The Dark Side of Digitalization
A revolution has taken place over the last twenty years. The digital tools and technology that used to be contained – in office spaces, at a large immobile “desktop” computer, etc. – have spread throughout the entire private and social landscape. Some might say, these things have spread like a disease.
Truly, there is a certain amount of absurdity in the now ubiquitous term, “the internet of things,” which is casually referred to as “IoT.” Where we used to discuss the world in terms of infrastructural systems or social constructs, we now measure to real world connectedness in terms of how far the internet can reach!
Merging the digital and physical worlds
And the reach keeps growing longer. Countries and regions that have little internet access are considered to be at a huge disadvantage. Everyone wants online access. Everyone wants the latest smartwatches, smartphones, even digital implants.
However, it’s important to pull back to the big picture and consider what happens to a culture that has let itself become dominated by digital technology. Behind all the glowing screens, there is a dark side.
Digital devices offer 24/7 access, 365 days a year
Do you have a smartphone in your pocket? Or maybe you’re reading on your phone right now! Our devices are never far away.
Being connected digitally all the time has changed expectations in all aspect of life, from personal to professional. Access to each other used to be defined (or limited) by being within physical proximity or being near a landline phone. That has changed. Access now means, “I know you have your phone on you and I can reach you at any time I want.”
- Immediacy: People have come to demand immediate, instant communication and engagement. There are numerous satires about the person who doesn’t receive an instant response to his or her text and immediately assumes there is a problem. Online live video services like Skype, Facetime, Zoom, and Facebook’s Messenger make it easy to demand even face-to-face communication at any time of day. It’s free and easy—perhaps too easy.
- Assumed availability: Salary workers used to carry the extra burden of potentially working in excess of the forty-hour work week. Some industries required ambitious workers to put in as many as sixty or seventy hours a week. We can look back to that with nostalgia, because at least those workers could go home at some point, put their feet up, and relax. Now, thanks to the ease of communicating with digital tools, any salaried worker might be emailed or texted or called at any time, with no way to escape. Sure, there’s the option not to respond, but given that everyone is accessible at every time, not-responding is a choice that can have repercussions on employees whose employers want 24/7 access.
From a business perspective, it is not only employees or business owners who may be on the wrong end of digitalization. Sometimes the client is too.
Customers don’t always want the latest technology
It might seem that newer practices translate to a better bottom line, but that is not necessarily true. Businesses leaning toward digitalization need to consider how their clients will be affected. For example, if a catalogue business switches from mail-in customer orders to online only, they must consider that older members of their client base may have trouble using the new format, and may take their business elsewhere.
Digitalization cuts across sectors
How do parents and teachers convince children the importance of learning basic and higher math, when any equation can be typed in online for an instant and perfectly accurate, machine-generated answer? This shortcut to knowledge can stunt a child’s ability to think.
We may be losing potential inventors and scientists because students don’t need to engage with information anymore – they can simply type their problems in a machine and get the answers figured out for them.
And it’s not only children who may be losing basic information and skills to digital technology. The distractions of “reading” or searching for information online may damage our higher brain functions, according to Pulitzer-Prize Finalist, Nicholas Carr, especially when the neural activity of such online work is compared to that of book-reading (as reported in the Journal of Digital Information).
Some of us might recall growing up and having to earn TV-time; now parents face a much more complicated issue in “screen time.” Instincts may tell them that kids shouldn’t spend all free time online, that they should spend time outdoors or in other activities. There might be a lot to discover online, but there is also a lot of inappropriate content that can upset and even damage young people.However, this is complicated by the knowledge that young people with highly developed skills in hardware and coding have a head start in school and jobs over others with lesser skills in those areas.
So, does the parent encourage a broad variety of activities, or allow hyper-focused skill building which may disconnect children from the tangible world?
Marginalizing the non-digital populations
It was mentioned earlier how countries and regions with limited internet access feel they may fall behind the digital world. However, certain populations even within digital-friendly areas can fall behind and feel marginalized in this way. This includes those who cannot afford home internet, even if the service is technically available. For example, high school students without home internet access face severe disadvantages in the college application process, since the vast majority of such applications are now completed online.
Marginalization also includes those who have difficulty adapting to the sweeping changes, particularly elderly populations. Older consumers who used to call for appointments are having to adapt to online webforms. Instead of being able to reach help lines, they have to learn to use chat pop-up windows. An elderly person might do his or her bet to make an online purchase, only to be told he needs to create a digital wallet or set up an account with a payment service in order to be allowed to complete the purchase.
Businesses must bear the marginalized groups in mind as they develop strategies to build, expand or maximize their reach through digital technology. There’s no one‑size‑fits‑all strategy that will accommodate everyone.
The bright side
While it’s tempting to focus on all the “ills” fostered by digitalization, we must never lose sight of the fact that there is plenty to be thankful for, due to our access to digital technology.
- For every elderly person who has trouble online, there’s a grandmother who gets to Skype every week with her grandchildren who live across the world.
- For every high schooler whose family can’t afford the internet and has trouble completing online college applications, there is an adult who is finally able to complete her GED online.
- As well as “clickbait” distractions, there are free, open online courses offered by major universities.
- For every smartphone or trendy gadget, there’s a device that can send crucial health notifications instantly, saving lives.
In any major cultural or social shift such as the revolution occasioned by the digitalization of our world, we must stop and consider how it affects all of us. And from a business perspective, we must never make the mistake of thinking that digitalization is the solution to any business challenge. The fact that there is a new economy centred around bespoke, traditional methods of production or service means that, out there, there is a market for companies that choose to be selective or cautious casting away previous models in favour of digital technology.