Finding Meaning In A 'Digital World'

A Global Village...or a Digital World?

“Well, there they are. Our new electronic media. Or, our new gadget. You push a button and the world is yours. You know how they say the world is getting smaller, well, it’s thanks to these that it is. Every- where is now our own neighborhood. We know what it’s like to go on safari in Kenya, or to have an audience with the Pope, to order a co- gnac in a Paris cafe. But not only is the world getting smaller, it’s be- coming more available and more familiar to our minds and to our emotions. The world is now a global village. A global village.” Alan Millar, 1960

You could be forgiven for thinking that these words allude to the global village which has resulted from today’s digital transformation. Indeed, the ubiquity of digital technologies has expanded without lim- its every facet of our contemporary lives: the way in which we socialize, the timing and nature of the work which we undertake, the provenance of the entertainment which we digest. Everything is more international as a result of 0s and 1s. The global village is seemingly also a digital world.

These words, however, were spoken by television host Alan Mil- lar in the introduction to an interview with Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan in the year 1960. In grainy black and white, stand- ing before rotary telephones and cathode ray tube-driven furniture- sized televisions, Millar calmly and convincingly foreshadowed the claims which McLuhan would make later in the interview...that new technology—new media—have erased temporal and spatial bound- aries, thereby giving rise to a ‘global village’.

Today’s digital world and McLuhan’s global village, however, are not the only revolutions in human history. On the contrary, human history is dotted with technological inventions which have given rise to new forms of social organisation. Consider agriculture, for exam- ple, which, along with the domestication of animals and aided by new planting and harvesting tools, transportation means, and irrigation techniques, disrupted the previous ‘hunter-gatherer’ mode of exis- tence.

Centuries later in the late 1700s, the so-called Industrial Revolu- tion unleashed sweeping changes in society. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, for example, then the weaving machine, attracted workers from the countryside to settle in cities, transforming the complexion of cities such as Manchester, England, and also the nature of the workday, housing, and family structure. And in the next 100-odd years, humans invented the telegraph and the printing press, which re-shaped com- munication. They harnessed steam power, which amplified manufac- turing, and altered their spatial boundaries. And eventually they pio- neered petroleum distillate (and the combustion engine), which changed city-scapes, vacations, and, er, almost everything else.

Digital technologies, however, appear to have the power to eclipse any changes which we have witnessed in the past. Indeed, the internet already generates more information in a few years than all the information which was accumulated in previous millennia. And imag- ine a future of autonomous vehicles, drone-delivered groceries, and shared devices. Thrill at the thought of enhanced and augmented mu- seum visits or tourism site excursions. Drool over a closet full of clothes which have been custom-made from measurements which were calculated from photographs on your mobile-telephone. Bob Dy- lan might have captured it best with his 1964 hit The Times They Are A-Changing.

To examine wherein lays the power in digital marketing, we must begin by demonstrating that digital technology, when it leads to a shift in medium, does not change the underlying human behavior, only its ubiquity and frequency. It then argues that the power of digital technology occurs when it leads to a network. Finally, it demonstrates the power of the network with two examples; Waze and Amazon.

Manners (Or is it media?) Maketh the Man

Shortly after that CBC interview in 1960, Marshall McLuhan published his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, which gave rise to the phrase ‘the medium is the message’. The philosophical idea in this phrase is that the medium through which the message is communicated becomes as important to the meaning of the message as the message itself. Indeed, the message and the medium exist in a kind of symbiosis, together conveying meaning to the receiver. It is not unlike the notion that the mode of transportation— plane, train, or automobile—contributes to any journey...perhaps even usurping the journey itself in some instances.

It could be argued, using a similar logic, that the recent changes in society which we have witnessed are due to shifts in media. Indeed, there seems to be a popular narrative which claims that the things which were previously analogue in nature are now digital, and conse- quently that the world is an entirely new place. Consider music, for example.

