The State of Digital: how we got to where we are going without noticing what has really happened

They say that if you put a frog in water and bring it to the boil the frog will die but if you drop a frog into boiling water it will jump out.  Are we the frog in digital water that just keeps getting warmer?

The iPhone is our ID card

Ten years ago Apple launched the iPhone and we all saw it as a miraculous phone that could do so much more than make calls.  Was it really even more than that; the first time that a non-state had created a personal identity device that we all rushed to use?

Here was a gadget, quickly followed by it’s Android equivalents, that could track our movements, our fitness/health and soon our emotions.  Your phone (or one of its apps) knows how you commute to work, where you work and where you shop, the people who matter in your life and even what you had for lunch.

Meeting every need

Apple did so much more than just introduce a device; it kickstarted the app economy.  Suddenly hundreds of thousands of developers could, and did, launch every conceivable application. Darwinian struggles between titles sorted the great from the good and soon every one of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was being met by the phone; think Booking, Tinder, Uber, Messenger and Amazon.

Mobile apps, and mobile websites that increasingly act like apps, are the tip of an iceberg transforming every industry from banking to healthcare and turning every product into a service and every service into an experience.

Socially connected

2007 was also the year that Facebook went mobile. Social networking fuelled the use of our mobile devices and vice versa, especially with steady improvements to both the camera, for selfies and Instagram, and connectivity through improving 4G and Wifi availability.

Now we could all be contributors either explicitly as we signed up as drivers or hosts, provide reviews and ratings, sold our stuff in marketplaces, or less obviously as contributors of data.

Optimised for growth

The last decade has seen a growing interest in behavioural economics and how nudging customers and citizens with personalised messages and feedback can influence their behaviour: rewarding, reminding, framing, recommending, social confirmation and gamification for example.

As apps, ecommerce sites and social networks are developed these “growth hacking” patterns have increasingly been incorporated into their design and this has encouraged us to use them and trust them more.

Today when booking an hotel online you will be reminded how few rooms are still available, how you have won these special prices (through previous loyalty), how much nicer this room is compared with these other inferior options and how other travellers loved your choice of stay.

Driven by data

Personal identity devices, apps, social and ways of manipulating the user; all fuelling or fuelled by data.  At the heart of digital is the reality that our personal data anchored by our mobile identities are the primary source of value for many of the most successful companies. From Facebook’s like button to Google’s free maps and tools, all our activities are being tracked, measured and sold on to other companies via ad exchanges or recommendation engines.  We are the product.

To keep us using their systems and generating behavioural data and revenue these apps and services get better and better as companies add and A/B test improvements; optimising those features that drive more usage and higher satisfaction. Amazon, for example, deploys new versions of it’s software thousands of times a day. This is achieved by changing the way they develop software, uncoupling complex systems to change them individually and harnessing more agile ways of working.

The big digital companies also use data to measure and understand every other aspect of their businesses, markets and products. Processes and services are instrumented to generate data which are then turned into insights by data scientists or automatically by software algorithms. Data is visualised and explored using real-time dashboards and sliced and diced to extract meaning to create the raw material for future changes and improvements, all designed to optimise the user experience and drive revenues. These feedback loops are a key pattern in modern digital.

Data is poised to grow exponentially as the Internet of Things builds sensors into everyday objects, products and environments. By linking together data from multiple sources, context and intention can be gleaned from user action allowing deeper insights to be mined and potentially deeper more personal needs met.

Getting smarter

At the same time the algorithms are getting smarter. Artificial intelligence techniques and particularly machine learning are spotting patterns in the data and helping target even more accurately the right messages and services to the right customer.

AI is at a tipping point enabled by faster processors and virtually free storage. Already we have adequate language translation, image recognition, speech understanding and automated decision taking.  The same trends lead to driverless vehicles and autonomous delivery drones as well as hyper realistic immersive environments using virtual or augmented reality.

The new battle grounds for customer attention have been drawn around voice-driven intelligent agents such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri and camera based solutions such as Google Lens.  Now we can get reviews of restaurants or find products simply by speaking or pointing the mobile camera. This is how Google, Apple and Facebook are redefining and reimagining search.

Faster and faster?

I’m often asked if and when these digital developments will slow down and my answer is always that we have only just begun. Change will only get faster as our software becomes smarter, our lives more connected and observed, and more data collected.

Does all of this matter? I believe it does.  Most of us simply watch in awe as new gadgets, businesses and apps are launched, without asking ourselves hard questions about how we are involved, what is happening behind the scenes and at what cost: to our privacy, jobs, communities, governments and choices.

If we don’t ask these hard questions and challenge each other to explore and engage with the outcomes then we, like the frog, will simply be a victim of the consequences.

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