Putting Humans Back in the Loop: An Affordance Conceptualization of the 4th Industrial Revolution

Nigel P. Melville*, Lionel Robert, Xiao Xiao

*Corresponding author for this work

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The current technology epoch - sometimes called the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) - involves the innovative application of rapidly advancing digital technologies such as artificial intelligence. Societal implications of the 4IR are significant and wide‐ranging, from life‐saving drug development to privacy loss and app addiction. A review of the information systems literature, however, reveals a narrow focus on technology‐enabled business benefits. Scant research attention has been paid to the role of humans and humanistic outcomes. To spur new research addressing these issues, formalised affordance theory is employed to develop a new 4IR conceptualization. Four groupings of affordances that capture salient 4IR action possibilities are developed within two categories: machine emulation of human cognition (expansive decision‐making and creativity automation) and machine emulation of human communication (relationship with humans and intermachine teaming). Implications are explored in the context of human‐machine coworking and the development of artificial intelligence safety regulations. Overall, the affordance conceptualization of the 4IR advances a new sociotechnical lexicon of action possibilities and their joint enactment in achieving humanistic and instrumental outcomes, enabling alignment of the scope of 4IR research with the scope of 4IR phenomena - and bringing humans back into the loop.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInformation Systems Journal
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)733-757
Number of pages25
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023

Bibliographical note

Published online: 25 December 2022.


  • Affordance theory
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Fourth industrial revolution
  • Sociotechnical theory

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