The nature of digital technology

Digital technology is not about circuits and wires, it is about data and connectivity. In the Nature of Technology, W. Brain Arthur explains:

“Digitization allows functionalities to be combined even if they come from different domains, because once they enter the digital domain they become objects of the same type – data strings.”

Data also has another property. It is intangible. Where physical materials are limited by scarcity, data thrives in abundance, able to replicate freely without diminishing the original.

In fact, systems of digital technology look a lot more like living systems than the material bits they are made of. Comprised of people, things, interfaces and data, they are connected, interdependent, and evolving at an accelerating rate. For example, when AOL was first introduced it took 9 years to reach a million users. For Facebook it was 9 months. And now, a simple social drawing game called DrawSomething crossed that milestone in a mere 9 days.

At the same time, digital technology is racing towards ubiquity. From nanotech to GPS. From Angry Birds to deciphering the human genome. Digital technology is a part of it all. Individually, 1 billion of us are connected with broadband while a whopping 5.6 billion are connected by SMS. And to accommodate the growth of the Internet of Things we’re working on IPV6 which would effectively allow every grain of sand on the planet to have a unique address on the Internet, 340 billion times over. Everything will be connected.

But that’s not all. Digital technology is also becoming more personal. As it evolves to serve more and more of our everyday needs it winds its way ever deeper into our lives. And because our participation is interactive, we ourselves, become a part of the system. We are no longer just passive consumers, as Time Magazine observed in 2006 when they named ‘You’ it’s Person of the Year. Since then the degree of ‘personalization’ of our digital technology has only accelerated.

Tim Berners-Lee recently said it best: “The web is not tech. It’s humanity linked by tech.” Built on top of data and connectivity, digital technology is becoming the foundation of our civilization, a foundation whose nature brings an accelerating capacity to evolve and adapt the systems of our future.

Further Reading:

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