By Thornton May
Futurist, Senior Advisor with GP, Executive Director & Dean - IT Leadership Academy
We are one year short of the twenty year anniversary of Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital. In that work the founder of MIT’s Media Lab prophesized a transition from a world of atoms to one of bits. His leitmotif was the belief that everything that can be digitized will be digitized.
Our world is digitizing. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt believes our children have already “become digital” inhabiting one of two states: they are either asleep or online. There is no Non-digital. The Gibsonian neologism “cyberspace” has obsolesced. All space is digital.
The fact that our environment has changed does not mean that we as executives or our organizations are ready for a digital world. Alan Wurtzel, son of the founder, 20 year employee, CEO & Board Member of Circuit City defines strategy as, “the art & science of harmonizing the resources, strengths, and capacities of the organization to the external environment. How “harmonized” are your resources, strengths and capacities to the realities of a totally digital world?
The first step regarding being digital is awareness. Some people come to awareness of situation change slower than others. In his very readable micro-history of the Civil War, Contested Borderland: Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia, Brian D. McKnight recounts the story of a Whitley County Kentucky Woman who wrote to her brother, “The war seems to be over.” Historians know that Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox took place April 9, 1865. This letter was written April 1, 1866.
In our age of hyper-connectedness and digitally-enabled sharing it is hard not to be at least semi-aware of the changes swirling around us. Everyone has received and read the “We are digital” e-mail. But awareness does not equate to readiness or changed behavior.
Step One: See the World as It Really Is
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus [AD 55–135] counseled students and statesmen that the best path forward involved recognizing that there were things you could change and things you could not. We can’t change the fact that we live in a digital world. We can do something about it.
Socrates [470/469 BC – 399 BC] had four major principles. Socratic Principle #2: “Wisdom begins by knowing that you don’t know” and Socratic Principle #3: “Skill is teachable and learnable are relevant to how organizations prepare themselves for the digital world.
One of the patterns emerging from the recent Pew Research Center Digital Life in 2025 report [http://goo.gl/TqAt7i] was that experts, while willing to speak on the record regarding their positive predictions, preferred anonymity when presenting less sanguine forecasts. Speaking as an anthropologist and an amateur linguist this means that there is friction associated with talking about bad news. The bad news is that we are living in a digital world and the folks running the joint are not digitally savvy. Placing a retired Silicon Valley exec or former partner at Accenture/Cognizant or venture capitalist, while they may be steps in the right direction, does not adequately prepare the enterprise for the massive transformations we are about to experience.
What is your organization doing to prepare for “being digital”?