In the late 1800s, Thomas Edison introduced the phonograph, which in a very short period of time became the primary medium by which music was stored. This device took vibrations from sound waves and impressed them upon a rotating material...wax or tinfoil, for example. The phonograph could, in the reverse, transduce the im- pressions in the material into corresponding sound waves for human listening pleasure. A decade or so later, this technology evolved into the phonograph record, which used vinyl as the material for the recording medium, which in turn made listening to different musical recordings easier and exchangeable. The ‘record’ went on to become the dominant medium for music for almost a century, until tape took over in the 1970s.

Tape, in its various guises—8-track, cassettes, and reel-to-reel— stores sound as magnetic patterns on plastic tape, and like the record, replays the original audio event by transducing these magnetic pat- terns into electrical signals, which are subsequently converted to sound with the help of an audio amplifier and loudspeakers. 8-track tape improved the sound quality of records, but perhaps more importantly, made recorded music more portable. This portability was in- creased further with the cassette format, the adoption of which was heightened with the ubiquity of cassette players in automobiles and portable cassette players. Who can forget the ‘boom boxes’ of the 1980s?

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the cassette, however, was its abil- ity to record, thereby allowing people to curate their own music com- pilations. Indeed, people could record music from the radio, from oth- er cassettes, or from live concerts, a feat which was impossible with the record. For amateur musicians and budding rockstars, the cassette was a boon, allowing them to capture their own musical performances for playback and promotion.

Technology made a giant leap forward from tape to the compact disc (CD for short). The CD is a 12 cm plastic disc which stores music in digital form as 1s and 0s which are ‘burned’ into the disc as hills and troughs. Sound is reproduced with a combination of three things: 1. a laser which ‘reads’ the 1s and 0s from the hills and troughs; 2. a digital to analogue converter (DAC) which, as suggested by the term, converts a stream of 1s and 0s into an analogue electrical signal; and 3. an amplifier/loudspeaker set-up which transduces the analogue sig- nal into sound waves.

The CD removed many of the the pain points of tape (and the record). Tape often gets caught in a player, stretches, or even breaks. To access specific points on a tape is slow and tedious. And most tape players required the user to remove and reverse the tape in order to en- joy the second half of the recording. More importantly, however, the CD offered an immeasurable sonic improvement over tape (and the record). Indeed, the so-called signal-to-noise ratio (the aural distance between the intended sound and the background sound) was vastly improved. And with the advent of digital recording and digital signal processed, the background hiss, pops, and other annoyances of both tape and the record were eliminated entirely. By the 1990s, the CD be- came the new standard, growing hand-in-hand with automotive and portable players.

By the early 2000s, another medium shift was underway, facilitated by concomitant technological advances in both the storage capacity of digital devices and the compression capabilities of digital algorithms. First, the number of 1s and 0s which could be crammed into the memory of any single digital device shot up dramatically. Indeed, in the 15 years from 2001 to 2016, the storage capacity of a desktop computer multiplied by more than 1 000...with a correspondingly smaller footprint. Second, scientists developed the MPEG Audio Lay- er III standard (known more commonly as MP3), which can compress a digital file into about 1/12th of its original size. Together, these two advances triggered a musical metamorphosis—the music which was once ‘recorded’ on its own tangible media (the record, tape, the CD) suddenly became ethereal, with an almost other-worldly existence. Music could now be played back seemingly anywhere, at anytime, and on any device, both dedicated music players and non-traditional de- vices such as computers and mobile telephones.

The MP3 standard was also propelled forward by a host of other factors, including the penetration of personal computers in the home; the growth of residential, broadband internet access; the creation of file-sharing sites such as Napster; the inclusion of CD burners on computers; the introduction of the iPod and other portable MP3 players; and the launch of the iTunes store. The result has been a complete re-jiggering of the entire music industry, not to mention mutations of consumer electronics retailing, radio broadcasting, and the wider entertainment machine.

New technologies are unquestionably on the horizon— or probably more accurately, being developed in the computer laboratory — which will cause other dramatic and unforeseen changes in society. But a closer inspection raises doubts about the veracity of this claim... and indeed about the claim regarding the power of previous technologies. The shift from the record to tape certainly brought portability, plus the possibility of curation. The CD improved the aural experi- ence. And the MP3 standard expanded access.

