Mention the word “digital” and most people think computers. Add to it “divide” and they begin to think “culture”. The first one is form, the second arises out of function. Digital culture however is neither function nor form though it undoubtedly arises out of the successful synthesis of both. Digital culture is usage and usage suggests an intuitive interface that makes the function invisible and the form barely noticed.
Think Google search in the 21sy century. It exists in predictive search (Google Now) as well as personalized, contextual search (Google). It powers YouTube and Google+ and Gmail. It has grown from an activity that required time and patience to use and the knowledge of a “search language” made up of keywords and Boolean operators that had to be learnt in order to make search work properly, to an activity that simply happens.
The moment a technology becomes invisible it is a step away from becoming ubiquitous and then the disruption is not long coming. Ubiquitous technologies are catalytic. They tend to surface other things, like intent and identity and authority and expertise (in the case of search). They tend to be governed by actions rather than intricate skill or special knowledge. And actions surface human needs and wants and are governed, ultimately, by human economic behavior which then leads to things being done marginally different.
It’s a chain reaction with cumulative power. The more things are done marginally different the bigger the margin of difference grows and then change accelerates. Think of the cameras in our cell phones. When Samsung and then Sharp first bundled a camera in a cell phone in June and November of the year 2000, respectively, it was just an excuse to create sufficient differentiation in a product and drive its ticket price up.
Cameras needed so many steps to use that there used to be cell phone reviews that talked about the number of steps you had to take through the menu before you could find the camera function and then take a picture, and that’s before we start talking about the jumping through hoops required in order to download that picture to a computer or send it electronically, a thing that was not always possible.
Today we have smartphones that you flick out of your pocket and the camera app is activated and a 16 Megapixel+ resolution kicks in. Your pictures are shared automatically in the cloud, stored in memory cards and accessible across any device, anywhere, any time. As a result the world has become more transparent. We know what clouds look like across the globe https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/103684210904684656351, share sunsets and sunrises and look at snow-covered drives across countries. Picture taking and picture sharing have become a relationship-building activity that creates our personal identity, helps define what is important to us and has become a bonafide way to drive brand values. We even have picture-driven platforms like Pinterest and Instagram where the photo-sharing activity is both form and function. We now take pictures without thinking about it. What drives our activity is how we feel.
Devices Are Becoming More Integrated
The reason all of this is important is because our phones have become so easy to use that we hardly notice their function. We have gone from the year 2000 common cry of “I just want a cell phone to make calls” to carrying mini computers loaded with apps that allow us to scan documents, read books, watch videos, listen to music, make films, take pictures, and play games.
What makes an activity spread is directly related to two things: How practical is it and what barriers are there when it’s used? Search has always been practical. This is why we used to be willing to wade through dozens of links looking for the right page and then be prepared to repeat the search if not satisfied.
Phones have become easier to use because of haptic technology that allows us to communicate with our devices through our sensory perceptions. We don’t think about it very much but really it’s the reverse of what we did up to the year 2010 when we had to learn to use a device or a technology, essentially learning its language. Now devices learn ours.
Apple’s new “force touch” and “taptic engine” takes haptic technologies a quantum leap further adding a nuanced approach to how we physically interact with our tech. Essentially this makes digital devices an extension of our sensory field. At that point the interaction becomes intuitive, the device becomes invisible.
When search can be a voice in the Bluetooth headset in my ear, my navigation of a laptops functions or a smartphone’s capabilities a question of how lightly or hard I press a surface, the device becomes immaterial. All I am concerned about is what I am doing.
We used to think of data as a stream of information that detailed an action. It now becomes a stream of information that surfaces a behavior.
From a marketing point of view the change is critical. It goes from “things” governed by Product, Place, Price and Promotion (Jerome McCarthy’s 20th century catechism) to needs, where we need to Experience, [see something] Everywhere, Exchange [value] and become Evangelists of it (the 4Es Brian Fetherstonhaugh wrote about).
From an end-user point of view “digital culture” and “digital” disappear. There now exists just culture. The things we do every day without paying a lot of attention to the act, focusing on the action.
This creates fresh layers of activity that begin to slowly change things. When we are always connected, for instance, our decision-making process changes. Information begins to command a larger slice of our lives. Relationships suddenly matter because they are guided by the emotional side of us, rather than the functional. Relationships are fluid, require hard work, reinforcement and cultivation.
This transforms us from consumers to people. It changes the companies that seek our attention from brands offering a product to entities that stand for a set of values. It alters the relationships we form with people across the globe and it affects our understanding of the world. The digital barrier separating the world of 1s and 0s from what we thought of as being real, is fading. That is going to change a great many more things still.