World economics: The relative importance of Digital


In his world economics article Dave Deruytter wonders if digital is as important as futurists claim it will be?

Futurists like to dwell about the far future of things and how important Digital will be by then. Robots, IOT, Big data, AI, and their amazing potential, are thrown at us in big volumes. The further in the future they make their predictions, the shakier the foundations of their often-linear extrapolations in a static world, and the slimmer the chances are of them becoming true one day. Predictions more than five years in the future are not to be taken too seriously. The famous ‘Club of Rome’ think tank has been wrong many times with their very long-term predictions. For example, they said that petroleum reserves would have been depleted by 1990. But petroleum is still around today, in reasonable abundance. The problem with predictions in the far future is that nothing in life evolves in a linear manner and that the benchmark for environmental changes rapidly. Still, long-term predictions are correct now and then. Yes, one in a million times, and that one time we are made to remember by the futurists. The 999,999 failures are conveniently buried for us. Yes, Leonardo Da Vinci was far ahead of his time, but what about the millions of his contemporaries?

Even if many predictions about Digital should come out one day, will it be Digital for all? Will Digital be cheap enough compared to other options? Will it be simple enough for people to use it? If not, half of the population will not be able to buy it; and half of the population will not be able to use it to its full potential. How important is Digital in the economy today and what is its potential? Let’s start with one of the most important industries around: construction. In calculation and design, management and aftercare, yes Digital makes a great contribution, but what about Digital concrete, buildings or bridges? Where is my Digital home? Another key industry is food. Same here, in the pre- and the post-phase there is much room for Digital enhancement. But where is the Digital spaghetti or champagne? Car manufacturing, and machinery manufacturing in general, do not escape this reasoning either. Yes, robots dominate production and service; and CAD/CAM is key in development. But where is my Digital car, machine or robot? Much of industry is still quite manual or physical, although robots are all around to help. It is not easy to find a good plumber or cook these days, but a robot fixing your plumbing or running the kitchen of your favourite restaurant is not something that can economically compete with the human alternative anytime soon, if ever. Even in the service industry Digital is not all.

People want personalised service. Some services, though possible online, are far too complex, not easily simplified and not personal enough. Cyber security is a big concern with Digital, and cybercrime is on the rise. Keeping thieves out of your house is reasonably easy with locks and alarm systems, or just by being at home. Less so with cyber thieves who are hiding most often unseen in the bits and bytes on your computer, smartphone or Wi-Fi router. Thieves thrive in the masses where they cannot easily be seen. ‘Internet everywhere, Internet of Things’, sounds like music to their ears. And be sure, with ever rising IT processing speed, all passwords can be found in jiff time. When you hear a voice, it is already not easy to imagine the person behind it, even worse so with bits and bytes. “This is your bank, please give us your password to update it.” Yes, sure… No, of course it is not your bank, it is a thief trying to steal your money. Chatbot ‘Sophie’ with her good looks and soft voice may be run by a clever old male crook, trying to steal your data or money. It is time for the thinking about Digital and its future to mature.