I believe that because of certain intrinsic properties ‘digital’ could have a revolutionary social and environmental impact.
How is that ?
Among other things it increases efficiency, can make non-institutionalized contact between people trustworthy, is not (per definition) bound to geopolitics and is the initiator of the open source mentality. (Open source doesn’t mean ‘give away for free’ by the way) These characteristics are not just a wanted side-effect but legitimize the existence of digital technology. I don’t want to declare digitization holy, I just want to point out the possible positive impact it might have on society, and make you aware that the one variable that will decide which course we will set out to sail, is mankind.
Digital will always be a means to an end but that turns out to be a huge means so we have to seriously think about the end.
I want to walk you through some of the properties or characteristics of digital technology and afterwards offer you some examples to make it more concrete. You can read them all in one time or back to front or just half of them (because there’s a lot of information coming your way).
Ready? Set. Go!
Let’s look at why collaboration is a key ingredient to digital development. One developer can hardly make a difference (ok, some can but it’s safe to say they’re the exception, not the rule) and by a difference, I mean a substantial move or shift in our horizon, not a new Squarespace. Development is a team sport where everybody has to lean on everybody. This asks for a high level of collaboration and the necessary methodologies to do so in an efficient and orderly manner. Take for example the scrum methodology (if you don’t know it, be sure to click the link and catch up); its main goal is to help design & development teams work together in a democratic, inclusive way and deliver high quality work. It puts the control of planning and timing in the hands of those who actually know what they’re doing, instead of forcing it on to them from behind a big manager's desk high up in the ivory tower. I can easily come up with some companies or even entire sectors that could learn a great deal from these methods and principles.
Needless to say that if you can develop as a team, you grow into a person that can cooperate, that’s not rocket science. Just imagine two rooms: one filled with developers and one with consultants. The doors are locked and a puzzle needs to be solved to unlock it. My guess is that the consultants die of starvation.
So what do I mean by self-improvement? Well, digital development is never an island. It is dependent on and linked with a lot of other technologies, products and of course other developers. If one of these actors suddenly feels like, “Hey, I think I’m done here, let’s wrap it up, this should do..” he’s in for a bummer and might want to consider a career switch. He will soon find out that the other developers' progress, newly released operating systems, a new device (such as the iPad) will force him to to keep up. Digital technology doesn’t stand still, a digital product is never ever a 100% finished and while new technologies emerge, the possibilities for improvement are legion. When handed the tools for improvement, who can put them aside and continue the same way as before? Not the developers, no! This is true for the developers but also for society as a whole and for organizations. Companies have to keep adapting as technology changes and evolves. Especially if you're a digital product development bureau (like we are!).
The image that comes to mind when thinking about digital technology is probably a boring one. So me telling you technology is creative might come as a surprise. Well, I’m going to say it anyway: Technology is creative. Not in a Picasso way, but more in a nutty-grey-hair-white-coat-inventor way. By writing certain lines of code, building specific hardware and most of all combining the two, developers create new things that didn’t exist before. I'd call that pretty creative. They ‘inscribe’ the world. To define and decide what you will write or create and how to go about it also asks for certain qualities, problem-solving skills, out of the box thinking and a lot of imagination. Picasso also had a lot of imagination, yes. The main difference with Picasso is that he wasn’t trying to solve a problem or improve something. His art was the ultimate goal. True, digital development for the sake of development is not going to end up in a museum any time soon. But that doesn’t make it any less creative.
This is a pretty obvious one… The strong AI believers won’t agree with me on this point but, without humans no technology and without technology no digital technology. Who we are, what we believe or how we see the world will always be reflected in what we create. A product, digital or non-digital is never neutral. It’s as simple as that.
No actually it’s more than that. Digitization even has the possibility of making our environment more human again, bringing it back to our size and make it work for us, instead of the other way around. The last decade or so the level of busyness in your agenda has become somewhat of a status symbol. Busy equals important. While half a century ago we were all working towards less working and more free time to spend on education, leisure, family, traveling, etc. as the greatest good. It seems to me we took a wrong track there for a while, but that is gradually changing.
While digital is releasing us from all the routine, mind-numbing and unfulfilling jobs, we get to spend more time actively shaping our future, educating ourselves and spending what little time we have on this planet doing what we find most important. This point is closely linked to the discussion about “robots stealing our jobs”. We could ask ourselves just how badly we want to keep the type of jobs that can be robotized or digitized.
I will do a separate post on the impact digitization might have on work (as we know it).
