Are we in the post-digital era? No way!

I look forward to being a speaker at this year’s NEXT conference in Berlin. I am invited to an on-stage debate with Patrick Meisberger, Managing Director of T-Venture (Deutsche Telekom’s VC segment), about the question “What does post-digital business really mean?”

To be honest: before thinking about post-digital business I had to come to grips with the term post-digital as such. What constitutes post-digitalism? And are we in a post-digital era then?

What defines post-digitalism?

Post-digitalism is supposed to mean that digital is so deeply woven into the fabrics of our everyday interactions that we are past the point of noticing the difference between digital and non-digital – and that we have fully included digital to our day-to-day life.

So what were the developments leading to this deep integration of digital into our realities? I argue we went through three major developments that partially took place in parallel: connecting, digitizing, paradigm-adaption.

Connecting everywhere and anytime.

In the late ’90s we have moved from an offline society to a society that went online from time to time. There was a clear state of mind associated to being online. You entered this other universe when going online. You had an online-self and an offline-self. Your online friends were not your offline friends. At any point in time you could easily answer the question, if you’re currently online or offline. In recent years we have transitioned to a society that no longer knows the difference between being online and being offline. Access to the web is so ubiquitous that the borders between the online and the offline universe have blurred. There are online features and offline features to your life. And both are so deeply intertwined that online-self and the offline-self converged.

What I just described is solely a result of easier access to the web, primarily driven by smart phones and tablets in connection with 3G. One may assume that it won’t get much easier to connect. It will get cheaper and faster. But essentially everyone is now connected all the time.

I’d be happy to proclaim the post-connect era. Everyone is connected all the time and everywhere.

Digitizing the real world.

The vast majority of enduring and successful mass-market concepts in the internet age thus far involved digitizing the real world. Email: write letters. Skype: Have phone conversations. Amazon: go shopping. iTunes: Buy music. read newspapers. Kindle: read books. eBay: post classifieds. Hulu: watch TV. These are all things that you did before the internet came along. They just got easier, cheaper, more convenient, more accessible and maybe more social. But in their essence they are just translations of old concepts to a new channel.

I believe that pretty much all of the interactions and products we knew in the pre-web world that are suitable for digitization have been digitized by now. And the digitized concepts often fully displaced the original concepts.

I’d be happy to proclaim the post-digitization era. Everything that can be digitized is digitized.

Shifting paradigms.

While I claim that most of the success-stories on the web so far are just old concepts on a new infrastructure and therefore mean no real cultural shift, we are now beginning to see that people develop fundamentally new values and behaviors in an online world. Let me give you an example of what I mean: access vs. ownership.

Think about it – people always wanted to own the music of their favorite bands. In the LP and CD ages people bought the physical objects and put them to their collections. In the napster era people often downloaded gazillions of songs just to own them, to have them on their hard drive. People downloaded songs from napster knowing that they would probably never listen to them and at the same time knowing that those same songs would still be available for download should they ever want to listen to them. Even iTunes is inherently based on owning. You buy the irrevocable right to listen to that song. Music consumption was all about owning – partially just for the sake of it.

Now comes spotify. They don’t sell music but access to music. You have access to basically all the music in the world. While you have a contract with them you may listen. When you cancel the contract all “your” music is gone.

Or consider DriveNow – short term on-demand cars available in bigger German cities. Wherever you are in Berlin, you just flip out your iPhone, search for a car near you, book it with a single click and you are ready to go. And when you don’t need that car anymore you just park it anywhere in the city and log-off. I have friends who sold the car they owned because they now have access to a car all the time.

You may argue that these are just old concepts on new channels as well. People listened to music and drove cars before. You are right. But the underlying economic mechanics have changed dramatically and express a complete shift in expressed utility. Cars are the classic example of irrational buying behavior: the utility you associate with a car is often more a function of your desire to express style and status than a function of its ability to get you from A to B. We have a long tradition in that. DriveNow is putting that long-learnt behavior on its head: The car is reduced to its core function and all non-core features that make ownership so desirable are obsolete.

The paradigm shift from ownership to access is enabled through digital technologies. But it is not only happening because it is technically possible but because people are incorporating the possibilities that come with the omnipresence of digital technologies to their reasoning and their values systems.

The notable thing about spotify is not the availability of music online but the willingness of people to give up ownership in something they are emotional involved with.

We are not in the post-digital era.

As I’ve stated we may be in the post-connect era. We may be in the post-digitization era. We created all the technical infrastructure and moved all suitable concepts to that infrastructure. But we are going to see more and more paradigm-shifts like the one described above. And each and every of these paradigm shifts will change the game big time. I am absolutely certain that we have no clue today, what tomorrw’s paradigm-shifts may look like. To me my preference for ownership in music in the past only became clear to me when I started to consider giving it up. And I am absolutely certain that I will go through that experience in many other aspects of my day-to-day life.

I refuse to call out the post digital-era. The truly exciting times are still ahead of us.