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The Second Digital Revolution

NOTE: This is a legacy article awaiting a modern update . . . !

A decade ago, virtual reality was the next frontier. Daily journeys were predicted into computer-generated worlds in which any dream could become a reality. Work and play were both expected to be transformed as the human race joined computer data in cyberspace.

In the early twenty-first century, virtual worlds are still far from a common reality. Human beings continue to live, work and travel in physical places built from concrete, wood, metal and glass. Use of the Internet may have become a mainstream human activity. However, virtual reality -- whilst increasingly advanced -- has never gone mass market, and many computer scientists have moved on.

The reason for the above state of affairs is that what was not predicted a decade ago was today's "Second Digital Revolution". This involves the mass atomization of digital content, in addition to mass digitization. What this means is that whereas a decade ago the drive was to push things and people into the computer realm of cyberspace, today far more effort is being directed into pulling digital content back into reality. Or in other words, no longer is the intent to build new worlds within computers, but rather to build new computing and communications devices into the real world. The Second Digital Revolution subsequently reflects an age in which an increasing number of computing-enabled devices are permitting the everyday development of ubiquitous computing, with Internet-access and other digital technology almost constantly available.

The First Digital Revolution

The technological panacea of the 1980s and 1990s was mass digitization. This computing and communications watershed became apparent as an increasing number of products and services started to be encoded into cyberspace. For many, the essence of this "First Digital Revolution" was captured most succinctly by Nicholas Negroponte, the Director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in his seminal 1995 book Being Digital. Within, Negroponte argued that a transformation was occurring away from an "atom-based" economy, and towards one focused around the creation, manipulation, communication and storage of electronic binary digits or "bits".

Changes in the business and consumer marketplace strongly supported Negroponte's proposition that digital bits were starting to become more valued than physical products made from atoms. For a start, personal computers were already firmly established as mainstream home and office appliances. In the mid-1990s, millions of individuals and organizations were also joining research scientists and fantasy gaming enthusiasts as new citizens of the Internet. Meanwhile in the highstreet, analogue media -- such as vinyl records and cassette tapes -- were also increasingly being replaced with "improved" digital substitutes, such as compact disks.

Since Negroponte wrote Being Digital, the benefits of digital products and services over their analogue predecessors have continued to remain widespread. For consumers, the advantages of opting for digital media in particular include improved quality, potential customization, and the dematerialization of online access. On the organizational side, there are usually also cost savings to be made when producing and in particular supplying digital goods and services. In addition, a greater knowledge and control of the customer and their preferences can also be obtained online.

Reality Strikes Back

In the many instances digital products and services now prove more efficient, more robust, and more flexible and than their traditional analogue counterparts. The "atoms to bits" process of economic transformation frequently associated with the last two decades of the twentieth century also remains both a popular and powerful concept. Nevertheless, the ability to replicate reality as binary data can only ever constitute the first half of the technological requirement for any complete digital revolution. Indeed, even in the face of current Internet developments such as cloud computing, any supposed shift from an atom- to a bit-based economy increasingly appears a dubious proposition.

Quite simply, however good technology gets at enabling us to work with digital approximations of reality, the fact remains that human beings continue to live in the physical world. For twenty years cyberspace may have been marketed as a new frontier of boundless opportunity. Yet so long as human beings are comprised of flesh, bone and blood, the desire of most people to seek ways to enter cyberspace is likely to remain somewhat limited.

The above may seem extremely obvious. However, the goal of finding better and better ways for human beings to immerse themselves in cyberspace did nevertheless dominate research into human-computer interaction (HCI) for several decades. Indeed, in the early- to mid-1990s, levels of excitement amongst some cutting-edge computer scientists approached fever pitch as the regular use of immersive virtual reality technology seemed to be on the very near horizon. As Jaron Lanier, one of the world's foremost virtual reality researchers, is cited in Douglas Rushkoff's book Cyberia in 1994, "just as fish donned skin to walk the earth, and man donned a space suit to walk in space, we'll now don cybersuits to walk in Cyberia".

