Our Digital Future, part 1: What does ‘digital’ mean anyway?

As a technology strategist and as a director of Sheffield Digital, I often get asked about the role ‘digital’ will play in the future — what it will mean for our lives and prosperity, how it will affect our children, will there be enough jobs for everyone or will everything be automated, what should we be doing to help, etc. Especially since the EU referendum it seems that people here in the UK are more concerned — understandably worried about their economic and social futures. Perhaps this increased sense of insecurity is leading them to think about the future more and getting them engaged. If so, this is a good thing. These are important topics to think about and discuss. As Rahm Emanuel once suggested, it would be remiss of us to let a good crisis go to waste.

So, while predicting the future, as everyone knows, is a mug’s game, and the only certainty is that important things will happen in the near future that are not foreseen, or even widely imagined, I think there is important knowledge about the present that is not widely understood, both among the general public and our political and municipal leaders. While we can have fun extrapolating this to the future, (and we will!), I also want to describe what I think the current state of knowledge is on these topics, and how I understand things.

I should emphasise that these are my views and opinions, presented openly for feedback and discussion. I’m not a social theorist or economist — I’m not sure what qualifications would be most appropriate, to be honest — but I have spent my life working in the tech industry (I got my first tech job aged sixteen in 1983), whilst also having spent many years studying critical movements in western thought and international politics, in which I hold undergraduate and master’s degrees. These questions have long been close to my heart, and I reckon I should probably do more to write about them…

Anyway, hopefully this will turn into a series of posts covering as many of these issues as I can. I’m also trying to make them easy and accessible for everyone while still staying true to the complexity of the terrain, so please let me know whenever I get too jargony.

And so, where to start…

The first aspect we need to unpick quickly is what we mean by the word ‘digital’ in the first place.

The origins of the word go back to the 15th century, and for nearly 500 years its meaning was confined to being a proxy for ‘fingers’ or ‘numbers lower than ten’. During the second part of the 20th century, though, it came to mean the change from analogue forms of information and information processing, to ‘digital’ forms in which individual values are represented by numeric codes that are much easier to store, transmit, retrieve and process than their analogue counterparts. And increasingly it is being applied to everything touched by the ‘digital revolution’ — digital currencies, digital economy, digital democracy, etc. etc.

‘Digital’ constitutes a number of complementary technologies, of course, the most important of which are the computer, which has been on a path of rapid and incremental development since the 1950s and has seen performance increase exponentially, while size, cost and power requirements have reduced similarly; and the network, which allows computers to talk to each other and share their capabilities, which, by extension, allows people, as well as an increasingly large number of objects out in the world, to do so as well.

These technologies are often abbreviated to ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) but there is also a sense that the use of the word ‘digital’ sometimes means more than just these technologies, and so I’d like to mention a couple of ways in which I think this is true.

Firstly, I think it’s useful to understand ‘digital’ in the context of what economists and historians of technology sometimes call General Purpose Technologies, as this gives us a framework within which to understand it’s impact on so many aspects of our lives.

Secondly, there is an important sense in which, certainly within the technology industry, the term ‘digital’ is not just used to describe the technology, but also the changes in human behaviour that are enabled, or made necessary, by their application. Put simply, ‘thinking digital’ does not mean understanding the technology, but it does mean understanding some of the effects of the technology. This is especially important when discussing such things as digital literacy, digital skills, digital transformation, and the digital economy, but also has a major bearing on civic, democratic and legal processes. After all, how our institutions account for these behaviours, and the reality that engenders them, is really what will shape our fortunes for the next generation or more.

I’ll discuss these two things in parts two and three respectively, before moving on to other things. In the meantime, please comment below or talk to me on twitter.

(Image by Jimmy Hightower)


Originally published at chrisdymond.com.