Those of you who can remember the tech boom of the late 1990's might recall how economists heralded the dawn of the information economy. We were entering an era, they said, in which the once-strong manufacturing economies of the developed world were being replaced by digital economies. In these economies, manipulating information would become more essential for workers than the ability to produce physical labor.
That was 20 years ago, however, and things have changed. Now, we're entering what some are calling the “fourth industrial revolution.” The first two revolutions involved the development of steam power and electricity. This technology brought about seismic changes in developed economies. The third revolution was that shift, 20 years ago, from a manufacturing economy to an information economy.
This new revolution is so different and so dramatic that it's not even certain that our economies will be able to survive it. Technology has evolved so dramatically and so rapidly that, in many cases, the machines no longer even require human workers to contribute information. Artificial intelligence, robotic manufacturing, self-driving cars, drone-delivered merchandise—is there room anywhere for humans in the future of business?
The answer is yes—people are still able to contribute something that machines can't. As competent as machines are at simulating thought, they still lack the human capability for true communication, compassionate interaction, creativity, and emotion. They've got brains, but they lack heart.
So, similar to the dawn of the information economy, we need to recognize what makes us more valuable than the machines we've invented to revolutionize our economies. Twenty years ago, our value lay in our minds. Today, our value rests in our hearts, in our passions, in our spirits, and in our relationships.
What does that mean for American independent, local small businesses? It means that as small business owners, managers, and employees, we need to rely on the relationships between ourselves as workers and between our companies and our customers. In many ways, that means a return to the old-fashioned values of Main Street. We need to value the connections between ourselves and the people we work with and for. We need to bolster the relationships in our communities, to help each other to grow and prosper.
If we don't learn to value our human hearts, this fourth industrial revolution may very well be the last. We've sown the seeds of a technological monster that could devour us, an economic engine that makes us obsolete in our own world. We've allowed technology to replace us in so many aspects of our daily lives, we've backed ourselves into a corner where we have little to offer the industrial economy.
The future doesn't need to be bleak, though. Independently owned local small businesses in America can still use technology to make their businesses run efficiently, but those Main Street small business owners who prioritize human interaction in their operations will have something no automaton or technology will ever match. Not only will they help to sustain and nourish their communities, they will give themselves an advantage over their cold technological competitors. And, in the process, they just might save our economy.
Author: Charles Barr, Co-Founder & Director of LVRG Funding, a "boutique" small business funding company dedicated to helping America's small businesses thrive and grow. Charles is highly dedicated to the genesis of professional development, social networking and civic engagement, with a passion for cultivating creativity, entrepreneurship and a spirit of community.