Digital technology is a topic that has been ubiquitous for the past few years and it has certainly not failed to make headlines as its impact, despite still not fully known, will transform our world.
In order to better understand why it has become so central and how it is probably behind the most major transformations ahead of us, but also to better understand the great simplicity of the concept. Here is our contribution to all the attempts at defining the term “Digital” and to putting its uses into perspective.
Virtualisation of the physical world
At a first level, digital technology is quite simply the transformation of our physical world into a digital world, i.e. composed of basic data (0 and 1 in binary code) in a computer file (for example: the conversion of an actual image into a data file in .jpg format). This definition also applies to what we can call our mental world, i.e. our thoughts or our ideas which depend on a description of the physical world. This first vision of digital technology can be called virtualisation.
This virtualisation is already a very important development in our natural physical world. In fact, it makes it possible to classify and store numerous representations of the elements surrounding us and to share them with other people without any real limits in terms of time or geography. A digital file can be made available remotely or copied and sent to a third party. It can also be found using search engines. These uses, from which we benefit today without even realizing it, required long working hours and numerous supporting materials only a few decades ago.
Recent advances in technology now allow us to go even further, as 3D printers make it possible to regenerate a physical object from a data file. This is ultimately a type of remote transmission. Moreover, the advances in this manufacturing technology are about to drastically change part of our current design, production, storage and supply chains. Let us imagine, for example, the impact on an After-Sales and maintenance service activity of printing spare parts in 3D: more production in advance, more stock, longer lead times, more transport, more disruption and more obsolescence, etc.).
The digital loop has come full circle: the virtualised physical world can be rebuilt on request, whenever and wherever we want!
In-depth and extensive knowledge
The second level of digital understanding makes it possible to go even further. In fact, the digital conversion of the elements making up our physical world also extends our natural perceptions (our five biological senses) through additional data that we are going to perceive. These additional data can be provided or emitted by the physical object itself or simply added to its digital representation. But in all cases, these data increase our knowledge and help us in our daily life to make decisions or to plan an action suited to this better-understood situation (e.g.: know the availability, compatibility or traceability of goods at the time of purchase). This additional information can also provide a level of accuracy or detail that cannot be perceived directly but is very useful in our decisions and actions (e.g.: the exact reference of a colour, the weight or size of an object, the dynamic geolocation of a parcel, the speed of a vehicle). All of this information can also be combined together and therefore create new knowledge (e.g.: the geolocation of a vehicle, its destination and its speed can give an indication of its expected time of arrival).
This information and that resulting from combined information represents a potential volume and an almost infinite level of knowledge accuracy, the use of which makes it possible to consider an entirely different view of our world.
Particularly as the digital state and the remote accessibility of this information makes it possible to ensure it is updated and therefore to improve its accuracy and adaptation to the context (e.g.: dynamic pricing taking into account current promotions or a best-before date).
The richness of data linkage
And that’s not the end of it: the third level to take into consideration is the interlinking of data which will provide even more richness. Digital technology will actually make it possible to formalise the possible links between elements and to consider an element in its context. Information is no longer solely related to the element; it is no longer set in a finite perimeter but it may have a meaning or a value relating to its environment, its position in relation to other elements or the links uniting them (e.g.: the links between two people or between one person and an organisation; All of the contractual, legal or financial elements of goods or services; The acknowledgement of the weather, the volume of traffic, the condition of the road during autonomous vehicle driving).
The value and power of this relational view lies in a holistic view of things. In particular, in the possibility of managing these links as an information which is itself dynamic and evolving over time, and therefore up-to-date.
This information level combined with the previous information level makes it possible, once again, to detect an exponential volume of information, the limit of which is only defined by our imaginative creativity to invent the uses we will have for it.
An inescapable transformation which must be used effectively
Each of these levels (virtualisation, extension of knowledge and the linking of elements between themselves and their environment), when applied to all sectors of activity, will have a significant impact on the transformation of professions and economic balance. Numerous professions will disappear but they will be replaced by new types of activity. A lot of business models will be transformed or even completely challenged. The very foundations of our society and our economy risk being weakened (capitalism, ownership, intermediation, work, social benefits and even political systems or money).
Even though these transformations and these challenges will take time and will be gradually introduced for some, others may come sooner than we think and one thing is certain; they are all inescapable. All of the changes that occurred in the past have finally been imposed and mostly for our own good.
The question to ask oneself is not therefore “Is this really going to change and when?” but “How can we benefit from these new possibilities?” and, in particular, how can we take advantage of them to make progress on two major topics, namely the survival of the planet and the balance of quality of life for everyone. Let’s seize the opportunity!