Top Ten Truths About the Digital Ecosystem
This piece follows up a request from the World Economic Forum for thoughts about the Digital Ecosystem, in preparation for framing the 2007 agenda at Davos. I would really appreciate any comments that would expand, improve, or correct these lines of thought.
10. Images are king. Verbal content, by virtue of its sheer volume, is increasingly perceived as noise. We are entering a new era of collage, where the mind of the viewer is the assembling artist. Verbalization happens post facto, the residue of headline skimming and subconscious synthesis.
The esthetics of digitally enhanced images will become increasingly powerful as a vehicle for cutting through the clutter. Manipulating semantics or semiotics via images will become increasingly sophisticated, both in the private and public sectors. High-definition displays and portable form factors will be popular mass markets. Indexing and searching images, on the other hand, while technologically interesting, will be of peripheral impact.
9. Songs are the spiritual property of the young. They construct their identities around them and feel they own the rights to them in a way that no economic contract could interpret. Sharing songs and sets of songs is a type of free speech. By contrast, films have nowhere near this visceral appeal and matter much less.
Operating on songs is the paradigm for the new creative consumer who will not create content so much as modify it and send it along. Tools and sites that let people extract, reframe, and re-present will be core enablers, a la MySpace, UTube, and the like.
8. There is no place to hide. This is good for exposing the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man. It is bad for the privacy advocates. It is meaningless for the security forces as no command-and-control big brother can keep up with the sheer volume of self-organizing chaotic systems in flux.
Next-generation security will organize around the person and the personal identity instead of the data and the institution. Mobility will only complicate this challenge.
7. Wikis rule and “crowd-sourcing” works! Outsourcing tasks to a self-organizing community of volunteers, a la open source software, is proving to be a powerful tactic for tapping into the collective wisdom and experience of the planet. Surprisingly, this mechanism is nowhere near as susceptible to demagoguery as edited media.
The wiki model is becoming a de facto collaboration paradigm within private enterprises with global reach. It seems likely to spawn comparable efforts in the public sector: a wiki-versity, a wike-health-care-system, a wiki-disaster-recovery-effort. We will get object lessons in the power of memes (or the lack thereof).
6. Games tell all. Anthropologists of future centuries can be spared digging through layers of sedimentary rock. Instead they will just need to find game machines that let them play World of Warcraft or play back the history of an avatar in Second Life. All the metaphors of contemporary culture are being acted out in one or another corner of this virtual universe. And currency exchanges are beginning to link this universe to the physical one.
The emphasis on symbolic interactions in a digital lifestyle will have unpredictable effects on self-perception and social norms. Historically the real world has set the norms and the digital world reflected them, but the obverse can be expected to be true going forward. Games can become living laboratories to explore strategies for living, a role played by literature and drama in ages past.
5. Services displace products. In the digital world, as bits substitute for atoms, products are reconceived as services. This is the threat that Google poses against Microsoft.
Services companies still have not completely caught up with this. They tend to describe their offers as products, which, although convenient as a means for integrating them into traditional organizational thinking, profoundly misrepresents their dynamics and causes companies to miss whole dimensions of consumer experience, need and value.
4. Everything is media. While advertising will not pay for everything, everything will become a potential opportunity to advertise. This means that at least some technology adoption life cycles can be short-circuited by providing the disruptive innovation for free.
If advertising is the default funder of digital offers, then consumption is the ultimate paradigm. Over time people and cultures will weary of this, and socially constructed content will become more pervasive as an escape from constantly being pitched.
3. Outsourcing and offshoring are inevitable. Digitization of work is profoundly world-flattening. In an Internet-enabled world, as work itself becomes digitized, markets cannot be protected. This will be hugely dislocating to the developed economies in the short term. Longer term, it will be the single most effective tool to combat global poverty and its cousin terrorism.
Instrumentation and institutions that create visibility and control over processes that span geographical and enterprise boundaries will become increasingly powerful. Everything will ultimately resolve to a Service Level Agreement and a series of compliance-assuring mechanisms.
2. Symbolic competence creates competitive advantage. On the web, as one cartoonist famously noted, no one knows you are a dog. All they experience about you is a function of your ability to manipulate vocabulary and symbols.
This puts liberal arts education in high relief. The digital world will move from being an engineering phenomenon to a cultural one. Memes, brands, reputations, causes—all will seek to recruit the most powerful symbolists to their ends.
1. Omnipresent distractions increase the need for inner peace. Digital systems intrude into every aspect of life and, unrestricted and unbalanced, can overwhelm our perception of personal and social values. The resulting alienation will lead to a search for direct personal spiritual experience.
Traditional religion, with its reliance on belief, will be undermined by digital communications, for as symbolic manipulations becomes increasingly transparent, it creates distrust in any institution that engages in it. In this context, meditation, yoga, and other forms on non-mediated spiritual experience will become increasingly attractive.