Whilst the above and many other predictions for the mainstream adoption of virtual reality have clearly not come to pass, we should not be too eager to ridicule those who so recently predicted a future in which human beings would regularly don a head mounted display (HMD) to immerse themselves in virtual world. Indeed, since the late-1990s, the ritual of "visiting" somewhere on the world-wide web has indeed become commonplace. Digital content has also invaded all aspects of human existence, with mobile phones having become ubiquitous, digital cameras and media players commonplace, and digital text, photographs, sound and video exchanged daily by over a billion. All that the early digital gurus got wrong was therefore the mechanism by which digital media and communications would become interwoven into our everyday lives.

Enter Atomization

The most valued digital products will in future be those that can easily be transformed into physical reality for mass human consumption. This is because most people will continue to value that which they can see, hear and touch more than the mental abstraction of cyberspace, and/or their immersion into any computer-generated virtual world. As a result, the most critical future economic process is likely to be that of atomization -- of transforming bits into atoms -- as opposed to digitization, whereby physical things are encoded into binary.

The complimentary yet opposing processes of digitization and atomization may be illustrated as follows:

The above figure allows us to clearly distinguish between and define the First and Second Digital Revolutions. Specifically, the First Digital Revolution involved only the top half of the diagram, and comprised the period of mass digitization that commenced around 1980, and during which time an increasing number of media, products and services were pushed into an electronic, binary format. In contrast the Second Digital Revolution involves all of the figure, and signifies the watershed that took place from around the year 2000 as mass atomization began to take hold, and during which time electronic, digital content has increasingly and routinely been "pulled back" from cyberspace into the perceptibly-real world.

Convergence and Divergence

Over a decade before writing Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte had predicted that by the year 2000 the three industries of computing, telecommunications, and media/publishing would have converged. In a prediction that proved to be startlingly correct, the MIT guru had reasoned that a future reliance on the same digital systems would remove many of the technological boundaries that once separated these previously quite discrete market sectors.

Throughout the First Digital Revolution, "convergence" in a variety of guises became heavily associated with the other 1980s and 1990s technological mainstay of mass digitization. In addition to the industrial convergence of computing, telecommunications and media content, the technological convergence of the computer, the telephone and the television set was popularized by many technology analysts. More recently, a lifestyle convergence of work and home has also been noted as digital technologies (including personal computers and mobile phones) have removed some of the boundaries between these two previously discrete arenas of human activity. The notion that the widespread use of digital technologies is leading to a geographic convergence of cultures, politics and nations has also been popularized ever since Marshal McLucan first talked of the emergence of a "global village" in 1964.

Whilst a convergence of industries, technologies, lifestyles and geographies may have indeed been taking place for well over a couple of decades, this has largely only possible due to a slow but now accelerating divergence in available range of digital access devices. Or in other words, just as the digitization process of the First Digital Revolution is now being balanced by atomization, so the convergence phenomenon of the first digital age is now also being balanced by its own counterweight of divergence. As Newton's Second Law reminds us, for every action there always has to be an equal and opposite reaction.

Hardware divergence is what permits mass atomization, in that it is only through access to a wide range of digital devices that it has become possible for us to access digital content when, where and how we want. A decade or even two ago it was possible to digitize text, music and video. However, to access such digital content a human being had to sit before a desktop or perhaps early laptop personal computer. However, as hardware divergence has taken hold, no longer is this the case.

Whilst personal computers are still clearly in mass use, so too are portable audio and video media players, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and ultramobile PCs, mobile phones with Internet multimedia access, and a variety of public forms of Internet access including in-store consoles and Microsoft's latest surface computers. There are even now 3D printers capable of atomizing digital content not in the form of a video display or audio, but as real, solid physical objects. Hence, no longer is digital access something that requires human beings to conform to digital interfaces. Rather, the increasing divergence of digital access hardware now means that effectively digital technology is now being invented to meet human requirement. To put it another way, as the Second Digital Revolution really takes hold, so the age of ubiquitous computing is very much starting to arrive.


