JOHANNESBURG – Sport has always been influenced by industrial revolutions through the millennia, starting way back in the late 18th century with the first industrial revolution. Each one since has dramatically affected sporting activities.
This is also true of the “Fourth industrial revolution”, which has become one of the most prominent buzz phrases in international policymaking since it was first coined in 2016 by the World Economic Forum founder and executive chairperson, Klaus Schwab. The concept, which explains how a combination of technologies are changing the way we live, work and interact was the theme of the forum’s annual meeting in Davos this year.
Schwab argued that this technological revolution is already underway and that it’s blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.
It refers to how technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality and the internet are merging with humans’ physical lives. It ultimately leads to a societal transformation similar to previous industrial revolutions.
All these changes have had a dramatic effect on sport, particularly through Artificial Intelligence which is directing sports coaching within areas ranging from gene sequencing to nanotechnology, renewables and quantum computing.
Another major change ushered in by the fourth industrial revolution has been the hyper-commercialisation of sport. Franchised sport conglomerates and corporate sponsors are in control in uncontrolled capitalist systems. Ordinary citizens are mere consumers of products, especially through television watching and consumption, rather than producers of values.
The first industrial revolution spanned the period from about 1760 to around 1840. It was triggered by the ushering in of predominantly mechanical production.
Modern-day sport emerged then, in part, as a consequence of the western European industrial revolution and colonisation, with Britain at the epicentre, during the second half of 18th century.
When public schools took off in Britain at the turn of the 19th century, character training became a raison d’être, for the elite. Sports was used to promote national solidarity and patriotism. As French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, suggested: sport had a special role to play in the production of patriots.
The second industrial revolution started in the late 19th century when mass production became possible. This period witnessed the advent of electricity and assembly line production.
At the same time, international sports federations along mainly amateur lines were formed. Amateurism was the means that the landed aristocracy used to protect their social privileges. This they did through the establishment of clubs, associations and federations.
The third industrial revolution began in the 1960s and was catalysed by the development of semiconductors, mainframe computing (1960s), personal computing (1970s and 80s) and then the World Wide Web. Sports specialisation took off. Fields like Adapted Physical Activity, Sport Sociology, Sport History, Philosophy of Sport, Motor Behaviour, Sport Psychology and Biomechanics emerged.
This period also saw the advent of increased commercialisation and the professionalisation of sport. Large business, including the tobacco industry, were attracted to this development and started investing in sport science institutes.
Sport and the fourth industrial revolution
The fourth industrial revolution has been evolving in a deeply unequal world. In fact, in parts of the global south, the second or third industrial revolutions are still incomplete. Nearly 1.3 billion people still lack access to electricity. Four billion people, mostly in third world countries, lack internet access.
According to Schwab’s analysis, the winning nations will be those who are able to participate fully in innovation-driven ecosystems by providing new ideas, business models, products and services, rather than those who can offer only low-skilled labour capital.
Yet, most countries are experiencing an increase in joblessness, impoverishment and criminal elements among other social outcasts that constitute what Karl Marx termed the lumpenproletariat. They have little or no access to 21st-century artificial intelligence.
What are the consequences for sport?
Unequal participation trends have emerged. The working class and the lumpenproletariat don’t benefit. They don’t have access to the growing number of artificial intelligence products that direct sports coaching. These range from gene sequencing to nanotechnology, renewables and quantum computing.
A big challenge for progressive sport administrators and activists will be how to master (and challenge) this new world. Professional sport opened new markets of wealth creation, beyond the narrow nationalism of the first, second and third industrial revolutions. But it’s only by embracing the nourishing aspects of traditional sport – honesty, enjoyment, health and fun – that societies can develop positive, common and comprehensive narratives.
This challenge can be met if communities take control of their sports organisations and administer them along the lines of traditional sport values.
Increased sports participation, in materially poor communities, can be achieved. This means asking hard questions. What is the continued and changing nature of sport? Also, who controls the means of sports production? What inequalities arise and what forms of resistance can be mobilised against these inequalities?
These will help assist community based sports activists as they organise communities in a very unequal material world of the 21st century.
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