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The Digital Revolution is over
From 2018, this piece looks at what hasn't really changed... and I'd argue that in 2022 it's still the same.
In the world of business and Marketing, we constantly hear about digital revolution. The world has changed. Everything that came before doesn’t apply anymore and we are going through a transition we have no control over. Here are some human reasons why this is wrong.
The revolution happened, the ship has sailed. Not that much has changed since. As happens after revolution.
The digital revolution was over ten years ago.
The turning point was the rapid adoption of technology, which I believe was around 2008. That was when we started to see the rise of social media and smartphones. We now live in a world where the two are now indistinguishable. Even the poorest parts of the world have smartphones. It’s part of everyday human life and the point is, digital has blended with everything and if you open your eyes. Nothing has actually changed, it’s greyed.
“It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”
— Bill Bernbach.
Technology has changed but we haven’t. To suggest that technology has changed people is factually incorrect and quite literally impossible. Give it a few million years folks.
Digital is involved, therefore it’s the answer. Wrong.
Digital technology is blamed and given as a reason for cause because of a lack of knowledge around basic biology. A particular case study I saw recently stated that high street spending in the United Kingdom is the lowest in Europe.
According to Mastercard this is not onnerous, it is simply changing customer behaviour based on technological advances.
“The most successful stores are always gearing themselves around the overall shopping experience, these shops are becoming places to interact and personalise products rather than simply a place to buy things”
This quote is simply wrong, there is nothing to suggest the assumptions made here are true and again, it harks on about changing customer habits based on fluffy ideas of how humans think.
Shops are and always have been simply a place to buy things.
The reason for this change in consumer habits is not habitual, it’s not behavioural at all. It’s about a sad reality.
A reality built on the back of economic stagnation for most working people in the United Kingdom. Fuel bills go up, the pound loses value, wages in the worst decline since the Napoleonic era. Which means less money in your pocket, which means less to spend, which means you go online because that is where you find cheap deals. You don’t find cheap deals on the High Street.
It’s easy to attribute this change to technology, in fact it’s too easy and that’s the problem. Nothing is ever that easy.
It’s hard for people to admit the harsh, cold and unkind reality.
Brexit and it’s not so close result.
We see the same argument around Brexit, people are beginning to lay the blame at the door of Facebook as though they were capable of swinging the election because of quantifiable, digital means. Even if that may have happened, even if, the reasons for the vote are far more complicated and tragic.
(It’s 2022, and my feelings are the same here. The influence of Cambridge Analytica for example is massively overstated. And the ‘science’ behind their approach has been broadly disproven since the 60s. Just another example of something technology based that’s taken at face value to be effective.)
The reason Brexit happened is because the fear and anger after decades of economic pain came home to roost. To really understand, you have to look at this map, not the statistics of the “close” vote.
The geographical and cultural difference is huge.
To suggest that numbers matter most when balancing the feelings of people shows incredible cosmopolitan arrogance and suggests to those outside of urban areas that they are small and as such, don’t matter.
Which is partly why the vote ended up the way it did.
It wasn’t about the numbers, it’s about everywhere else apart from London. Everywhere else was left behind and has been for decades. Regions that are poor have often been used to exploit labour, foreign and domestic.
To say that it is technology that caused Brexit is naive in the extreme. But people don’t like to understand the details, they don’t want to look deep into something to find the very complicated, scary, sad and murky grey answers. People want simple straight answers to complex situations.
(I voted to remain, and I’m dissapointed that we left and how it’s unfolded, especially looking at it in 2022. But understanding the reasoning, logical or otherwise is important.)
Let’s look at marketing.
Marketing has morphed into a bizarre ‘techno-porn’ (to quote Mark Ritson) fantasy where Marketers who are desperate to sound modern go on and on about technology. It’s a means of absolving one’s responsibility from doing the hard work.
(It’s 2022… nothing has changed here, NFTs anyone?)
The conversations around real people, they have slowly died down and been replaced with company centric, tech obsessed tactical noise. Proclaimed by people who never talk to customers, never go to where the customer is. Have never lived or experienced the life of the customers they want.
That’s why we hear about millennials (Gen Z, again - it never changes) all the time. Generalisations galore.
The results of this misdirection and obsession with technology over real smarts resulted in this sad mess.
Declining effectiveness has come about because of various misinformed silver bullet trends. Big data, hyper-targeting, digital first, personalisation based on imprecise scraped data and the technology that enabled it have decimated the effectiveness of proper marketing.
Again, I would argue this isn’t to do with technology. It’s because people made poor decisions as a result of post recession blues, brutal budget cuts meant that marketers had to try to find new ways to do things with smaller budgets. Not out of necessity but fear of facing the chop.
(Thankfully, this may have changed, as argued by Grace Kite.)
In every quantifiable way… we are winning. Except we’re not.
The granularity of data and it’s addictive quality leads marketing down a false path of hope. And this doesn’t just apply to marketing.
An entire war and millions died because of this same mistake, forty years before digital even stirred. It’s called the McNamara Fallacy, after the US Secretary of Defense during most of the Vietnam War.
“The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.”
— Daniel Yankelovich “Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands on business.” (1972)
The belief went that if every aspect of the war was quantified and measured that it would be winnable. The feelings of the Vietnamese couldn’t be quantified and that is why they lost. The metrics became the goals.
The same thing has happened with digital.
Technology and digital is not an answer. It is an enabler for greater human feats of progress. That’s digital transformation. But the human part has to come first. Always.
It’s more complicated and blurred but that’s reality, it’s not easy, it’s not technology. That revolution happened years ago. It’s human.