Digital Varnish – why we have only started to scratch the surface of the digital revolution
As I gradually progressed through the airport security queue on my way to Paris the other day, I reflected on the real impact of digital technology. Why was it that even though I had a fully digital boarding pass on my smartphone, I still had to have this checked by at least 4 real human beings before I could board the plane? What would it be like if the whole end-to-end booking to boarding process could be fully digitalized?
There can be no doubt that digital technology has brought significant benefits in terms of things like speed, efficiency, quality and convenience. The ways we communicate, buy and sell, learn and entertain have, for many people, been completely transformed. But in many ways these benefits have been brought by applying a kind of “digital varnish” to otherwise legacy processes. (Just try locating your luggage when it does not arrive at your destination airport!). Are we just scratching the surface of the full potential of the digital revolution and what might be restraining its deeper impact?
Looking back to my airport experience, one of the biggest constraining factors relates to challenges when digital processes having to interact with physical human beings, or anything in the physical world for that matter. Human beings do not always behave logically and predictably, there will always be someone who tries to jump ahead in the queue or hold their passport in a way that is not easy to read. We cannot [yet] integrate directly with computer CPUs - for the most part we have to make do with somewhat restrictive interfaces. Dealing with connections between digital and physical is a key factor in holding back the digital “art of the possible”.
But as we look at the nature of emerging technologies that are rapidly gaining maturity, we can begin to see a blurring of the boundaries between the digital and the physical worlds. Virtual reality becomes augmented reality as we mix both digital and physical. Human machine interfaces extend beyond keyboards and screens, for example, connecting with our nervous systems. The Internet of Things enables connection to almost limitless physical objects, measuring and reporting digital information about their condition and context. And a digital design can be rendered into physical form using 3D printing.
But perhaps the biggest disruptor is that of Artificial Intelligence. Digital technologies are now able [to some extent] to emulate the way that we think, opening up all manner of opportunities in speech and image recognition, prediction and recommendation. Apply this to physical world processes and the world of digital starts to become fully entangled with our daily lives in a way that is more than just skin deep. The digital “art of the possible” moves to a whole new level.
But….. Just because we can do something doesn’t necessary mean that we should. Implementing digital technologies in such a deeply embedded way raises all kinds of different questions and dilemmas. These are matters of fairness, values and ethics. We could fully automate certain job roles bringing huge efficiency gains, but this might be at the cost of rendering significant swathes of the population unemployed – the wider implications (too many to list) cannot be ignored. Data analytics can reveal all manner of insights not only about who we are what we do, but also what we are likely to do – how do we use such knowledge responsibly?
As the reach and impact of digital technology becomes increasingly embedded into our physical world we need to rebalance our thinking from one of the “art of the possible” to that of “the art of the permissible”. Get the balance right and the impact and benefits of the digital revolution experienced so far, will move to a whole new level. Get it wrong and we could introduce a whole range of unintended consequences.
Never before has it been more important for business to understand the wider implications of emerging Digital Dilemmas to ensure that the most appropriate strategies are pursued.