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Welcome to the Digital Society

by Mark P. McDonald  |  August 4, 2019  |  Comments Off on Welcome to the Digital Society

We are entering the next age of digital, leaving behind the prior one with its application of digital technology to make resources more information intensive and connected. Those terms continue to describe what it means to be digital, but not how those characteristics are being applied to the world.  Those implications and how they change the way people work and related to the digital and physical world was the subject of the book The Digital Edge.  Link to PDF of the book.

Digital Society defined

If the prior wave of digital technology including social media, cloud, mobile and simple analytics largely applied to changing customer experiences, then what is next.  Well at Gartner Analysts Frank Buytendijk, Leigh McMullen and others have coined the phrase digital society.  Their definition of a digital society is: is the collection of people, organizations and things that are engaged in persistent digital interactions.

The figure below illustrates the progression from a societal view with individuals interacting with each other in the pre-digital age, to digital interactions to the digital society.

The move from digital business to digital society was inevitable.  Digital technologies are fundamentally human oriented.  Prior technologies were fundamentally process oriented. It is natural that the digital world started with the personal and has moved to the society.  So, what is a digital society?

Digital Society described

Based on the definition provided above, digital society is defined by the superset of interactions between things using digital technology.  Sounds a bit academic, but when you think of it, the terms right true as a society is based on the interactions among its members and the impact those interactions have on its members, members of other societies and the rest of the world.   OK, so a society is made up of its interactions and those interactions are increasingly digital, so those two things get us a digital society – not quite.

The digital society is more than people sending messages over the network. First the digital society has more players than just its people.  Increasingly digital society will consist of individuals, organizations and devices all interacting, but not necessarily connected through digital channels. The addition of things, aka IOT, expands the idea of digital society by connecting the physical and the digital world. This means that a digital society can encompass everything that happens within it, including interactions between other societies: pre-digital, digital and post-digital.  More on that in other posts.

Learning and Leveraging the idea of a Digital Society

The construct of a digital society as something more than an individual’s use of technology to achieve their goals and have experiences is desperately needed to expand the discussion and debate about the relationships between people , technology, society, the economy, then environment etc.

The prior digital phase concentrated on digital experience, design and the individual. It was the age of digital consumerism, digital marketing, social media expression, etc. All primarily focused on the individual and how they engaged the world around them.  There is nothing wrong with that description, however its very limitations blind us to real impacts and challenges an increasingly digital world creates for us all – for society.

Viewed from an individual perspective the digital world is wonderful, filled with innovations, improve experiences, lower prices, greater convenience all delivered by unicorn companies promising rainbows of experience. I know it is a little harsh, but when you pull back from the individual you begin to see the consequences such as:

  • Harmful speech that undermines our confidence in the truth, ourselves, each other and public institutions,
  • Threats of automation through Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and other technologies,
  • Ride sharing companies increasing congestion, pollution etc. as people leave mass transit and the number of cars in crowded cities increases,
  • Room sharing services that have led to greater displacement in neighborhoods, reduced affordable housing and property concentration among other consequences,
  • Exploitation of people’s privacy and data that debases individuals and turns us all into walking wallets,
  • ect.

While the digital world can be amazing for us individually, it is creating a society with consequences both intended and unintended.  We need a framework and way of thinking for this new phase – the digital society phase.  Those ways of thinking start with a new definition and description, hence this post.

Bottom Line

This post introduces a new discussion track focusing on the idea of Digital Society, others in this series are expected to include:

  • The rules of #digitalsociety are failing
  • We need new rules that are fit for our digital future
  • The structure of #digitalsociety and why it matters

Additional Resources

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Category: digital-society  digitalization  

Mark McDonald
VP Analyst
12 years at Gartner
33 years IT Industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a Vice President and Fellow Emeritus in Gartner for General Managers Program. Read Full Bio

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