Why we need to stop saying ‘digital’, and why we don’t

The Usborne Book of the Future (1979) prophesied the home of 1989 would be media-rich and technology-enabled, with its inhabitants enjoying both new things and new ways to do things.
The Usborne Book of the Future (1979) prophesied the home of 1989 would be media-rich and technology-enabled, with its inhabitants enjoying both new things and new ways to do things.

A few years ago, I met the CTO of a manufacturing firm. His company had large production lines in Manchester where they made real things out of raw materials. They were appointing the company where I worked and, as I had the word ‘digital’ in my title, the CTO visited to suss me out. We greeted each other and exchanged business cards.

“Which one?”, he asked.

“Which one what?”, I smiled. I couldn’t think of anyone there with my name.

“Which digital?”, he replied.

This has floated in the shallows of my memory ever since. A CTO in manufacturing will meet a fair few ‘digital’ folks. There’ll be a digital someone-or-other thinking about the production lines: monitoring; twinning; maintaining and so forth. There’ll be someone else in supply-chain: connecting; streamlining; reporting. There would be an equivalent in HR, finance, logistics, design and so on. I just happened to be the ones thinking about the now-digitalised behaviours of customers, product users, rather than the operation of the company itself. How they choose, how they buy, how they feel.

Given that every sector is digitising, it can start to feel like the d-word is now irrelevant. In an era where digital pervades all sorts of settings, just has the electrical supply has, there’s an argument for no longer maintaining a false divide. Indeed, it’s been argued for some time that we’d all be best off abandoning the use of the word ‘digital’ altogether.

These arguments are solid and well-made. Within many most industry verticals, use of the term ‘digital’, to describe capabilities or roles, is indeed largely outdated. But the view that ‘digital’ is no longer needed altogether is the view from inside one of those verticals.

In short, I agree, ’tis a silly word. But there are catches.

First, there are still so many edge-cases where it’s useful to delineate between non-digital and digital behaviours—crucially, not old-world versus new, but how the two coexist. Because they do.

There’s another catch when talking about the digital era in isolation from those that went before, as the many advantages of digitalisation aren’t without drawbacks. Transforming to a digital-first approach introduces new challenges that didn’t previously exist. It can also cause existing challenges to be inherited, perhaps compounded. If implementing ‘digital’ offered a direct replacement for what went before, it could pass without comment. But it doesn’t.

So, tearing down divisions between physical and digital universes makes good sense in commercial settings. But abandoning ‘digital’ as a distinction for how people sometimes behave, and the era in which they find themselves, would overlook many edge-cases worthy of distinction and examination.

In the coming days and weeks, I want to share examples of where the delineation between digital-era and previously-observable behaviours is a helpful means of understanding what goes on, and how to improve things for people. Internet-era ways of behaving.

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