Thursday, April 9, 2015

Post-Digital Musings at Stream Asia 2015

Where do we go from here?

As marketers we claim to have a deep understanding of our customers and their culture. The fragmentation and complexity of our post-digital world, however, have made it increasingly difficult to put our finger on the consumer pulse. Technology, communication, socialization now evolve so rapidly that before we can wrap our heads around the status quo reality is once again different. I’ve recently discovered that it can help to have an industry support group of sorts that we can discuss and process these things with. The scenario may keep changing but what is important is to keep up the inquiry, to keep processing. 

I’ve been thinking about the idea of the Post-Digital for some time – what our world has become through digital and how it will continue to evolve. Trends like the Maker movement and the 3D printing industry have made me wonder if our digital future will lead us back to the basics of the physical realm, because while technology-enabled these developments feel distinctly analog. On the other extreme are innovations like virtual reality glasses, hololenses and smart homes, smart chargers, smart everything. These technologies make me wonder if we’ve swallowed red pill and jumped into the rabbit hole.

I finally got to explore this topic in greater depth last week at Stream, a WPP (un)conference that invites participants to examine the future of digital and communications. WPP brings agency folk together with clients, founders, media, social entrepreneurs, creators, makers and geeks of all sorts to exchange ideas and questions. It is an un-conference – no suits, keynotes or a set agenda. In this particular Stream drones were flying around and there was a trapeze. Standard activities are the gadget show-and-tell, Powerpoint-eoke, and midnight cook-off. It’s a little random. Much of the activity time is set for participant-generated discussions. When users arrive they can post a topic and anyone can show up to have an exchange and/or heated debate.

This is how, on a sunny Saturday morning, I ended up in a Post-Digital roundtable in Club Med, Phuket. (Though in true ad agency fashion by roundtable I mean a casual arrangement of lounge and folding chairs). More questions were brought up than answered, but it was comforting to discover that others in the industry also struggle to understand what our post-digital world is and will be.
I found that many comments and questions helped me firm up ideas on my earlier question about the duality of the post-digital. Here are three potential scenarios based on our group exchange:

  • The post-digital will go back to basics: The maker movement will teach us to work again with our hands. 3D printing will have us rediscover physics and then allow those proficient enough to produce their own goods. Individuals will be able to trade and barter with this merchandise. Relationships will become the main selling tool; there will be little need for mass-market brands in this DIY future.
  • The post-digital will lead us down the rabbit hole: Robots will eventually take over our marketing jobs as AI will apparently overtake human intelligence in about a decade. The children of Generation Z, our future consumers, will be raised as ‘screen-enabled’. Their intense interaction with five screens and up will have effects on real-world interfaces – they will expect taps and swipes to operate what in our time were analog things like faucets and hinges. To prepare children for the programmable future “reading, writing, coding” will become the building blocks of primary education.
  • The middle ground: We will live within an Internet of Things, with every machine sensor- and web-enabled. Machine-to-machine communication will become a thing. Most things won’t change – our need to convene, touch, socialize, make love, and emotion will remain a bigger factor in human and brand engagement than the strictly rational or data-driven.

The perspectives I heard were so interesting. Some, none, a few may prevail, only time will tell. What has become a little clearer to me now is that we are utterly unprepared for these changes. As we were discussing our value to brands and clients in this context one participant commented on marketers’ strong hesitation to let go, to be vulnerable to the changes. This is fair, though our preoccupation with processing this new space may be because we are the one generation that straddles both the analog past and the digital future.

After the session we parted ways, heading to other discussions that further exemplified the complexity – and sometimes absurdity – of our digital present. Talks covered everything from Bitcoin and the future of behavioral buying to “Digital Breaking Bad: The Illegal Undernet” and “The Selfie Stick: The end of mankind?”

It was good to be able to put my questions and thoughts forth to a group who were also processing these unprecedented changes. As an industry we have a lot of evolving and catching up to do. But it’s great to feel like we’re not alone in discovering and investigating this new landscape. If we can continue to come together and try to make fun or sense of the new digital world order, I think we’ll be ok.


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