The second phase of digitization is upon us. After hysterical exaggerations and bitter disappointments, it’s now time to adopt digital into human culture.
A ghost runs rampant across the planet. The ghost is present in every digital conference, each business talk, each segment on CNBC and in every newspaper. The belief in the transformational power of Digital is the final belief system of our time. Digital Transformation will solve everything: Growth Problems, Death, Lack of Intelligence, Human Weaknesses and Weaknesses of our Democracy. Well, let’s skip the last one.
While solving all of our problems, Digital Transformation threatens also everything: Whole Verticals are under threat, Democracy, Freedom, maybe even reason. 20–70% of all jobs will disappear. AI will take over our jobs. We assign, full of excitement, apocalypse capabilities to Digitization, just like we used to do for Nuclear Power and Alien Invasions. Humans might need these mega-demons once in a while to feel alive.
All this talk about Digitization is challenging for us because we are dealing with two Internets and we can’t align them in our head and our lives. The one Internet is amazing. It’s still a wonderful experience to call a car with a friendly driver to a dark corner of an unknown, rainy part of town. Or to compare all prices of hotels in Fresno. And, then there is the dark room of human desires and trivial narcissism — the thing we once called Social Media.
Jaron Lanier, one of the digital pioneers, called the myth of social networks “Digital Maosim”. Maoism as an allegory for the cross-fading of complex realities into fanatical, social imperatives. “The Internet empowers the powerless” can be compared to Mao’s “Political Power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. Both slogans lead to terrible disillusions. The social Web empowers definitely world savers, neighbors, running groups, friends that otherwise would never hear from each other again. But it also empowers trolls, stalkers, idiots, Russian saboteurs, terrorists. It transports people in our living rooms we can’t see. And we definitely don’t want to see.
The addiction to the Social Web can be explained with our human nature of a connection-being. From the moment we are born, we are hungering for connections and being seen. Being accepted. Being in relationships. Those synapses are being used by the Social Web, tapping into our relationship neediness. People upload the weirdest thing to their social pages, sharing things they would never share in real life. The pseudonymity of the Web drives people literally crazy.
In the jungle of unresolved emotions, Digital promises something it can’t keep: The right partner. Endless choices. The best friends. Even better friends somewhere out there. The Internet amplifies the Nervousness of our social lives on all levels — privately, socially, politically, economically. The result: Our current reality of constant shitstorms, outrage, conspiracy theories, populism and overall pessimism. The Web can do a lot of things, but it can’t hug you, it can’t heal you, it can’t connect on a human level — unless we are already connected in the analog world.
The Analog Revenge
One of my favorite places in Amsterdam is the Nordermarkt, a Farmers Market that is open every Saturday. I get my cheese, fruits, vegetables, bread, pastry, mangoes, fish, flowers, potatoes from this place. It’s a 2-hour experience every weekend. I chat with the potato guy about his trip to Ibiza, taste the newest bread, buy olive oil from a vintage harvest in Spain. It feels like a place filled with passion and competence. One would think these markets should be extinct by now. Walking distance from my house are at least 4 cheese stores, 4 supermarkets, 5 bakeries. And I’m pretty sure I pay much more on the market than I would pay at the local supermarket. But I still head home each Saturday filled with joy and satisfied that I got a good deal. Supermarkets never make me feel that happy.
What are the merchants selling at the Nordermarkt? Products? Quality? Sure. But the secret is not the product. They trade with relationships. That’s what people are looking for, in the analog and digital space. In the analog world, the foundation of relationships — trust — can be developed rather easily. We look into each other’s eyes when we exchange value.
And that’s the reason why the majority of digitization predictions were wrong. Why are eBook sales stalling and people continue to buy print books and magazines? Why are Moleskins and fancy fountain pens more popular than ever? Why do people put Post-Its on screens and print out important emails? Why do people continue to use cash? The digital gurus sneered about those Digital Neanderthals and proclaimed once those fools were being washed away by the Digital Tsunami, the REAL Digital Revolution would take place. A biological solution…
Maybe sticking to analogue is not the problem. It might just be part of the solution.
David Sax, a Canadian writer, explains in his book “Revenge of the Analog” how the Digital doesn’t conquer the physical, it just reinvents it:
· Revenge of Print: The more feverish and disruptive our information world becomes, the more messages interrupt us, the more people are looking for the quiet presence of paper. Paper is hip. Print is more than alive, the motto of Monocle’s last media conference.
· Revenge of work: We were all supposed to work as cyber nomads in coffeeshops and planes. Instead, work has become more social and physical. The best coders work in lavish office environments, eat organic food before they head to Pilates. And, there are more jobs out there than people who can fill them.
· Revenge of Retail: Yes, Retail is dying. The terrible Retail of Toys“R”Us, Sears and Mega Malls. In the meantime, new shopping concepts are popping up everywhere, there’s more innovation in Retail than ever and digital is fully integrated. But it’s only one channel, not THE channel.