At the core, however, people did not listen to music differently, following each shift in medium. Indeed, they did not change their underlying human behaviors. On the contrary, each shift in medium simply made music more ubiquitous, and allowed for more portability, more customization, and, well, more music. The cassette, for example, enabled people to listen to music anywhere and at anytime...more ubiquity and more frequency. But this shift in medium did not change the fundamentals of listening to music. The would come with Spotify.

It’s The Network, Stupid

Spotify is the online music streaming service which provides subscribers access to compressed music files which are stored ‘in the cloud’ on remote servers. The seismic shift which Spotify has engendered is not so much a result of a shift in medium. On the contrary, it is a result of Spotify’s ability to recommend new musical groups and new musical genres according to a user’s listening behaviors (music preferences) and those of their friends. In other words, Spotify’s pow- er resides in social networks.

When subscribers login to Spotify via their social networking ac- counts (Facebook and Twitter, for example), the company is able to leverage the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ by mining their subscribers’ net- works. Music recommendations are served up, based on the music to which their network members are listening. It leads not to music for the masses, but instead to a bespoke musical experience which is de- rived from people ‘just like them’. Spotify’s ability to leverage the network of people using digital technology, therefore, not the digital technology in and of itself, is that which makes for a true musical — or rather social — revolution.

In short, we suggest that many of the recent changes in society have been mis-attributed to the digital revolution. Indeed, we contend that digital technology, when applied to devices—that which might be called first order digitalization — does little to change basic human behavior. Digital telephones, for example, have simply increased the ubiquity and frequency of interpersonal conversations. Ditto digital books...people can read more books of more genres in more places.

When digital technology leads to higher-order effects, however, then behavioral change begins to occur. A digital grocery store, for example, does not change the purchasing of groceries. But when the digital grocery store allows shoppers to share recipes or comment on dinner party menu plans, then new behaviors ensue. That is more than the power of digital technology...that is the power of the net- work.

We define a network as a complex system of interconnected nodes which share resources, knowledge, information, experiences, etc. Arguably, there have always been networks of people: sororities and fraternities, for example, bridge clubs, congregations. And digital technology has facilitated, enhanced, even accelerated these networks of people. Digital technology, however, has also created a new network of things — the so-called internet of things, or IoT, which consists of devices which are connected and which can communicate with each other, with the help of digital technology. The culmination is that which we call the network of people and things.

Viewing the changes which have resulted from digital technology as simply a shift in medium, therefore, is too narrow. Yes, digital technology allows people to do more, and to do it far more conveniently. But the tectonic changes are driven by the network of people and things. Indeed, the power of digital technology is situated not in the 1s and 0s, but in the network which these 1s and 0s aid and abet.

By definition, digital technology generates, stores, and processes data as a string of 1s and 0s. It relies on the very simple notion of binary states: on or off, plus or minus, 1 or 0. A digital photograph, therefore, is stored not in its original form, but as a string of 1s and 0s. And because all digital devices ‘speak the same language’, they can communicate with each other. That which was once simply a product can now become a ‘smart product’. As more and more of these smart products connect with each other, they begin to form product systems, and systems within systems, leading to remarkable, connected experiences.

Consider Google’s Nest thermostat, for example, which gets ‘smarter’ the more time its occupants spend in a room, thereby adjust- ing the room’s temperature according to the occupants’ behaviors. Mint.com pulls together disparate financial information, from check- ing/savings accounts, to credit card transactions, from mortgage payments to student loan repayments, in service of people making better financial decisions. The power of digital technology is situated not in the 1s and 0s, but in the network.

Waze and Means

Frank Moss, the former director of the MIT Media Lab, summarized the power of the the digital network: “Every time we perform a search, tweet, send an email, post a blog, comment on one, use a cell phone, shop online, update our profile on a social networking site, use a credit card, or even go to the gym, we leave behind a mountain of data, a digital footprint, that provides a treasure trove of information.” It is this information — the reams of digital data — which fuels the net- work of people and things. Indeed, the more we behave in a digital world, the more our behaviors will change. Two examples will serve as illustrations.

