Thoughts on the digital era

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 defense (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).

The Digital Era has many names: the information age, the 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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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