Meeting User/Customer Requirements

In the broadest sense, both driving and being driven by Second Digital Revolution are changes in many of the key relationships that dominate our lives. Specifically, these relationships comprise those between users and technology, between customers and organizations, and between organizations and their employees.

All of the above types of relationship are very different. However, they also all share certain common characteristics. Most notably, as with all forms of relationship, they all exist to enable the exchange of physical, informational, financial or emotional resources between two participating parties over time. In the vast majority of cases, all three categories of relationship are also dominated by one party to which the other is encouraged to conform.

During the early personal computing heyday of the First Digital Revolution, human beings had little choice but to conform to a desktop machine if they wanted to physically engage with the digital world. However, as digital access hardware divergence has begun to take place, so new technology is being developed to conform to human requirement. Or in other words, as mobile, public and embedded technology hardware devices become mainstream, so patterns of digital access are increasingly going to be determined by user demands as opposed to technology constraints.

Many of today's most successful businesses are also starting to appreciate the importance of slaving a technology to its user rather than a user to a technology. However, far fewer firms have yet capitalized on such an understanding in any re-evaluation of their relationships with their customers or employees. This is unfortunate given that the true potential of today's Internet developments lie in the opportunities they create for the customization of information, products, services, advertising and interfaces to individual customer specification. Or in other words, the real Second Digital Revolution opportunity is to enable organizations to tailor themselves to their customers, rather than requiring customers to tailor themselves to the organization.

Even in the early twenty-first century, most customers have no choice but to purchase standardized product and service packages on a take-it-or-leave-it basis from organizationally-determined locations at organizationally-determined times and for organizationally-determined prices. And in the face of a technology and communications revolution that more than anything empowers the individual, such a state of affairs surely has to change.

Today, even many of those "enlightened" organizations that have begun to tailor technologies to users still do so in the expectation that their customers will engage in their technological interactions where, when and how the organization sees fit. Incredible opportunities thereby exist for those managers and organizations willing to remember that profits come from customers and not products or services, and who are willing to apply Second Digital Revolution technology to conform their business to mass individual consumer requirements. Like it or not, as the Second Digital Revolution matures, so the balance of power in the marketplace is shifting away from organizational supply and towards customer demand.

To conform their business to those Future Consumers on whom their continued existence has to depend, many Future Organizations will have to rely on the key knowledge economy resource of human creativity. Retaining and motivating a quality workforce in a global marketplace in which the best human resources are digitally-mobile will not prove easy. Successful Future Organizations are hence likely to be those that not only tailor technologies to users and the business to the customer, but which in addition tailor the organization to its key personnel.

As teleworking becomes more widespread, so the management of digital business to employee (B2E) relationships is only just now beginning to receive the mainstream management attention it deserves. However, it is an attention that is likely to prove critical as a new focus on atomization over digitization turns many employees into the most customer-valued physical manifestations of their organization. Just as the balance of market power is shifting to the customer, so the balance of organizational power may -- in terms of certain key personnel at least -- be set to move from the organization to its workers.

Future Digital Nomads?

As the Second Digital Revolution takes hold, many of us will to some extent become digital nomads, even if only in the connected way we traverse our local highstreet, or in which we move around and engage with digital media within our own homes. Today's emerging physical reality of always-on, anytime, anyplace and anyhow digital access increasingly looks certain to alter the ways in which many of us will interact with cyberspace, with organizations, and with each other. This need not, however, be a new world even the most technophobic should fear.

In contrast to the First Digital Revolution, it is individual human beings who are very much in control this time around. In the future, some of us will undoubtedly decide to carry and wear a great deal of personal, mobile technology. However, others will happily choose to carry none. What's more, these later individuals will be safe in the knowledge that organizations wishing to remain in business will have to make widely available to them those digital public devices and embedded technologies that future customer-comfort will demand.

In the wake of Dot Com bubble and in the face of today's Cloud Computing Revolution, the business world somehow needs to remember that atoms matter far more to human beings than bits. Until this recollection is made, computing's infancy can never be cast aside. And yet, only be detaching ourselves from a restricted, digital past can we realize the atomization potential of the Second Digital Revolution.

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