Waze

I remember taking long road trips with my family when I was a child. My father would stop by the automobile club before we hit the highway to retrieve that seemingly magical, multi-folded map, whose yellow highlighted route would assuredly lead us to our destination. Without fail, my father would somehow wander off-path and get us lost. This problem would be somewhat mitigated thanks to Ya- hoo’s MapQuest which allowed us to key-in our starting location and desired destination, and which subsequently created a turn-by-turn, sequential set of instructions which accompanied a highlighted map route. And my father (and everybody else in those days) would print out the MapQuest map and instructions, in the spirit of its multi-fold- ed, paper predecessor. Despite the shift in medium, little changed in terms of navigation...maybe fewer curse words.

Fast-forward some years later and the Global Positioning System, or GPS, shifted the medium again. Indeed, there was no need for any paper of any sort—we now had a device in the car which would pro- vide turn-by-turn voice directives in real time, and recalculating capabilities if we found ourselves deviating from the route. This made navigation much easier...but it did not change the basic notion of getting to the destination.

The introduction of Waze, however, triggered a fundamental shift in driving behavior. Waze is a network-based navigation application whose purpose is to help people outsmart traffic. The mobile application allows its ‘community members’ to get driving instructions which are based on the experiences of other community members who are traveling the same or similar routes. Indeed, community members in- form others if there is a police officer on the road, or if a traffic jam has developed. Waze helps people outsmart traffic (and avoid fines) by leveraging the network of people. The application also gets smarter the more community members use it, offering, for example, recommendations on the time at which someone ought to begin a journey because of road conditions, typical traffic patterns, know police hang- outs, etc. Paper maps and GPS certainly made traveling easier, but Waze ultimately changed the human behavior.

Amazon

‘In the beginning’, markets were physical places in which buyers and sellers came together to exchange their products. Indeed, people brought fruits and vegetables, cattle, grains, and the like to the market, in hopes that other people who were looking for these same products would find the offerings compelling. By the mid-1800s, Sears & Roe- buck and other mail-order companies began offering products in a ‘catalogue market’. Customers no longer needed to visit the market physically to get their products...although they often took weeks to arrive due to slow postal, order processing, and delivery times. Of course, these lead times would eventually shorten to a matter of weeks, with advances in operations and logistics.

By the early-2000s, however, the internet allowed for the creation of ‘virtual markets’, and e-commerce was born. Orders were placed instantaneously, and processed in a matter of hours, thereby reducing turn-around times from weeks to days. This shift in medium obviously made shopping (market exchanges) more convenient, but it did not necessarily change the way people engaged within the market.

Amazon changed all that. The e-commerce behemoth which be- gan as an online bookstore, has leveraged the behaviors of its shoppers — their searches, their wish-lists, their shopping carts, their purchases, and so on — to provide individualized shopping experiences. Amazon gets smarter each time a shopper uses it, and recommendations, therefore, reflect his/her history, but also that of people like him/ her. Amazon has also ventured out into the ‘physical world’ by the Amazon Echo, Dash, and brick-and-mortar retail outlets, furthering its goal to leverage the network of people and things, by connecting previously disparate and isolated nodes.

Battle of the Network Stars

The world is now a global village. So predicted Marshall McLuhan in the early-1960s. But it is digital technology — the processing, generation, and storage of information in the form of 1s and 0s — which has truly brought humans closer together. Digital technology has enabled disparate nodes of both people and things to connect in networks like never before, which, in turn, have eased, enhanced, and even extended human behavior. In summary, therefore, we challenge you to re-think the notion of a digital world, focusing not on digital technology but instead on the networks which the digital technology facilitates. Therein will be the innovations of the future.

 

References

  • Millar, A. “McLuhan’s They of the Global Village.” CBC Television Interview. 18 May 1960.
  • McLuhan, M. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Mentor: New York, 1964.