How to survive in the Post-Digital Era

What happens when digital becomes commonplace, and a new tech announcement floods us with ennui, not excitement? We're finding out, as we're firmly in the post-digital era now.

It seems impossible, but it’s seven years since NEXT12 explored the idea of Post-Digital, the condition of a world where digital in no longer remarkable in of itself. It’s something we accept and treat as normal.

Indeed, my very first post for this blog was called What is Post-Digital?, and still gets a lot of search traffic from people exploring that idea. A lot has changed in all our lives since then. Personally, I’ve had two daughters, both of whom are throughly post-digital, and I’ve become a university lecturer as part of the portfolio career I’ve developed.

And so, it was a strange feeling a few months ago to see the circle close, when a former student of mine wrote a piece called Are we in a post-digital era? for the eConsultancy blog.

7 years on, one would hope so…

And that’s the conclusion that Bex came to:

To say something is “digital” these days manages to be both a buzzword and a completely redundant statement: it implies newness and innovation, and yet we know that being “digital” is more or less a given in 2019. Every business is a digital business to some extent.

The Post-Digital Era is now

In another example of that digital circle closing, her post was based on a then-new Accenture report, Tech Vision 2019. Accenture Interactive is now, of course, the owner of Sinner Schrader, the parent company of our NEXT Conference…

The report broke down a key process for preparing your company for the parallel streams of technology shift that the post-digital era enables. And that’s the key lesson, here: we were talking about the post-digital era seven years ago. If you’ve not adapted to the digital era yet, you may be doomed in the post-digital era. And even if you did make the last transition, you’re just as much at risk if you blow this one.

There’s a manifest danger in not accepting that we’re moving into the age of digital ubiquity. People’s views of the world take time to shift, and, culturally, we’re still stuck in the 2000s excitement of new tech — or, at least, the expectation of it. When was the last time a new product launch really excited you?

Writing five years ago, just before the advent of the Apple Watch, The Atlantic’s Ian Bogost identified a profound attitude shift that is part of the transition to a post-digital world, a certain, well, boredom with tech and gadgetry:

Future shock is over. Apple Watch reveals that we suffer a new affliction: future ennui. The excitement of a novel technology (or anything, really) has been replaced—or at least dampened—by the anguish of knowing its future burden. This listlessness might yet prove even worse than blind boosterism or cynical naysaying. Where the trauma of future shock could at least light a fire under its sufferers, future ennui exudes the viscous languor of indifferent acceptance.

I was reminded of this piece by the Dense Discovery newsletter, whose author pointed out — quite correctly — that the same couple apply to any tech launch today. That’s a symptom of living in the post-digital era.

It’s certainly possible to argue that many of the problems of the past couple of years, the ways in which digital has sucked, have arisen from this tech ennui, this blind acceptance of what technology has become. We’re used to free services. We’re used to giving away our data. And like a frog in slowly boiling water, we don’t realise that tech’s excitement has turned into monolithic corporate data capture.

So how do we reverse? How do we adapt our brains for post-digital thinking?

Post-Digital Brains

First of all, we need to ask ourselves a basic question: What happens when digital becomes ubiquitous?

Answer: You have to stop looking at tech itself, and start looking at its impact.

Nearly 15 years ago I was working with a B2B magazine in the tech sector. Their traffic was not, to put it mildly, where it should have been during that explosion of interest in tech. Why not? Because they were so focused on tech of a particular form — mainly enterprise PCs — they’d completely missed that people had started connecting PCs together, and tying all those connections into the internet, and interesting things were happening there.

But even earlier – in the late 90s – I edited the eBusiness section of another B2B magazine. “There’s no future in this job,” pronounced the editor, once. “Eventually it’ll all just become business, and we’ll stop talking about it.”

20 years on, his prediction hasn’t come true – yet. But it should have done.

We are in a post-digital world — but, just like those B2B tech journalists, all too many people haven’t noticed. We still write about the latest gadget, the latest technology, hoping for the same buzz we got when the iPod or the iPhone were released. But those days are gone.

We have — or are in the process of — digitalising everything. So, if you want to ask yourself the right questions, they are “what are the logical consequences of making thing x digital” — whatever the thing x you care about is.

For example: What happens if you mediate human relationships through digital?

Answer: They become faster and easier to form and maintain, but the also become open to abuse and manipulation.

Digital is the flat plain of our next wave of transformation. The big questions are always what towers will rise above that plain. What parallel worlds of invention and transformation will change our lives, and provide the excitement — and future shock — that digital once did?

Let’s find out.

Photo by Tatiana Niño on Unsplash