The theme of the last summer’s AIB World conference was Digitalization, and as a scholar lodged somewhere in the nexus of international business, information systems and futures studies, I was thrilled. Finally a chance to reflect the international business implications of technological advances! Finally a chance to draw from the multidisciplinary heritage of IB to craft insights sorely needed in creating a wider view about the technology driven changes ongoing in the realm of global business!
Well, I did have a number of highly interesting discussions and downright debates about diverse digital phenomena and business implications, and overall enjoyed the Minneapolis conference immensely. However, I couldn’t evade a nagging feeling that somehow most of the discussions missed something crucial. A passing thought in one of the very interesting Fellow’s Café morning sessions (warmly recommended if you’re planning to attend the AIB 2019 in Copenhagen, very good session concept) became a seed that, nourished by my doctoral research, subsequently blossomed into a metaphor I’ve since used extensively in articulating my specific vantage to the phenomenon labeled digitalization.
In my view, the phenomenon captured by the fuzzy label of digitalization can be understood as a tree. The familiar “things” like Facebook, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, Google, internet-of-things, Amazon, platform economy, to name but a few, constitute the leaves and branches of the tree. Scrutinizing them yields increasing understanding about the diverse representations, however the entity of the tree cannot be understood only through its foliage. The tree has a trunk and roots.
In my dissertation, which I defended in November, I identified three roots of digitalization: datafication, digitizing and connectivity. Each of the roots go back in time, but it is only with the recent technological advances that they have converged in the trunk of digital infrastructures, making it possible for the tree to sprout such growth as we know evidence in its thriving leaves.
Put simply, the root of datafication means that entities with another form are given a data form existence. What started with the innovation of writing has evolved to include the sophisticated sensor technology that enables the datafication of the physical attributes of everything (weight, movement, sound, constitution – the details of the tiniest microbes and the vastests of stars). In addition, datafication includes also the traces of human-machine interaction: when you stop to read a post on Facebook, that mere pause becomes data even when you don’t “like” the post.
The second root of digitizing simply means that the data gleaned from entities of diverse types is made uniform, into binary digits of 0 and 1. In theory this means that any digital data can be processed through any digital device – however in practice we’re not there yet. Combined with the third root of connectivity, dating back to signal fires and homing pigeons, exponentially evolved with the invention of Internet and the advances in communication technologies, this means that again in theory, it could be possible to create a zone of convergence where all that is uniform data can be accessed through one entry point, by one or a number of agents. Currently we are seeing pockets of convergence, more familiarly referred to for example as the Apple or Google ecosystem, where everything that is happening within, is to an extent visible to certain agents orchestrating the ecosystem. In the near future, the battles between the expansions of these (overlapping) pockets of convergence are possibly some of the most prominent features in the realm of business.
But when we look at the trunk of digital infrastructures, it is no longer only the realm of business that is affected by digitalization. Like any infrastructures, the more they develop, the more dependent on them we become, and the more invisible they become. Few of us think that “now I am using a phone”, instead we’re just talking to a friend, checking the news, liking a comment or booking a ride. However, unlike the older infrastructures like electricity or plumbing, we don’t only use the digital infrastructures, but actively contribute to creating them with all our datafied, digitized and connected interactions with the digital devices and sensors. Our intentional and unintentional actions become the building blocks of the subsequent developments of the digital infrastructure – for better or for worse.
Just like the diffusion of electricity, digitalization is not dependent on any singular technological breakthrough – or the fate of any of its leaves or even branches. Once the humanity learned to harness electricity, no obstacles, technological or socio-political, could stand in the way of the development that led us to the electricity-dependent society we now live in. While I do not claim to be a prophet, it is immensely likely that digitalization will follow a similar path.
The nagging sentiment I was struggling with in the summer was that I felt that in IB, we are still seeing only the already grown branches and leaves, but do not yet conceive the depth of the potential changes emerging from the infrastructural level changes driven by datafication, digitizing and connectivity. Of course, the future is more (or less – or else) than a continuance of the past trajectories, and as such, always shrouded in mystery. However, as the possible impact of full convergence has the potential to transform not only our lay existence, or the realm of economics, but the very structures of our society on par with such game changers as the agricultural or industrial revolutions, taking a moment to envision a future where the current trajectories continue might not be a wasted effort even to the IB scholars.
D.Sc. Milla Wirén
Link to Milla’s thesis: