The Great Digital Divide and Charlie Rose

I was travelling from New York to Nashville on a Delta flight a few months ago, and in walked Charlie Rose.

Charlie is an outstanding interview journalist and one of my favorite relaxing activities is to go to his website – and browse through the thousands of fascinating one-to-one discussions he has carried out over several decades.

His guests come from all walks of life (business, politics, religious, science, entertainment, sports…).

To have a chance to sit and chat with Charlie at his famous tiger oak wooden table in the Green Room in his New York studio would be an honor and a lot of fun.

At the end of the trip as we were exiting the plane I introduced myself, handed Charlie a card, and told him how much I enjoy his interviews and would be honored to be invited as a guest on his show.

To my surprise he asked me: “What would you talk about?”  I answered, “The Great Digital Divide.”

What is the great digital divide?

The divide can and should be viewed through multiple prisms:

  • Continents and Countries – north / south imbalance
  • Urban and Rural Populations – cities versus small towns
  • Young (millennials) and Old (everybody else)
  • Easy Access to Broadband and Limited Access (most of the world’s populations)
  • Can Afford continuously new, updated devices and Cannot Upgrade(those with limited purchasing power)
  • Tech Savvy early adapters and Mass Followers (me and most of the people reading this post)
  • Et cetera

Why does the great digital divide matter?

The digital era is making profound changes to both man and mankind and the divide is the widening gap between those who are fit enough to thrive in the new digital economy and those who are being left behind.

We see it in our politics, institutions and crumbling social contracts.  Our international treaties and alliances have been successful over the past sixty years in creating overall wealth, but have not evolved to keep up with the global digital economy.  The divide is widening at an accelerating rate.

The astonishing Brexit and Trump victories in the UK and the US caught most of us completely by surprise.  In both cases the results were more a resounding defeat of the global establishment elite than the victory of the anti-globalist, populist, nationalist candidates.

It is fair to say that many people who voted for Britain’s exit from the European Union and for President Trump feel victimized and poorly served by globalization, international trade and the digitalization of the economy.

However, these jobs are not just being outsourced to lower cost labor markets, but the very nature of the work and the traditional trade crafts themselves are being disrupted and profoundly modified into different forms of work requiring new digital skills.

What will be the results of the great digital divide?

The social divide is getting wider and the digital transformation is getting deeper.  The revolt of the hard-working middle classes in the EU and USA has more to do with shrinking employment opportunities and reduced upward mobility than a choice to the political right or left.

We tend to over-estimate the changes which will occur in the next 2-3 years, but under-estimate the changes which will occur in the next 8-10 years.

Let us look forward a few years when the Millennials will be running the show, as the new ways of working fully take hold.

The next generation, so called ‘Gen Z’, will see an accelerating change as the divide widens: manufacturing jobs replaced by robots, driving jobs by driverless vehicles, in-store retailers replaced by on-line shopping, etc.  In short, tens of millions of jobs replaced by machines and software.

Biotechnology will enhance man with machine (implants) and enhance the machine with man (artificial intelligence).

Nanobots are becoming commonplace in science and industry, and the uses in the medical field are even greater and more immediate.

This digital transformation has little to do with short-term political decisions or immigration policies or current trade agreements.  This evolution is a paradigm shift in the way we work and live, a technology-driven megatrend as we move from the industrial age to the digital service age.

Why are these changes called the great digital divide?

Think about the way we live and work as a process, viewed within the framework of the major transformations over the past few centuries:

  • agriculture to industrial to digital based-economies
  • local to national to international trade and travel
  • feudalism to capitalism to advanced social democracies
  • isolated, local decision-making to complex, interconnected ecosystems
  • biological human intelligence to machine-based artificial intelligence

There are many examples in each sector of the economy and all along the value chain.

As the industrial revolution moved farmers to factories, the digital revolution is moving labor-intensive jobs to smart workers in smart factories driving smart cars, using smart devices and living in smart cities.

The new digitally enabled factories will of course employ many less people than the former ones.

The great digital divide is like a geological fault line separating the past and the future for all things human.

What’s next?

I have written and spoken extensively about the new digital era, how the new ways of working are driving deep transformations in each business and technology sector, and across all industry verticals.

Traditional linear supply chain logic is being replaced with ecosystem models where suppliers, customers, contractors, partners, alliances, competitors are all baked into the same business and personal relationships.

The gap was originally a question of internet access, and then the ability to own a smart phone and a computer.  There are now more mobile phones on the planet than people.

The divide is more an issue of communication quality, user skills and the ability to process and use all information for high value work and greater productivity.  The ability to learn and change continuously is paramount.

The gap is widening along many lines, but the deepest divide criteria remain age and education and income.  By the end of this century, who knows, the divide may be as great as the shift in human evolution from Neanderthals to Cro-Magnons!

Back to Charlie Rose, my inspiration for this post.  Charlie had a heart replacement valve put in 15 years ago.  He recently decided to undergo the surgical operation again, to get a new valve.

Here is what he wrote, upon his decision to get a digital upgrade at age 75:  “I can’t wait to be back completely rested with my heart recharged, my passion for the work ahead purposeful and my joy at life’s pleasures high.  No one loves life more than me.”

Charlie returns to work tomorrow.  Welcome back.  Full disclosure:  he has not called me back…yet.

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