On “digital”

Digital changes everything, but it means nothing until it’s human.

CC Modified from Neil Williamson

It was fall the first time I heard Radiolab’s episode on color. I was driving across the German countryside from Worms to Cologne. I passed through glowing fields of wheat, leafy greens and carpets of tiny yellow blossoms. The forests are a mix of deciduous and coniferous trees, sometimes creating a bouquet of greens, and sometimes planted in a patchwork. This background informed the contents of the show for me.

In the episode, the show’s hosts team up with various scientists to explore the topic of color. In it, they explain how the color receptors in our eyes work together to make what we see. We have red, blue and green receptors, and can see the rainbow we know with them. There are animals that only have light and dark receptors. They see the world in black and white. Some monkeys have blue and green receptors. Their world is a palette of cool colors. No red. Then there are animals that have more receptors than humans. Mantis shrimp, an aggressive undersea species, have twelve. There may even be humans who have an extra color receptor, the result of a genetic defect. But they would have no way to know they’re different.

If you are familiar with the color system, you’ll understand the dimensions of change that an extra color can add. With only two color receptors your world is colorful but bland in comparison to what we’re familiar with. Adding a third color changes everything and adds depth and variety that was impossible before. One extra receptor would exponentially transform your visual perception of the world.

The world without red is on the right.

I was mesmerized. As I passed Germany’s verdant landscapes, my mind wandered about how much more there could be in the world that I am not at all able to comprehend. Another receptor could make those trees and fields even more beautiful than I know. It would add more depth to what I was already seeing.

Digital adds a new dimension.

We are mesmerized, at present, by the transformations that digital is bringing to our lives: individual lives, the way we work, the working of the entire human society. One tool has transformed everything.

Digital is like an extra color receptor. Adding a new way to transmit information to our toolkit has exponentially increased the possibilities of human ingenuity. Much in the way that steel, industry and railroad transformed, digital is transforming.

When people say digital is everything, they are right. By bridging time and space, and enabling structured and simple information transfer, it can change everything exponentially. To grasp the depth of change possible, it helps to go back to the fundamental concept of what digital does: information transfer. Imagine any analog process, think about who (machines, businesses, and people) needs to know what for the process to work effectively. Imagine that they intuitively and immediately know that. That’s what digital can do for us. It changes everything.

Airbnb provides a great example of the potential. People had houses with extra rooms; they could be convinced to share those rooms at a small price. Other people needed rooms to sleep in and had some money to spare. But how could one person with a room, find the person with the need? It happened, just much less efficiently. During the second world war, my grandma struck out from Boston to California on a Greyhound bus. She wanted to work on airplanes and get out of the situation she was in. In her pocket, she held a little bit of money and the address of a woman that her aunt knew in Los Angeles. Having never spoken with this woman, she took off across the country with the expectation to live at her house.

Today, I am on a three-month road trip around the American West. Thanks to Airbnb, there are beds that I can sleep in, in the homes of people I don’t know everywhere I am going.

The amount of courage it took to strike out on my trip was inconsequential compared to the drive and fearlessness it would have taken my Grandma. With Airbnb, people have the chance to transform their lives, explore the world, and sleep in a warm bed like my grandma did without requiring the courage and gumption she brought with her. This is pretty powerful. Even if it only affects one small dimension of our lives.

Digital means nothing without humanity.

There’s a difference between adding an extra color receptor and adding digital. If you got that extra color, you would see the change everywhere immediately. You wouldn’t ever live without that extra dimension again. It wouldn’t make a huge difference to the colors of the buildings or the products we make, though, until someone began adding those colors to their palette.

When people say that digital means nothing, they’re right too. It has to be imagined and implemented and to have any effect. Digital is only a tool to be applied; the magic happens when it’s put to use in new and novel ways. And because it costs money and effort to find and build applications, we aren’t applying digital everywhere yet. We have to be selective about where to use it and are still finding the right places and ways to add depth.

There are challenges to choosing how to apply digital tools. Our conditioning makes it hard to imagine new possibilities.

We are conditioned to think about the world in an analog way. We have never seen a digital world, so it’s difficult to imagine the transformation until we start seeing it. As our status quo changes, our horizons will stretch further.

When implementing, we think so hard about making the technology work that we lose sight of what it needs to be able to do. The evolution of the internet is a great example this technology centeredness. During the days of early HTML, highlighting a few words in a paragraph and making them into a link was infinitely easier than making a button. Correspondingly, the internet had lots of paragraphs, and not many buttons. As our horizons evolved, our technologies evolved, now buttons, full-frame pictures, videos and bits and pieces are the norm. Paragraphs are only used sparingly.

People don’t need buttons; they don’t go online to click buttons. People need specific information to achieve specific tasks.

In all the talk about buttons and links, we also lose sight of what people actually need. People don’t need buttons; they don’t go online to click buttons. People need specific information to achieve specific tasks. Google gets this. It used to think of itself as an index for the Internet. Accordingly, it provided a list of web pages that were likely to hold the information you were looking for. Now it just answers your questions with its cards. No-one ever wanted a list of websites; they wanted an answer.

Ruminating on digital solutions at this abstract level might aid us in finding the real needs that our tools are trying to satisfy, and to make that more effective at those core tasks.

Digital means nothing until we apply it toward improving human lives. As human beings, it’s our evolutionary duty to perpetuate the success of human life. So nothing can be meaningful to us until it contributes to improving the human condition. Imagine how many human ailments (dramatic and trivial) hinge on a lack of information. Digital has the potential to remedy them. Ruminating on digital solutions at this abstract level might aid us in finding the real needs that our tools are trying to satisfy, and to make that more effective at those core tasks.

Digital provides us with a new spectrum of opportunity. By simplifying information transfer, digital has exponentially changed how our lives and societies can be. We can’t take advantage of this rainbow of opportunity until we build and apply the technologies. And to effectively do this, we have to think beyond the boundaries of how things work today and imagine what information transfer can do to improve human well-being as a whole. Let’s go. Chase the rainbow!*


*I know it’s dorky, but I had to say it. :)

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