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The Rise of the Digital Invisibles

by David Norton  |  February 23, 2014  |  Comments Off on The Rise of the Digital Invisibles

In the future there will be two tribes the “digital visible” and the “digital invisibles”.  One will embrace digital technology without question, the other limit it to their terms; one will be on the grid 24/7 the other will appear and disappear like a stealth fighter.  One will be a digital open book to be consumed, marketed too, and observed; the other elusive, a digital enigma, a shadow in your data.          

But this not another message of Luddites and technophobes proclaiming technology has gone too far and society is rapidly moving to the dystopia of Metropolis or 1984.  Digital invisibles will be some of the most tech savvy people in society. They will embrace it, understand it and use it, in a way that makes them part of the digital society but at the same time apart from it. Digital invisibles will seek to use technology to their advantage whilst using technology to shield themselves from their government, employers, business, and their peers.   

We commonly hear “If you have nothing to hide why would you worry” assuming that an individual that tries to remain anonymous online is up to no good.  At this point I could say all the publicity around NSA and GCHQ has changed people’s attitudes to anonymity and driven more of us to be digital invisibles, the truth is it has not.  The driver for the digital invisibles will not be the state it will be business and their peers.  

Imagine the following. You are sat in a coffee shop, your tablet computer (or glasses) contains a built in visible light and infrared (IR) camera, and doppler shift motion sensor.  Gesture and body heat data provide a real-time analysis of the likely emotional state of the other coffee shop users, plus their general state of heath i.e. are they running a fever and likely to have flu.  The facial recognition software is matching face to names and providing data on who they are, do you know them, did they go to same school, did they date your sister? etc, etc.  And where physical sensors fail near field comms and cloud based services will fill in the gaps using information from the coffee shop users own digital devices and social networks.  This might sound a bit too like Star Trek now, but what about in 10 years?

It’s in these situations we may see the biggest contrast between the digital visible and the digital invisibles.  Your augmented view will have gaps, individuals that appear as digital ghosts, you see them but your digital world does not.  Their anti-thermal clothing limits your IR sensors accuracy, they are wearing anti-facial recognition glasses, and your tablet returns no data on them.  

Lets make it more interesting. Imagine you are selling your house and a prospective buyer asks will you accept an offer of £300K?  The truth is you will but your hoping for a figure closer to £320K so you say “sorry no”.  The prospective buyer’s digital glasses IR, gesture sensors, and microphones all detect a rise in your stress levels.  The buyer’s digital glasses also pulls the information from the cloud that you sold your last two properties at 20% under the asking price.  In the buyers glasses a message reads “85% probability the last statement was false, 92% probability they will accept £300K”. 

It’s not hard to imagine a similar situation in the boardroom during an M&A or licensing negotiation.  In these situations one party has a very clear advantage if the other party is a digital visible. The digital invisibles will have the lead in a world that combines game theory and real time digital data, he will see your cards whilst showing you a digital poker face.    

But what of digital business?  The digital invisibles are not going to bring down your digital strategy but they could make big holes in. At one extreme they may choose to simply not engage with you on a digital level at all, but this would be more Luddites behaviour.  More likely the tech savvy digital invisibles will take advantage of the incentives you are offering them to engage with your digital strategy but then leave you high and dry when it comes to the payback you were expecting in the form of rich customer data.  I will take your app that gives me 10% discount at the till but block it from obtaining and sending location data from my device. This may not have a major impact on your strategy unless you have the misfortune of attracting digital invisibles in which case your data mining and analytics will be working off incomplete data. Think what that will do to your dashboards, forecasting and decision making.   

So how real are the digital invisibles?  Anti thermal imaging clothing is on sale now; there are apps that limit how much data you provide to other apps, social sites, and individuals.  There are bags that stop near field comms and mobile signal.  There are even makeup styles that interfere with facial reorganization software.  Jamming technology is being used, often illegally, to limit location and tracking information (see  Executives are being advised to limit how much information they provide on social sites, and sales staff are being told not to crow about their latest deal on facebook.   

Socially digital invisibles will be driven by a desire to maintain a level of personal mystique and to stand out from what they perceive as “digital sheep”; or simply not to tweet the “The game was great” after calling in sick forgetting their boss follows them on twitter (they may not even know).  As customers they will be hard to reach and quantify, an anomaly in your data.  And across the table from you in business they will have the advantage.

Well I am going to wrap the blog up before I get to carried away with digital ethics, government digital policy and the digital proletariat.


David Norton
Research Director
7 years at Gartner
25 years IT industry

In his role as research director with Gartner's application development and architecture team, David Norton supports clients by developing and delivering quality and timely research. Read Full Bio

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