"Digital is Destroying Everything" and Why I Wrote It

Despite the self-admittedly clickbait title, this columnist's new book is about the things that digital innovations has eclipsed, many of which were on the verge of collapse.

Why would a person who has made a living in digital for thirty years write a book called, “Digital is Destroying Everything”?

First, let me admit: the title is, unashamedly, clickbait. I am guilty of trying to get your attention. If I have succeeded, now I can tell you that my views do not amount to a dystopian rant on all things awful about digital technology and culture. Instead, what I have intended to deliver in the book is a lively (and I believe thoroughly researched) investigation into many of the good-and bad-things digital has destroyed; and how many things that were destroyed were waiting to collapse.

Having spent some time in digital analytics, I naturally included a chapter in the book about how “digital can destroy digital”. In this context, digital analytics has overpromised and under-delivered such that it has created an atmosphere of mistrust in data. But data collection for marketers is valuable-and I don’t claim we ought to stop using data to better connect with customers. However, many organizations are ill-equipped to do anything about what the data tells them. On this subject I have already contributed many columns in this space.

Apart from this, I was prompted to write the book because digital has gotten spooky.

When I began working “in computers” (as folks used to say) the entire notion of using these clever machines to make a living attracted a scrappy lot; and there was a scent of revolution in the air. Building an entirely new industry was fun! “This won’t last”, said many who ought to have known better. My favorite example is where some photographer friends noted that digital could not possibly ever match the fineness of a real photograph. And yet today, Kodak is no more. And almost no working photographer would consider going off the digital grid.

Some folks today might still want to use the words “digital” and “scrappy” in the same sentence. But while there may always be a scrappy startup culture, the fact is that the global impact of digital is now titanic – and I almost meant that to have a double meaning.

The most troubling news today about digital is about robots: an avalanche of artificially intelligent machines that (if we believe the prognosticators) are about to put just about everyone out of work. An article in Fortune Magazine from February, 2015, cites a study that says 47 percent of all jobs will be done by robots in less than 20 years. Matt Beane, an MIT researcher in the article, says: “The end game scenarios seem kind of severe”. If it isn’t bad enough that an idled workforce might seek occupation in ways we can only dread-what sort of economy is it where the corporation is left not just with no employees, but no customers either?

So-called “knowledge-workers” are now put at risk. Pharmacists, accountants, certain types of lawyers, doctors, nurses and computer-coders-all these carbon-based practitioners and more may be replaced by silicon. There’s a case to be made that computer consultants – including those who analyze marketing data – may not be displaced. That’s because someone, somewhere has to understand what the machines are doing and try to interpret it with the goal of providing some human good.

That is, until the machines decide that “human good” is piffle.

Some will say we’ve been here before. Agriculture put most of the hunter-gatherers out of work, but then, they had bread and chocolate instead. Industry threw craftsmen out of work, and also set rivers on fire – but we can jet to California for the weekend and have a smoothie (at least until the water runs out). It seems we have always invented our way forward; and that while we’ve scraped up against the shoals often, we’ve never broken up the ship. So we may yet find occupations for most of us who cannot best a robot. But the window for figuring this out is not a big one.

Digital analytics is going to remain a viable profession for quite some time. We can continue to correct the process, and continue to refine accuracy. Understanding the customer is bedrock to marketplace success. The answers to the most pressing questions in analytics won’t be found in another dashboard; instead they require a smart, multi-dimensional person who can make data relevant to another person.

But while analysts will soldier on, digital is remaking the world. And what is your place in it?


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