The Digital Age and Rural Communities, or a 'Responsive Countryside'

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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 CountrysideThis 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.”

This is changing with artificial intelligence (AI). A Forbes magazine contributor used a great analogy. Big Data—a term that refers to the vast amounts of data being generated through the IoE—is the oil of the 21st century. Yet, just like oil it needs to be refined into gasoline for it to be useful and have the impact expected. AI is providing just that. Algorithms are becoming more powerful and sophisticated and are helping us make sense of the data around us leading to new ideas, knowledge, and innovations.

These new ideas and innovations lead us to the fourth characteristic of the digital age: it is disruptive. Disruptions in the digital age are more frequent and stronger that any time in human history.

Look what happened to the music industry and what is happening to the taxi industry. Or why the traditional “gig” economy just exploded over the past 5-10 years now accounting for 34% of the workforce? The more pressing question is what is coming to more “solid” industries like finance, healthcare, and education to name a few? These disruptions are leading to revolutionary changes to our economic and social landscape.

Ok, so what? Several implications are discussed in my book but want to hone in on a couple here. First and foremost is that the digital age levels the playing field between urban and rural. With appropriate connectivity and know-how, rural communities can participate fully in the digital age and take advantage of applications such as e-commerce, telehealth, telework, and precision agriculture plus whatever is coming later.

If a rural business implements multiple online presence strategies, there is no reason why it cannot compete with a business located in a much denser urban area. Rural youth typically leave their communities due to lack of jobs and education. Telework can definitely help with that and as online courses from universities continue to evolve, these shortcomings in rural communities can be addressed. The digital age eliminates the “middle of nowhere.”

Likewise, the nature of innovation is changing. Before, innovation took place where a density of minds and resources were, usually large companies or urban areas. Thanks to the virtual density in the digital age supported by real-time and two-way communication platforms (not to mention the nascent augmented reality, virtual reality, and holoportation technologies!), innovation can literally take place anywhere. In other words, the physical density advantage urban areas enjoyed during the industrial age is less relevant in the digital age.

But how can this important message be conveyed to rural communities? I describe in detail a community-development process that uses the Intelligent Community concept and where the Extension Service plays a critical role.

Many issues need to be addressed for the digital age to have the impact it can have including privacy, security, inequality, and others. However, the benefits outweigh the negatives and the digital age is poised to usher humanity into a new era. The first critical step however is to increase awareness and education. Without these, nothing can be meaningfully discussed, much less planned for, and don’t even consider implementing necessary strategies. This book attempts to address this first critical step.

 

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