Digital: Boolean Rhapsody
Imagine running a company that takes care of the transportation of sheets of papers from A to B. Your business model is based on the stamps that you put in the top right corner. You sell these stamp and only transport sheets of paper that carry a mark. You give these marks funny colours and nice drawings, so people recognise them and even collect them. However, these sheets themselves are worthless. It’s the content on it that is valuable to people, and therefore they are willing to pay you for transport. Comfortably as you are, you lean back behind your desk and see money pouring in. After all, the sales of the stamps are higher than the costs of transportation. You light a cigar, pat yourself on the chest, imaging you are on top of the world. No, even better, you are the world. Then suddenly, a new service arrives on the scene as a luminous snake in the mist. His glooming piercing eyes look at you, ready to attack and drag you in a long slow torturous fight to the death. This new service sends the contents of the paper sheets electronically. It has instant delivery from A to B, and it is free. No stamps, no transportation costs! In 1971 the first email was sent by Ray Tomlinson and was considered to be the first killer app that made computer networking inevitable. As soon as the first digital service was released, it undermined the traditional way of doing business, and it has ever done after. It sent many boardrooms into panic, slaughtered industries, devasting a few others so badly that they, hardly alive, had to reinvent themselves. Upcoming blogs I do a deep dive in war, education, finance and business to find out what this roaring, everything devouring beast, we gave the name Digital, did to these sectors. But let’s first dissect it.
If you dive really, really deep in the digital world, as deep as the Challenger Deep, the deepest known point of the Ocean, you will see zeros and ones. The booleans we discussed in a previous blog post. This deep dark place is the foundation of our digital world, revealing itself through your smartphone, laptop, radio, smart speaker, TV, billboard, headphone, glasses and neural links. Once, it was a system meant to make redundant communication possible between military bases with nuclear warheads. It projected us from foreign nation’s intentions to send us en mass to the eternal hunting grounds. If one system were taken out, the communication network would heal itself and create a new route to deliver messages so we could reply to our enemy’s intentions and continue our vicious battle together on the other side on Vahalla's grasslands. Luckily this never happened and over the years this network of computers, because that is what we are talking about, developed in something that now is known as the internet. Fifty years after the first email was sent, the internet shaped a new economy and society with new rules, with email as one of the many serendipitous creations. It became so dominant that we can say, today we live in a digital society. We are in the middle of a true revolution.
What are the characteristics of digital society? First of all, nothing is real; everything is virtual. To quote Queen:
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
To answer, yes and yes. Real means: you can hold it, and it is subjected to the laws of physics. Virtual is the opposite. We cannot touch, smell, lick, squeeze or crush it. The word “virtual” was first mentioned around 1400. It comes from the Medieval Latin virtuālis, meaning “effective” (in the sense of having the effect of something without the form or appearance). And although it is not real, it has every other aspect that makes our emotions move. We can see and hear it. It makes us angry and influences our dopamine levels, envy, excitement, hate, and pride. For something not real, it is extremely powerful. It changed our lives, the way we live, communicate, love, eat, shop, learn, teach, read, and even how we go to war. It changed our landscape. Where once the smoking giant brick sculptures of the industrial revolution were roaring, now gigantic black boxes silently and moveless inhabit the outskirts of our civilisation, multiplying rapidly, eating enormous amounts of energy. Files live there; they feed on electricity and data that we can access by servers, landlines, satellites, broadcast mast, PCs, laptops, mobile phones and smartwatches. Files are the only mean of the existence of the virtual life form. The file is just a string with zeros and ones. And this file can be cloned and transported with the speed of light around the world. Time and place are no restrictions anymore. Ironically, the redundant computer network needed to protect us against a devastating nuclear war is itself a battlefield these days.
Visiting historical battlefields always send shivers down my spine, as if the spirits of young men who died a violent death in agony haunt over neatly mowed lawns that once were bloodshed ground full roaring violence and the door to the other side. That was the way to wage war. Gather the youth full of hormones, feeding drinks, pumping up drugs, stirring up and lead them to an open field to clash with the enemy that had done the same with their teenagers. Those happenings must have been Dante’s Hell on earth. The strongest, best trained and quickest warriors had the most chance to survive. Man to man, no canons, just swords, spears, shields and axes. How different is it today? A screen replaces the field. Killing is just a game. At home, in your bedroom, fire a drone. In the multitenant building on the third floor, hacking into an industrial complex and triggering uranium-enriching centrifuges in an uncontrollable spin, controlling foreign power grids or opening dams flood cities. Posting pictures and message on social media to feed distrust, outrage and disorder. Constantly massive surveillance and eavesdropping on enemies, friends and people. Besides the many upsides of the digital society, there are some really dark corners of our venomous souls that it feeds. War is not fought anymore on fallow playing fields once every few generations. It is fought every day, every hour, minute, second. War is not temporary but permanent. It is not Conan the Barbarian who wins the battle but the smartest, most creative and out of the box thinking kid that finds the loophole in defence of the other party, whether it is in their software, the way they run their society, access and publish news or control transportation. War has become a continuous information game and, therefore, a battle on education.
