The digital age: a conceptual classification

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The term digital age is on everyone’s lips. We encounter it everywhere. There are various occupation groups that concern oneself with the term. For example, scientists, teachers and students from disciplines such as computer science, history of technology and communication studies, as well as software developers, media experts, IT consultants or digital economy experts. They have a professional understanding of the term, unlike most lay people.

I would therefore like to bring a little more clarity to this topic with my contribution today. We speak of an age and thus describe a longer historical period that is characterized by particular features. Sometimes also similar terms, like epoch or era, are used for it. Basically, the digital age is characterized by several key features that can be explained by an interplay of digitization, connectivity, mobility and miniaturization.

Four key characteristics of the digital age

Digitization is the conversion of information into the electronic language of bits and bytes. Once the data is available digitally, it can be further processed by computer systems and form the basis for new knowledge through factual linking, interpretation and evaluation. This process, also known as “digital value creation,” is a basic technology of the digital age.

In addition, the exchange of digital data is also constantly generating new knowledge with enormous opportunities for value creation. Of course, for connectivity and digital communication to take place at all, basic network technology first had to be invented and developed. This includes in particular the use of various data transmission technologies via wired networks, and later increasingly also via mobile networks. We have known this network as the Internet since the mid-1990s at the latest. The Internet is, of course, THE most important communication medium of the digital age. It is global in scope, backed up by standardized procedures, and ideally does not exclude any political, social, or economic interest groups.

Size does matter

Another important point is the mobility that comes with digital communication. The possibility of mobile data use decouples the creation and use of digital information spatially. You can communicate from almost anywhere in the digital age. In turn, this mobility was only made possible by the development of miniaturization of computer systems, i.e. the reduction in size of hardware components. In addition, other forms of input and intuitive user interfaces had to be developed, which then led to the widespread use of mobile offerings, particularly in the form of the smartphone.

When we speak of the digital age, it is also because every individual and all other parts of society have now become embedded in a data-driven infrastructure. Private user data that we leave behind on the web became the basis for new markets and business models. More social media platforms, messenger services and digital media channels are constantly emerging. User-generated content (such as memes) forms a flood of images and other information that many can hardly escape. Companies can only survive in this landscape if they professionalize their media accordingly. For example, by using AI-based DAM* systems.

* DAM stands for digital asset management.

Examples and statistics

For a better understanding, we will take a look at some statistical data. Whereas smartphones, tablets or on-board computers were still rare and expensive in the early 10s, today they are standard devices that are an integral part of everyday life. At the same time, the World Wide Web is so ubiquitous that by 2020, 100 percent of 14- to 49-year-olds in Germany would be Internet users. Even among 60- to 69-year-olds, the proportion of users was 93 percent. Only among people over the age of 70 is the proportion of users just under 80 percent. The fact that the proportion of smartphone users among 12- to 13-year-olds is already around 95 percent is also hardly surprising. This implicates the obligation to prepare children for the digital world both on their own responsibility and at school.

Four stages of development

Basically, the age of global digitization can be divided into four evolutionary stages.

  • The first stage lasted from around 1990 to 2000 and initially involved the networking of stationary computers (web servers and PCs), via which the commercial Internet gradually developed.
  • During the second evolutionary stage from about 2000 to about 2015, the general acceptance of the Internet increased significantly, mobile devices were introduced into daily use, and collaborative applications were popularized (Web 2.0).
  • The third stage of evolution now taking place, which experts say could last until around 2030, involves the general maturity of systems, the Internet of Things and blockchain applications.
  • Artificial intelligence in the form of self-learning algorithms could then take us to the final stage. This would represent a perfect, i.e. all-encompassing, fusion of the real and digital worlds. Whether such a state will already occur in the first half of this century? An answer to this would be highly speculative.

No escape from the consequences

The achievements of the digital age (existing and coming ones) affect everything we do to such a significant degree that no one can escape the consequences. The infrastructure for this was already developed in parts during the first evolutionary stage, but was not immediately available in a standardized and globally reliable form. Today, we have reached the point where the globalized world and its economic structures are fully subject to digitalization. If you want to profit from these processes as a company, you should never forget the principle “the fast eat the slow”. Anyone who hesitates too long will disappear from the market in no time. Just think of Nokia. Still the market leader in cell phones in 2011, it took only three years before it withdrew completely from the cell phone sector. Smartphones were simply introduced too late.

Symbolic image of digital transformation - Samsung Galaxy S10 versus Nokia 3310

Samsung Galaxy S10 vs. Nokia 3310 – about 20 years lie between them.

Opportunities and burdens of the digital age

Another fundamental characteristic (and burden) of the digital age is constant availability. Time and space have thus become secondary. You can always trade, communicate and work, no matter where you are: in the office, in the home office, on the road, on vacation or even “full remote”. This means enormous flexibility for everyday working life, but can also lead to loneliness, sleep disturbances and other stresses on the mind and body.

So that is what they are, the endless possibilities of digitization and networking, of information exchange and global collaboration. We know well that each of these achievements can have positive and negative consequences for individuals. People get rich on the Internet, continue their education, exchange ideas, meet like-minded people and sometimes even find true love. At the same time, many people are monitored, spied on, made addicted, deceived, lied to, manipulated or bullied.

So the same things happen there as in the real world, although this separation is an artificial one. Of course, from a physical point of view, the Internet has always been part of the real world. Regardless of this, computer freaks prefer to say “going afk” (away from keyboard) anyway, precisely because the digital world is also felt to be part of or even the center of their “real life”.

The further development

Major developments are already on the horizon in the near future. Satellite networks such as Starlink will make mobile broadband connections possible even in the most remote regions of the world. Cab rides in autonomous vehicles are likely to become commonplace. Furthermore, the ongoing miniaturization of infrastructure and hardware will give a boost to the Internet of things and robotics, among other things. And further basic innovations can be expected in the fields of healthcare and biotechnology, according to business experts and futurologists. This much is certain, all areas of our lives, whether social or economic, will be affected.

An engine for innovation

But let’s not reach too far ahead and go back to the status quo. It is already the case that the complex infrastructure of the Internet constantly requires new innovations, which are then also used within other networks. The virtual boundaries between Internet and intranet, darknet and clearnet must therefore be redrawn and secured again and again.

The network as a whole grows, at least metaphorically, like a living organism. Competitive pressure and innovation are constantly creating new alliances and symbiotic relationships. In particular, product developers are always on the lookout for the best distribution platform. Business customers and suppliers become network partners, corporations connect with research institutions, and criminal alliances (for example of drug traffickers and hackers) also come about naturally. All of them pursue quite similar goals. Here are just the most important ones.

    • finding favorable distribution channels
    • developing and optimizing new products
    • reducing production costs
    • maximizing profits

The means to achieve these goals are often reprehensible, but the goals themselves are not. This is how the engine of a functioning economy is driven. Innovations must be worthwhile, also in monetary terms. After all, especially in the field of information technology, they are decisive for further technological development. They define the speed of further penetration of the real and digital worlds. A process that can no longer be stopped.

Sources (in German)

Encyclopedia of Information Systems (University of Potsdam); article: Internet


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