We’re about as far into the digital revolution now as we were in the transport revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries when people used to walk in front of an automobile waving a red flag as a warning.
The rate of digital disruption varies greatly by sector, which means there is a lot of it still to come. While music, movies and the media have been dramatically transformed, manufacturing, healthcare and education lag behind. Even financial services is only recently being affected, protected as it was by post-crash regulations that hindered new entrants.
The way to assess digital progress is not by speculating about the next big thing, but by understanding why that thing will be big. There are recognisable underlying forces that drive innovation and adoption. History shows a repeatable pattern.
A predictable curve
Successful innovation follows a predictable curve - from invention to commoditisation to ubiquity. We tend to associate periods of great technological change with inventions, but that is rarely the case - a surge in adoption and innovation always comes as a result of commoditisation, not invention.
For example, the industrial revolution is associated with the steam engine. Invented by Thomas Savery in 1698, it appeared some 60 or 70 years before the industrial revolution started. The real accelerating force for industrialisation was when James Watt made Savery’s steam engine cheap enough and efficient enough for affordable mass usage - commoditising the technology. It led to an unprecedented period of innovation as people found new ways to do things thanks to that affordable technology.
Similarly, the electrical revolution didn’t start when Benjamin Franklin ran with a kite through a thunderstorm, but when the likes of Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse commoditised the production of electricity years later, leading to huge innovation in electrical devices.
Then there’s Henry Ford, whose mass production of cars sparked the automotive revolution, long after Karl Benz invented his first petrol-powered vehicle.
Commoditisation of IT
The digital revolution is powered by the commoditisation of core IT capabilities. The most transformative has been the internet - the commoditisation of networking and communications to become cheap and ubiquitous. The internet kickstarted the wave of innovation that led to the creation and growth of the web, e-commerce and social media.
Smartphones are the commoditisation of end-user computing. Cloud is now a more affordable, highly available commodity to compute power and storage. Look at big data - commoditised access to vast quantities of information. Together, these provide a platform for the unprecedented technological innovation of this century.
When people talk about the pace of change speeding up, are they right? Or does it just feel that way because there is so much innovation - as opposed to invention - going on?
According to research by the Leading Edge Forum, it takes about 30 to 50 years for a technology to move from invention to ubiquity - sometimes longer. Many of today’s next big things - 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics - are 1960s inventions that only now can be produced at a scale, quality and cost that make them generally affordable.
Our experience of the digital revolution feels like incredibly rapid change because so many areas of our lives are changing at the same time - thanks to innovation powered by commoditisation - not because technology itself is changing any faster.
Marketing experts compare user adoption of Facebook with that of radio or TV as proof of accelerated change, but those statistics are a result of comparative cheapness and mass availability, not of technological progress. If every TV was offered for free in the 1950s, its adoption would have been quicker.
The next decades
In the next decade, areas such as wearable technologies, internet of things, virtual and augmented reality, AI and driverless cars will start to become commoditised and generate huge amounts of often unpredictable changes.
Further ahead, graphene, quantum computing, genetics, bio-engineering and brain-computer interfaces will be at or approaching commoditisation and accelerated innovation in the next 30 to 50 years - well within the lifetime of today’s children.
The unanswerable question is the extent to which social disruption may affect the rate of technology-led change. The industrial revolution led to huge social and cultural upheavals, and if - as many people believe - the digital revolution will produce change even more seismic in scope, what impact will that have?
The only certainty is that social change is going to come - look at the reactions to existing influences such as the gig economy, with taxi drivers blockading cities in protest at Uber. Look at how Facebook is being demonised over its use of our personal data, or YouTube for spreading extremist videos. There is plenty of evidence to suggest a serious tech backlash in the next few years. Who will be the Tolpuddle Martyrs or the textile worker Luddites of the digital age?
Structural issues in UK
In the UK, we have some severe structural issues we have to overcome before we can claim true leadership of the digital revolution. Brexit is one, undoubtedly. But corporate under-investment in IT is an ongoing issue and a big contributor to the UK’s productivity gap - according to a 2017 report by business group the CBI, the UK’s adoption of ERP and CRM systems is lower than it was in Denmark in 2009.
The UK continues to attract far higher venture capital investment into tech than any other European country - but at £2.5bn in 2018, that was down 28% on the previous year. When our start-ups make it big, we still sell our tech crown jewels to overseas owners - look at Cambridge chip pioneer ARM, now owned by Japan’s Softbank.
And then there are our creaking copper broadband networks and poor mobile coverage, along with perhaps the single biggest difficulty facing the UK digital economy - the growing digital skills shortage, compounded by the appalling lack of diversity in IT. If we can’t find the talent, and don’t reflect the make-up of the society that uses the tech we create, somewhere else will.
The end of 20th century thinking
It’s not the technology we need to worry about. 20th century thinking in politics, business and economics is going through its last hurrah - the leaders of the old ways are grimly hanging on, rejecting the inevitability of a digital society they don’t understand and which threatens their established power structures.
Donald Trump and the leaders of Brexit may have exploited modern technologies such as social media, but their roots are tangled up in technophobia and fear of change.
The real challenges over the coming years for the technology community, for governments, businesses - for all of society - will come not from the pace of digital change, a process which is inevitable and unstoppable, but from how we prepare for the transformation it will bring to the way we all live and work together.