Information used to be scarce. It was locked up in paper, books. Somebody, a teacher, friend or parent, could tell you what to read. An automatic translating search engine for all available information in the world didn’t exist. You had a library, and there you could browse information nobody ever told you about. But if you lived in a small farmer village, the library was equally small. The scarcity of information disappeared when the internet became omnipresent. All information is at your fingertips. If you like knitting dog costumes for your Chihuahua, you can find Chihuahua sized costume’s knit patterns. If you are obsessed with octopuses, you can find abundant movies, photos and articles. It will make you an octopus expert overnight. If you think that a network of paedophile leaders runs the world, you can find proof and people who believe the same and connect with them. If you believe the earth is flat, the internet has the proof. It doesn’t matter what you think or what you want to prove, you can find supporting evidence on the internet.
Unlimited access to information has an enormous impact on education, communication, the way we run society and how we entertain ourselves. We only recently started to realise when Russia influenced the US election by seeding hate, distrust and outrage in the US by social media posts. With unlimited access to information, we need to be educated on interpreting it in the right way. It would help if you learned that at school. However, being a government-funded activity over the past 30 years, education has been totally neglected and subject to numerous rounds of budget cuts due to the prevailing neoliberal mindset. Dropping capabilities as writing, reading, counting and distinguishing fact from fiction, and entertainment from the news. But let us be honest. Who doesn’t like a good conspiracy story that explains the injustice you feel, pointing the finger to the invisible forces that rule your life and point out the guilty one. We are only human. It is why we still obsessed with the unsolved murders of Jack the Ripper. When he started his cruel chain of events, newspapers became a mass-market product because it was the first time in history that most people could read. However, they lived in pitiful conditions, definitely in comparison with the rich industrial class. Speculations who was the killer, preferable somebody from the upper class who got away with it, increased the circulations of the newspapers. To increase print runs, journalists themselves wrote fake letters to the press, claiming that Jack the Ripper wrote them. How familiar does this sounds with today's events, except that today most of the readers react to emoticons, images and memes that send us back to the time of the hieroglyphs. Can we learn from what happened back then? Those days 1880–1910 was a time that an enormous amount of new technology flooded society. The amount of information increased rapidly; people never experienced it before. It must have been like when the printing press was invented. Suddenly the amount of available information doubled, tripled, quadrupled. If we quickly run through history with Little Thumb’s seven-league boots. The flood and trust in technology eventually led to the dirty filthy trenches of misery, despair and human madness in the First World War. Followed by the uprise of fascism and the Second World war. To end with, the Marshall Plan initiated a period in modern history with the highest income equality.
Can we look back to that period and learn from it, skip the wars and go directly to the Marshall Plan’s period? We can, certainly on the climate side of thing. In 1896 Svante Arrhenius already published a report of the impact of CO2 on climate with the note that coal-burning activities would raise the amount of CO2, raising the earth's temperature. Is there more in this period worth studying? Can 1880–1910 be compared to 1990-2020? What about our increasing hunger and need for batteries. Can we call something a solution when it isn’t organic? It would be an interesting study. The more, many governments imposed compulsory education in Europe at the end of the 19th century. They saw something needed to change. That brings us back to today’s education, and let’s finish with a positive note. Although the basics of education, reading, writing and counting have been neglected, causing low literacy levels, imagine the possibilities of digital education. How cool would it be to take your class on a VR tour through ancient Rome, the Giza pyramid complex or inside a jet engine, the human body or to Mars? I think you will get the kids’ attention, and high-speed learning will be common.
Hope and despair, changes and threats, boolean, isn’t it? Next blog, we will dive into the financial industry, creating money with a stroke on the keyboard and computerised trust. After which, we will dive into business models, platforms and exponential growth.
The innovation files
1. Innovation versus business optimisation: from Gyro Gearloose to Elon Musk
2. Serendipity: Icarus and the four horsemen of the apocalypse
3. The evolution of product revolution
4. Digital: Boolean Rhapsody
5. Welcome to the Digital Economy
6. Whiskey, platforms and the network effect
7. The waves of innovation