Want to hear a bold statement? Here goes: Digital could make institutions obsolete!
First, let me just freshen up what an institution is. We called institutions into life to work as a trusted mediator between people, for example a bank that transports money from one account to another. We trust the bank with our money, and if someone says they have enough money to buy our house, I check this with his bank. For a long time, this was a good system. The downside of the institution however is, that after some time they became so powerful, big, slow and non-transparent that they were no longer trustworthy.
Now how does digital technology play a role in all this. A bunch of very (very) smart people found a way to make (trans)actions over the internet secure and information trusted, so people can interact directly with each other and the need for a regulative institution disappeared. The best example here is the blockchain technology and its applications. Blockchain is basically a database with a decentralized verification system of all transactions made: transactions of money, information, legal documents,… This means you can trust it.
So imagine all possible transactions you make in a day and picture the institutions coordinating these transactions. I apologize for that horrible thought. I know nobody likes banks, the notary or the invoices they send you and not a single soul on earth is a fan of governmental bureaucracy. Well, if you would have a guarantee that the information held by a blockchain database is true, you wouldn’t need these big, slow institutions anymore. This technology not only skips the institutions but it allows a renaissance in the relationship between user and supplier.
In the near future a couple of posts will be dedicated to blockchain. So if this makes your ears pop, no worries. The most important idea is that new technologies allow people to have trusted transactions without an institute interfering. Responsibilities for verification and power for regulation are distributed among all the users or clients instead of one mediator. That’s more or less the definition of decentralization.
The digital technology we speak of always has an informational aspect to it. Information is being transferred, processed, manipulated, shared, collected, … Now why is this such a good thing?
The basic idea is that an increase in information enables people to do things better. Better can be faster, more efficient or correct. This is an ancient idea that is called the Socratic intellectualism (sounds fancy, right?). Good old Socrates believed that wrongdoing or bad actions came from a lack of information. He imagined a future where everybody would be educated and everyone would have full access to information. This would allow them to always ‘do the right thing’ and we would live in a better world. I don’t want to elaborate on ‘the right thing’ here, this was just some background info for all the philosophers out there (probably just my old classmates, all two of them, Hi Nicolas! Hi Vincent!). I’m not sure Mr. Socrates was right with his theory, but the opposite is a fact. If you are not handed the correct information, how can you do your job right, formulate a correct opinion or make the best choices? You couldn’t. So there you see the value and power of information. It doesn’t stop there though. What if you had all information at hand, what would you do with it? You interpret it, you select, evaluate, connect dots and draw conclusions.
In a previous post I stated, that information without interpretation is without value and I want to stick to that more or less. The human aspect, the one that interprets, selects and assigns value to information is still a vital part in digitization.
We are matching Supply and Demand like never before. Because of digital technology organizations can collect and process an immense amount of information that was hidden before. This can make certain processes in organizations more efficient. Companies can talk with their clients after the sale, get feedback, track usage and plan their follow-up accordingly. If a company would know better when an order was going to be made and only produce on demand, it would make stock unnecessary (think of the footprint!). Having insights in your order history and making future predictions from this could decrease overstock dramatically. The transport of goods could be a lot less pollutive if a company would know which products would be closest to the person ordering them or have multiple drop-off points rather than having four trucks driving from A to B and back, over and over again.
Another example? Take the refugee crisis in Europe, the fact that the European population experienced this as being a crisis was largely due to the logistic chaos and all its consequences. In the heat of this crisis a lot of tech companies came forward with ideas that could help solve the practical part of this problem. Match beds with refugees, arrange for transportation, link the food that supermarkets want to throw away with the refugee centers in need of food to use that same day,… This might sound a bit cold, but if you strip away the emotional side, you could see a great part of the crisis is a logistic one and that’s a problem we càn solve. (For more information on this you can check Techfugees, they give a nice overview of initiatives)
Now what’s the bottom line of all this information? Digital technology is opening the door for us to improve the way we produce, communicate, collaborate and interact. It could help us face some of the ‘Great challenges’ of the 21st century. But it's just a tool, it's neutral in itself. How and if we use it is still up to us, the humans! Digital is not some obscure subculture you can easily ignore. It’s a big part of your daily life and it’s packed with possibilities. The biggest variable in this equation is you, so there is a responsibility to take up here. Try not to stay clueless, inform yourself and try to join those who are drawing out the lines of your future.
Next up? I don't know yet! Maybe something lighter to digest. I announced some posts to explain concepts I dropped here so I'll do some research on these topics to start with.