For the past 20 years, we have been transitioning to a Digital Economy. The foundations of this new economy are built on the changed behaviors and attitudes of people who increasingly rely on digital technologies; initially the Internet and the Web, and more recently with the addition of smartphones, Cloud Computing and broadband wireless networks.
These changes in personal behaviors and attitudes are already being reflected in our communities and institutions, as well as in widely reported global political and economic events. They are based on shifts like these:
- From mass-media funded by wants-based advertising (push) to interactive communications driven by personal needs (pull)
- From global expansion and world-unifying ambitions (globalism) to local concerns and direct involvement (localism)
- From relying on others to perform specialized jobs (specialization) to taking on these tasks ourselves (do-it-yourself)
- From pushing moral and social responsibilities onto others (institutionalism) to assuming these responsibilities ourselves (personalism)
We recognize that none of these shifts are black-and-white and none of them come without significant risks and challenges. Furthermore, we are not claiming that the Digital Economy is inherently "better" than the conditions that it replaces, just that it is fundamentally different and that it is already widespread. As such, this new economy requires new thinking.
Presumptions about economic growth, for instance, need to be re-examined. To the degree that "needs" replace "wants," consumption patterns should be expected to change dramatically. Presumptions that people will spend as they did in the 1950s (or 70s or even 90s) are likely to be proven incorrect as mass-media advertising is replaced by "eyeballs that talk back" via online media. Shifts towards "quality" and away from "quantity," particularly if they become widely distributed across age and social groups, will both slow economic growth and broadly re-balance economic activity. Clearly, we need to better understand these sweeping developments in patterns of consumption.
While it was once commonplace to think about being a "citizen of the world" or even aspire to be a "jet-setter," these cosmopolitan attitudes have been fading over the past decades. Nowadays, we are more likely to define our own "tribes" based on common affinities, which, to be sure, often involve people from around the world. Importantly, since we have often actively picked the communities in which we participate, we are not interested in having them "exploited" by outsiders. The recent ruling against Facebook, in which people have reclaimed some measure of control over the use of their "Like" button, is a small example of this trend. Cohesion among these self-defined groups is already a powerful social force. Engagement by these groups in local affairs is already having significant political ramifications. More research on the impact of highly motivated "digital tribes" is surely needed.
Industrialism is founded on its elaborated division of labor. Where shoemakers once made entire shoes, industrial shoe-making broke this down into dozens of specialized tasks. Specialization is perhaps even more widespread in services, as reflected in medicine and law and the myriad of other professions. However, the counter-trend has been picking up steam for many years. Increasingly, people are not only literally becoming more "hands-on" when it comes to physical tasks, reflected in the success of Home Depot, for instance, but many have increasingly taken charge of their own health-care and even financial affairs, displacing earlier attitudes about "trusting" the opinions of doctors or stock brokers. As a result, many have once again become "jacks-of-all-trades" and lives that were once organized around industrial-age "steady jobs" are increasingly described as "multitasking." While the term "post-industrial" was once popular, it was largely dropped. We need to explore the implications of a radically reorganized and post-industrial work force.
Famously, Max Weber declared that the industrial world at the turn of the 20th century had become "dis-enchanted" and, as a result, morality had become publicly institutionalized while also retreating into the private domain as the communal importance of religion shrank. This process is now reversing. As public institutions continue to decline in approval, indicators point to increased church attendance. This shift is consistent with the others as a reflection of an increase in attitudes about personal moral responsibility, accompanies a more "hands-on" work ethic, as well as more involvement in self-selected groups and local affairs and an increased awareness about the distinction between needs and wants in our personal consumption.
These four trends: wants-to-needs, globalism-to-localism, specialization-to-D.I.Y and institutionalism-to-personalism, have profound societal implications with massive economic and political ramifications . But are they really associated with digital technology and should they be taken up together under the heading of Digital Economics?
We believe the answer is yes. Digital technology uniquely enables individuals to recast their relationships with others around them, with the world, and even with themselves. Digital technology compels action and interaction, replacing the passivity of the remote control with keyboards and screens. In comparison to a world dominated by television, we are literally putting our "digits" (i.e. fingers) to work into our mediated lives. This personal involvement tends to collapse abstract universals to what we can experience directly, encouraging more hands-on initiatives, which can only occur "locally" and which require us to be increasingly responsible for our own actions. Accordingly, our behaviors and attitudes have already become digital.
The resulting sensibility is one of both increasing personal "control" and personal "accountability" which assaults the existential despair of the earlier "Waiting for Godot" era. It doesn't take much world travel or much digging into family archives to realize how rapidly the human condition shifts under the variable and mutable conditions in our technological environment. Only a few generations ago, our ancestors lived what were often unrecognizably different lives. Today we are living different lives than we did only 50 years ago. Our new digital lives already drive the digital economy. We have a lot of work to do to understand this new digital world in which we all live.
Mark Stahlman 22 June 2012