What if we think of "digital" as water?


“Digital” is a hard thing to define. Technically it’s an expression of information in a format of zeros and ones. But that’s just the start. Our ability to transmit rich data in these easily computable zeros and ones opens new ways to connect and communicate, new ways to do business, new ways to run countries and manage people and change the world.

And the more we understand about digital, the faster everything changes. So we scramble to keep up with buzzwords and opportunities and challenges and threats. And all the while everyone is talking “digital” and everyone seems to define it in a slightly different way.

And that was exactly the conversation I was having with a friend who works for the Government. How can we truly understand and safely harness the power and potential of digital if we haven’t yet decided exactly what it is? McKinsey tells us “we believe that digital should be seen as less of a thing and more of a way of doing things,” and that’s helpful. But is it about computers? Or robots? Or data? Or connections? Or is it about AI and blockchain and virtual reality and robots? Or is it, like everything, ultimately about people? And the answer to all of those questions is yes. That’s why a clear definition of digital is evasive and complex and hard to pin down. Emma's idea was an analogy that positions digital as water. 

what if we think of “digital” as water?

Water is something everyone understands. It has enormous power and limitless potential. And over the years we’ve made water our friend. We farm it, we drink it, we play in it and play with it. We harness its power to make electricity. We pipe it into towns and cities so everyone can tap in and use it when they choose. Water is amazing.

But even as we recognise and commoditise its value. We also recognise its threat. We teach our children to swim safely. We recognise the danger of a rip. And as hard we try to harness and control the awesome power of water, few can build a sandcastle that survives the incoming tide.

If digital is like water, what does that mean?

Digital has the power and potential to help us do amazing things. And just as we’ve built waka and fishing rods and power stations and massive infrastructure to share the water around, so too we’ve built toys and tools to help us harness digital.

Those robots and blockchains and connections and communications. They’re the things we use to make the most of digital. But “digital” itself is more like water. Digital plays by its own rules. And as we get smarter in exploring new waterways and fishing for new data and navigating the current of this exciting new digital world, we’re naïve if we think we control it.

Digital isn’t something we make. It’s something we make things with. It isn’t something we do, it’s something we do things with. And it isn’t certainly isn’t something we control. It’s something we need to build controls around. It’s something we need to treat with caution and respect. Sure, we can harness it and farm it and drink it and play in it. But we shouldn’t once think we control it. Because “digital” isn’t ours to control. It’s something we’re learning to live alongside. Like water.

Michael Goldthorpe