More thoughts on the digital era

In 2013, I wrote a blog entitled “Thoughts on the digital era” that I thought might be interesting to re-visit. Here’s what I observed two years ago, with a few new thoughts added in bold:

The word “era” generally refers to a period in the history of humanity.  Although you can slice and dice history in many different ways, I believe most people would agree with the following:

  • The manual era: when people used their own muscles or human-powered tools for almost everything – agriculture, construction, transportation and defence (or aggression);
  • The mechanical era: when powered machines were used to augment people’s physical capabilities such as for manufacturing and construction; and
  • The digital era: when information technologies are used to collect, store, control, manipulate and distribute the information associated with all forms of work (and play).

I still think this is still a valid picture of how society has evolved, although clearly there was no single date when we flipped from one era to another. We are just at the beginning of the digital era – for example, the Internet of Things is now at the top of the Gartner Hype Cycle.

The digital era has many names: the information age, digital economy, digital age, and knowledge work.  It is based on three ideas: that information can be used to control and improve the efficiency of physical work, that information is also a valued resource or asset, and that information processing is also a form of work.  I would include the “mobility ecosystem” as a subset of the Digital Era.

I would not change this, although I believe the wireless and mobility components are becoming even more critical to success than was perhaps originally thought.  Two years ago, I don’t remember calling many technologies as “disruptive” or “innovative” as we are now.

The digital era can be divided into two parts: business (the digital economy), and personal (social networking, etc.).  Both, however, are characterized by the use of systems based on digitizing all of the information – voice, pictures, video, sensors, controls, data, etc.

Now I would add society (i.e., community) as another part to cover systems for smart cities, online government, online shopping, etc.

The digital era can also be segmented using the Negroponte Switch as a tipping point. Wikipedia puts it this way:

“Put simply. he suggested that due to accidents of engineering history we had ended with static devices – such as televisions receiving their content via signals travelling over the airways while devices which should have been mobile and personal – such as telephones were receiving their content over static cables. It was his idea that a better use of available communication resource would result if the information (such as phone calls) going through the cables was to go through the air and that going through the air (such as TV programmes) was to be delivered via cables.”

Even though the wired/wireless reversal is not yet complete (and may never be), the transition is occurring and the changes are certainly accelerating. Here are some examples:

  • Traditional TV programs are now widely distributed via cable, with many more options for self-service program selection, time-shifting and access to remote content;
  • Over-the-air radio is generally in decline – Internet radio replaces localized broadcasting, allows selective subscriptions and removes geographic limits;
  • Telephony and email are now accessible wirelessly from virtually any location, although the number of wireless-only households is still relatively small and wired access is still widely available;
  • Multimedia has truly arrived, for example with the wireless “Dick Tracy” wristwatch now becoming a reality; and
  • Music, TV program and book distribution is moving towards on-demand access and self-serve purchase (e.g., iTunes) which eliminates stores and physical transport.

There has been considerable progress in the wired/wireless switch. Smartphones continue to displace “legacy” wired telephones, broadcast TV is supplemented with Netflix, the Apple iWatch and many others have surpassed the simple Dick Tracy watch. Multimedia messaging is readily available, and video traffic has exploded with services such as YouTube. While many of these services were available back in 2013, they were not as “front and centre” as they are now.

None of these transitions are black and white – we still do manual work – but they do help us to see how everyday life is changing as a result of the digital era.

Another form of switch is also gaining traction: the cloud switch. Note: You heard it here first! This term does not show up in a Google search except as a company name.

I never got any fame or fortune for this name but it’s still valid, and cloud computing has now started to emerge from its early adoption phase. I’m still waiting for the fame!

The cloud switch is similar to the negroponte switch except it is wider in scope… It represents a switch of information technology from private corporate or personal systems to cloud-based, on-demand shared systems (i.e., services from a cloud provider). Some examples of this paradigm shift are:

  • Data storage is available in the cloud, including DropBox, SkyDrive and various others;
  • Data processing in the cloud, such as services from Microsoft and Amazon;
  • Business applications (e.g., Microsoft Office or Adobe products) provided as cloud-based shared services;
  • Social applications (for the general public) are almost exclusively cloud-based (Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Twitter and many others); and
  • Communication and collaboration applications such as Skype, WhatsApp, Tango and Blackberry BBM are cloud-based.

Perhaps the cloud switch is an indicator that we are moving into another phase of the digital era – which we could call the “cloud era.”  There are four significant aspects of the cloud era (these are often referred to as SMAC):

  • Social networking for massive presence of people
  • Mobility for universal accessibility of people and things
  • Analytics and big data for business and social intelligence
  • Cloudification for massive resource sharing

Twenty years ago the World Wide Web was just getting started, roughly ten years ago the smartphone was being introduced, and five years ago cloud services started to emerge as a viable technology.  We’ve come a long way towards realizing the digital era but there’s still a long way to go.

Perhaps this may have been obvious back in 2013. I don’t believe things have changed much yet. We still have a long way to go, but we do have emerging new technologies that will help us along the way, especially those relating to speeding up software production. It has been said that “software is eating the world” and this will only be true if we get better at producing, deploying and managing it.

This is what I think. Let me know what I’ve missed.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Don Sheppard
Don Sheppard
I'm a IT management consultant. I began my career in railways and banks after which I took up the consulting challenge! I try to keep in touch with a lot of different I&IT topics but I'm usually working in areas that involve service management and procurement. I'm into developing ISO standards, current in the area of cloud computing (ISO JTC1/SC38). I'm also starting to get more interested in networking history, so I guess I'm starting to look backwards as well as forwards! My homepage is but I am found more here.

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