· Revenge of Learning: Let’s be frank: MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) have turned out to be duds. Sure, there are some courses that flourish and work well. But during our digital fever we learned that learning is always the results of human, empathetic interaction. Computer are not bad for learning, bad teachers are. Computer don’t solve the secret of knowledge and learning. As Piaget said: “The goal of education is not to increase the amount of knowledge but to create the possibilities for a child to invent and discover, to create men who are capable of doing new things.”
At the end of his book, Sax proposes a new way to deal with the digital revolution: Digitization doesn’t mean a reduction of the world into 0’s and 1’s. Instead, we should focus on a co-evolution of the digital and physical world. Just like one can only understand their native language when one learns a second, the real potential of Digitization can only be explored through its counterpart: the analog world
A healthy future relies on healthy relationships that allow for transformations. A family works when a deep feeling of security transforms into the drive to be free. Globalization is successful when different cultures can exchange freely and creatively to create win-win situations. A company prospers when it’s aligned with societal needs. When employees, leadership, capital, work, innovation and marketing are in full alignment. It’s important to differentiate digital strategies into Technology and Human solutions:
Replaces relationships with digital tools. The goal is to put a digital distance between the customer and/or employee. The boom of digital assistants like Siri and Alexa is based on the hope to replace real market relationships. Between customer and products/service the illusion of a human voice. It’s cynical and manipulative.
Creates new relationships, connecting customers, product and environment. When organic Jeans are being offered as a lease subscription, new markets are being developed. When people share their car rides and preferences on BlaBlaCar, new digital relationships are being developed to benefit everyone. Good Digitization combines real-haptic with the information-communicative to develop new relationships and availabilities.
It’s often about efficiencies and cutting jobs. When a company develops a Digital Transformation Strategy without envisioning new relationships and not mapping out the Relationship Strategy, they basically admit they ran out of innovation. They want to squeeze the last penny of profit out of the firm. Customers are moved to web sites and chat bots. The bank moves people into the virtual world, the advisor can’t be reached. At the end, everybody is frustrated. And unemployed.
Uses Digital as a power to enhance the relationships between people, organizations and products/services, generating benefits for everyone. It moves control operation to the digital side to allow for human freedom and relationships. It empowers each stakeholder — customers and employees.
Will Ethics win?
It’s not that easy. Cold Technology condenses on the warm surface of human needs, and a lot of heat is generated. Just like the evolution, the digital evolution is a blind selection process. Uber will disappear if it doesn’t overcome its cynical and sexist corporate culture. And Facebook will crumble unless it develops human regulatory systems. Or it will be the trash bin of Humanity, a smoking trash fire of desperate emotions that people will flee to become analog again.
A wave of human-digital alignment processes is coming. Just like the Evolution where new species have to find their stable niches, digital strategies have to explore their adaptabilities to the human environment. That has nothing to do with ethics, many bad players will continue to exploit the Social Web. But we will separate the good from the bad, the digital that makes sense from the nonsense. Factories will use the Internet of Things because it makes sense that machines communicate to improve efficiencies. At home, connecting my coffee machine with the fridge is nonsense and the search of a solution to find a problem.
The Human-Digital Evolution has just begun
When you spend too much time in Silicon Valley and with Digital Gurus, the future is pre-programmed: AI will take over everything, many of us will settle down on Mars and Death is dead.
But there’s a fundamental misunderstanding behind the AI Religion: Computer are better at Chess does not mean they are smarter than humans, they are just better when it comes to algorithms and board games. AI can only beat human intelligence where complexity doesn’t require the intuition and creativity of the physical human being. Watson might be better at diagnosing diseases but many of our sicknesses are not precise, they are very diffuse. Watson will get stuck in the complexity of the human and health care system. Siri and Alexa will remain toys for some, annoyances for most. Robots will not take over the care of elderly.
The future vision of the Internet giants are the clothes of the new digital emperors. They are filled with panic of the new monopolists, aggregating so much power that it even scares them. Facebook, Apple, Google and Co. wanted to change the world, they were the rebels and now they transformed into Darth Vader. Luring people to click on ads is in the end not a very sexy business model. Their escapism of AI and Robots, Mars and Singularity are just camouflaging the obvious: they have no clue how to escape the click-based model and they have no idea what the next business cycle will bring. The same escapism infected an American airline when they accepted reservations to fly to the moon (the bankrupt PanAm).
Euphoria, Bankruptcy, Decline, Selection: In the next few years we will experience major turbulences in the world of the digital empires. Google, Amazon, Twitter and their ilk disrupted the world, now it’s their turn to be disrupted. The evolutionary carving out continues and will lead to a “New Human Story” as Yuvel Noah Harai describes it in his book “Homo Deus”. The human-digital evolution has just begun. And it’s our job to shape it.