Post-digitalisation – The role of people in a digital world

“I miss my pre-internet brain.”

This cult sentence by the Canadian writer Douglas Coupland is probably only meant half ironically. Our first reaction might be a spontaneous smile but it quickly changes to a serious expression. Anyone who has always been a little uneasy about the omnipresence of digital technology, its devices and content now feels it particularly clearly: we can’t go back to the time before digitalisation.

In most people’s future scenarios there is an inherent assumption of further digitalisation and at an even faster pace. The world dissolves into zeros and ones and in the end artificial intelligence takes over.

The costs of digitalisation

It took twelve years from the launch of the first mobile phone to reach 50 million users. The Internet reached the same number in just seven years. Facebook reached 50 million members after just four years, WeChat – the Chinese WhatsApp – after just one. The digital world is an exponential one!

Digitalisation has a direct impact on us as individuals, on the economy and on society. The Internet, social media, algorithms, fake news, internet memes – the positive and the negative effects are omnipresent even in the remotest corners of the world. And deep down we also know that we must pay a price for this somewhere and somehow – it’s just not quite clear in which ‘currency’.

Despite all the criticism nobody wants digital to go away!

When we consider digital technology and the downsides we quickly think of big data, individual data transparency and online privacy, but Coupland’s statement also points to potential profound changes in the synaptic circuits in our brains. We ask ourselves, is our brain already reorganizing?

But there are also countless examples of digitalisation that serve mankind. Digitalisation and its ability to speed things up has been a decisive success factor in fuelling our economic development and growth. Innovations are happening at an increasing rate. And there is no going back! Who wants to buy their flight or concert tickets at a call centre anymore? We all look forward to instantly finding out who was elected, which celeb is doing what with whom, or that actor in the movie whose name we just cannot remember! Grrr! Fast access to information supports and strengthens a direction towards greater transparency and because of that democracy and greater equality.

Digitalisation – and what comes next?

It’s no longer a question of whether we live in a digitalised and accelerated world, the question is what comes in the next wave. Nicholas Negroponte wrote in Beyond Digital in 1998: “Like air and water, digital will only be noticed through its absence and not its presence… But the most surprising changes will take place elsewhere, in the way we live our lives and how we control ourselves together on this planet.”

Organisations that have completed their digital transformation or are about to do so are looking for further opportunities to grow. Some are literally changing the way the market is structured and operates, moving things away from the overall market to many micro-markets or individual markets. It looks cataclysmic sometimes; industry boundaries are falling, any company can compete with any other, new business models keep on emerging, and new companies are increasingly entering people’s everyday lives.

Post-digitalism means conscious indifference

It is becoming increasingly clear that digitalisation isn’t a cure-all; companies still have to face the same old questions: How is value created? What brings profit? How are employees engaged and how do you attract and keep customers? Oh, and let’s not forget about security, privacy and ethics?

Defenders of the post-digital worldview assume that the digital peak has already passed. Like the meaning of the term post-material, post-digital does not mean a rejection of everything digital or material, but rather a conscious indifference. The point is not to allow oneself to be bewitched by the digital world, but to treat it as a useful tool without any expectations of it being your saviour!

Digitalisation needs human intelligence

We at CONTRACT place people at the centre of our work right from the start – whether as active or as impacted people. In digitalisation processes it is important to us to give people a creative and central role.

No artificial intelligence, even if it’s very clever, can – so far – answer humanity’s questions about mobility, nutrition or territoriality. Sustainable answers require human decisions, decisions by people who can consider values and competing priorities – over and above thinking about what is just the most efficient or optimal.

Digitisation needs cultural and social technologies

 Preparing for a post-digital world means giving digitalisation the space it deserves in order to be able to use and exploit its functionality reasonably. Blindly following a digital efficiency craze or cultivating disempowering attitudes because we view technological progress as uncontrollable will not get us anywhere useful. The point is that we all need to take some responsibility for digital development.

Steve Jobs took up the cause for creating people friendly computers. We must now develop the cultural and social technologies that support people in being humanly effective in a changing an increasingly digital world.