What is Post Digital?

To understand how the digital world is evolving, you need to understand why a post digital world is inevitable.

So, what exactly is this concept of Post Digital? It’s not (yet) a widely known one, but it’s critical to understanding the way the digital economy is evolving.

A quick poll of my Twitter followers this morning suggests that only a handful have grasped the idea. The only clear, concise answer came from Fraser Speirs:

The state of being in which you assume the digital instead of marvelling at it

That’s a pretty good way of viewing it; someone who lives in a world where the digital is commonplace and accepted, rather than something exciting and new. All today’s infants will grow up in a Post Digital era. But given the sheer enthusiasm and focus on digital that still exists in many parts of society, we’re still clearly only moving into that era, not dwelling in it.

What is not post-digital?

We can also help define the term by opposition; by what it’s not. It’s very clearly not the idea that digital technology will pass, and be replaced. While there may be some who still hope for that (and most of them are found in the music and newspaper industries, I suspect…), they are a rapidly diminishing minority.

Digital technology is clearly here to stay. The phrase Post Digital looks forward not to its end, but to its ubiquity. In fact, it’s the point where it becomes so ubiquitous that it ceases to be interesting.

The ideas underlying this concept of Post Digital first found notable expression in an 1998 article by Nicholas Negroponte in WIRED.

Yes, we are now in a digital age, to whatever degree our culture, infrastructure, and economy (in that order) allow us. But the really surprising changes will be elsewhere, in our lifestyle and how we collectively manage ourselves on this planet.

That’s the key idea here: things get really interesting when digital itself gets a little, well, boring. When the sheer ubiquity of digital devices and content render them so uninteresting that the changes they bring to the rest of our culture are the subjects of our attention.

When digital becomes boring

Like all really good ideas, it’s one that seems completely obvious – but only once you’ve heard it. After all, we already live in a post electrical age. What was once a talking point and competitive advantage is now a baseline requirement of most modern buildings. We don’t think about electricity very much – but it’s interwoven with much of what we do.

The name “Post Digital” was coined more recently, by Russell Davies back in 2009:

Given that ‘Post Digital’ idea, these were some things I thought it might be interesting to talk about.

An inauspicious sentence for a phrase to start its life in perhaps. But it is one rooted in an essay with some great ideas that sound as fresh three years on as they did when first published:

1. Screens are getting boring. It’s really hard to impress anyone with stuff on a screen any more. However clever you’ve been. How much thought you’ve put in is irrelevant. Nobody cares how good the tech is. No-one’s impressed. They’ve all seen better stuff in ads and movies anyway – when will onscreen stuff be as good as that? Whereas doing stuff in the real world still seems to delight and impress people. Really simple stuff with objects looks like magic. Really hard stuff with screens still just looks like media.

The end of the digital beginning

Interestingly, Davies was forced to put out a quasi-apology for coining the term in late 2010:

Post DIgital was supposed, if anything, to be a shout against complacency, to make people realise that we’re not at the end of a digital revolution, we’re at the start of one. The end game was not making a website to go with your TV commercial and it’s not now about making a newspaper out of your website. Post Digital was supposed to be the next exciting phase, not a return to the old order. It’s the bit where the Digital people start to engage in the world beyond the screen, not where the old guard reasserts itself.

In that sense what Post Digital actually is is the end of the beginning. It marks the transition from the era where we’re excited by the shiny new digital toys that we have, and start to become excited by the changes that these shiny not-so-new toys are making in the way we live, in the objects we have around us. When all music is distributed digitally – and we’re a long way down that path – what does the music industry start to look like. When Karl Lagerfeld’s designer’s tool of choice is an iPad (or, actually, dozens of them…) how does that shape and influence the couture he created?

The Post Digital revolution

It can be argued – and I’ll certainly be giving it a go – that too much discussion of digital technology is confined to a tech ghetto in both the mainstream and niche press. We’re in the equivalent position of a hairstylist having to look in a specialist electrical publication for a review of a hairdryer… This position cannot stand, as more and more industries and activities are transformed by a platform of digital tools that reshape aspects of their business.

Some industries are a long way into that process. Few photographers shoot film any more, and the content of the majority of photographic publications reflects that. But that prevailing shift to digital has led to a greater enthusiasm and experience of photography of a pastime. That, in turn, has seen some people come back to film, to shoot with, to experiment with it, to enjoy its restrictions and distinctive visual appearance. And, of course, to share the results digitally. Very Post Digital.

Post Digital clarified

So, where does that leave us? With a concept that is, at once:

  1. A compelling theory, based on the practical realities of how technology is integrated into society
  2. A rallying call for those who would deny the reality of that change
  3. Something that is becoming more and more evident in the world around us

Yes, that sounds like a revolution to me.

Last updated: 17th May 2021

Photo by Adrian Deweerdt on Unsplash