in New York last week. He spent a career at HP and Intel and then founded Mohr Davidow venture capital. At 84, he deserves some down time. But instead, he’s got a new book out—The Autonomous Revolution—coauthored with long-time tech journalist Michael Malone. I read it this weekend; it’s worth your attention.

Davidow’s main argument is that the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” rubric, popularized by the World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab, understates what is really going on today. He sees something much bigger. Borrowing a term from the physical sciences, he calls it “phase change”—similar to water changing to ice or to steam. The agricultural revolution was the first great historical phase change; the industrial revolution was the second; and the autonomous revolution will be the third, but hit much faster. “If we believe that we are experiencing the next phase of the Industrial Revolution,” Davidow argues, “we will fail to address new challenges at their roots and we will miss out on great opportunities. Worse still, we will apply obsolete solutions to our most pressing problems.”

What happens in a “phase change”? It is not just economic but also profound social change. “Our institutions will assume new forms and operate using different tools and according to new rules; our sense of time, space, and self will be irrevocably altered. Our memories of what came before the new epoch will be skewed and the few revenants from the past that do survive it will have limited applicability in the future.”

The book is a short read: 200 pages. Davidow and Malone don’t try to make detailed predictions about the future; they simply say why they think the change will be more fundamental than most acknowledge. They raise the prospect of considerable social upheaval ahead. But they end optimistically, saying America’s “sacred values, such as democracy, equality, and liberty and freedom for all, will enable our leaders to bring us together in pursuit of common goals.”

Unfortunately, there was little evidence of that in the weekend’s political news, with one party embracing the tactics of authoritarianism while the other lurched toward (democratic) socialism.

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Alan Murray
@alansmurray
alan.murray@fortune.com