Note from RTC President Drew Clark: This piece is by Associate Extension Professor & Leader Roberto Gallardo, Ph.D., at the Mississippi State University Extension and Intelligent Community Institute. He is the author of The Responsive Countryside. This piece is published by permission.
Technology has always been a critical factor in human development. It has pushed humanity through at least three major revolutions—cognitive, agricultural, and scientific—and is once more influencing humanity’s transition to a new revolution: the digital age. Some call this new age the information age and argue that its main characteristic is that information is transferred quickly.
However, I believe the digital age is much more than transferring information quickly. To me, the digital age allows for digital technologies and applications to be invented and adopted transforming our current social and economic landscape. Though an agreed-upon definition of the digital age is still in the works, it is showing certain characteristics that are important to understand.
The first characteristic is that it is exponential. Exponential refers to something that starts really slow and then moves a lot faster. The hardware components and in some cases the adoption rate of digital technologies have shown an exponential rate.
For example, your smartphone has more computing power today than NASA did back in 1969. Also, consider that it took the telephone 75 years to reach 100 million users while it took Instagram 2 years to reach the same amount of users. The main implication of this exponential rate is that digital devices are becoming smaller, more powerful, and cheaper causing digital platforms and applications to spread faster.
The second characteristic is that it is digital. In other words, everything is being converted into 1s and 0s. This digital information can then be sent or accessed quickly from anywhere. At the forefront of this digitization of our physical world is something called the Internet of Everything (IoE)— also called the Internet of Things (IoT).
IoE consists of people (interacting through apps and social media), things (smartphones and billions of sensors), data (vast amounts generated from social media posts to real-time measurement of manufacturing processes, car performance, etc.), and processes (ability to streamline, gather, and analyze data generated). Thanks to IoE, our physical world can be monitored, measured, and optimized like never before.
The previous two characteristics of exponential and digital lead to the third characteristic: combinatorial. The digital age allows ideas to be combined and recombined and identify patterns and behaviors we did not know existed. Unfortunately, our ability to digitize and generate information has surpassed our ability to analyze and extract the information we want at the time it is needed. In other words, we have been great at putting information in but not so good at getting useful and relevant information out. Some researchers call this the “technology lag.”