So what are Digital Technologies anyway?
A technology is anything that harnesses some kind pf phenomena to solve a problem or do something for humans. A water pump ensures we can move water where we want it, such as in irrigation systems. As humans progressed, we’ve evolved our technologies alongside our own development. Today, we often hear the term digital technology, or digital transformation yet many aren’t entirely sure what digital technologies are and why they’re different.
Here I try to set out what digital technologies are in a quick blog post that could be a treatise, or a nice cure for insomnia. I’ll keep it brief.
In its simplest form, a digital technology is one that can turn anything into zeroes and ones, thus harnessing information, which can almost always be reduced to zeroes and ones.
You can write something on a piece of paper, scan it with your smartphone or a scanner and upload it to social media, your device or share it with others. You have converted that analog element into something digital. The technology that enabled you to do that, your smartphone or scanner, is a digital technology. So are the myriad technologies behind that seemingly simply action of uploading somewhere on the internet and sharing across social media.
Another example is CRISPR technology. From a real-world blood or tissue sample from a body, a CRISPR device can turn genetic code into zeroes and ones. In turn, those zeroes and ones can integrate with a device that produces chemicals that can be used to inject into bodies for cures and treatments, taking those zeroes and ones and turning them back into analog.
Another interesting example is LIDAR. Or Light emitting radar. They feature prominently on self-driving cars. Google and Apple uses them when they drive about mapping our world. They create “voxels”, like pixels but volumetric. They form cubes, like a sugar cube, and turn our analog world into a digital world so we can see maps on our devices in 3D. We can even virtually map our bodies so that prosthetic devices can be made for those who lose a limb or need facial reconstruction using 3D printing.
While “digital” isn’t a technology in and of itself, but rather a classification, like a taxonomy, of various technologies that convert certain elements in the analog world into zeroes and ones or create something in zeroes and ones and convert it to zeroes and ones. Most of these technologies are Information Technologies (IT) as they process, organize and move information.
When we hear the well overused and now somewhat meaningless term “digital transformation” for business, government and other organisations, all it really means is the effort to simplify processes within a system. All organisations are a system. In the medical world, this means taking as much patient information as possible and putting it into information management technologies and tools. For a manufacturer, it may mean figuring out how to automate as much of the manufacturing of a product as possible.
What’s interesting, certainly as a digital anthropologist, is how humans have come to view digital technologies. In Netnographic Research I’ve done, I’ve found that people tend to perceive that digital tools solve problems. The findings would suggest that this is in part due to the use of voice agents (Siri, Alexa, Cortana etc.) through home speakers and smartphones. And because of information processing tools like Excel and how AI makes suggestions when we type in Word or Google Docs. Yet all digital technologies do is process, organize and move information. Humans make the decisions in the end. It may also be in part how marketers in technology companies position their products. If you’ve seen ads for apps like Monday, Slack, ClickUp etc., they suggest that miraculous things will happen and all your organizing problems will go away. They won’t. They will help you better organize and manage information, but that largely depends on how humans use the technology. And humans do weird things with technology.
Digital technologies are become all-pervasive in modern societies because of the internet and mobile devices where data can be accessed almost anywhere at anytime. As technologies like Augmented and Virtual Reality become increasingly accessible and easier to use and we embed ever more sensors into everything from collars for our pets to toilets and appliances that are connected to the internet (Internet-of-Things) digital tools will become ever more part of the warp and woof of our lives.
The phase we are in right now with digital is early, even though it may seem like we’re further along. We may carry around a computer and the whole internet in our pockets but we’re only just getting into wearables with smartwatches and clothing with sensors. The next stage is embedding technologies into our bodies, such as work on BCI’s or Brain Computer Interfaces. Will we want to do that? Perhaps. That may well be a generational type of choice as younger generations tend to adopt technologies differently than older ones. But that’s a whole other issue.
One thing we can say, is that if we can turn something into zeroes and ones, we will.