Digital is my new superhero.

Yes Digital. Faster than a speeding human, more powerful than a legacy system, able to innovate business challenges in a single bound. Digital can change the course of mighty data rivers and bend industries in its bot hands. With Digital by our side, we fight our battle for truth, justice and market domination.

But wait, just how new, innovative and powerful is digital, really?

Digital Is New, Again

Much like my hero, Superman, whose iconic TV show intro I just shamelessly co-opted, digital was born a long time ago. In fact the first digital wave started in the 1930s.

The authorities at the Oxford English Dictionary tell us that the term digital moved to significance with the work of mathematicians and engineers that led to the development of a new type of computing machine — a machine that operated upon data as a series of discrete digits. “Such data (and so any machine making use of it) was hence said to be digital,” says an OED blog post about the word digital.

These digital machines heralded a computer boom — the first digital revolution — that began in the 1950s and saw its share of heroes, including several dynamic duos, as it progressed.

Digital History (as Told by the Flash)

IBM and DEC (Digital Equipment Corp.), grew to dominate the market for business and research. Then in 1968, Noyce and Moore founded Intel, beginning the digital miniaturization revolution and setting Moore’s Law into action (as captured in this great CBS Sunday Morning video). Through the late 1970s, digital computers and electronics started to become sufficiently compact and inexpensive to be suitable for personal computing and home use. In 1977, two of our modern tech superheroes, Jobs and Wozniak, launched the Apple II and fueled the personal digital revolution.

At about the same time, researchers began to assemble the “network of networks” that became our modern internet. This pathway for the digital information age took on its current recognizable form in the 1990s, when computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee — IMO the digital revolution’s answer to the all-powerful yet unassuming J’onn J’onzz of the Justice League — invented the World Wide Web.

A bright future for our digital universe lay ahead. And through subsequent waves of digital growth and invention, we would reach what could be said to be our latest digital revolution — a digital-infused way of life.

Related Article: The Future's Always Clear in Hindsight: A Cautionary Tale for Information Professionals

Digital Inspires Our Lives

Now digital permeates all aspects of our lives. But the precog in my Legion of Superheroes, Nicholas Negroponte, first speculated about the “radically new culture” that was emerging at the important intersection of humans and digital in his 1995 best seller “Being Digital.”

As founder of MIT’s Media Lab and later as a Wired investor and contributor, Negroponte celebrated the digital revolution as he examined the frontiers of digital technology and its impact on the future of human social life, work, entertainment and commerce. He developed the Media Lab into the preeminent computer science laboratory for new media and championed the human-computer interface as an early proponent of intelligent digital agents.

Wikipedia reports that, while naysayers criticized his ideas for “failing to consider the historical, political and cultural realities with which new technologies should be viewed,” Negroponte believed that digital would make life better for everyone. This perhaps signals the point in our digital adventures where culture and digital team up and inevitably clash but ultimately prevail to save the world — much like the superhero epic “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (but with Christian Bale as Batman, not Batfleck!).

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: Google Chooses an Inevitable Future Rife With Possibility

Digital Drives Powerful Change

While digital has been busy infiltrating our lives, digital-driven business adventures have been unfolding as well. From its modern inception, digital has shaped powerful business change. Our high-tech industry, intelligent automation and modern digital transformation initiatives all exploded from digital’s early beginnings.

Concepts such as digital ink and digital shopping carts have joined digital in the Oxford lexicon as digital has reshaped traditional business models. I have chronicled these changes in my CMSWire articles, from media disruption in “Breaking Bad: How Technology Is Changing Media and Entertainment” to the impact of omnichannel on retailing in “Shoe Shopping, Supply Chains and One Very Happy Customer.”

Looking ahead, as CEOs search for their new currency of business in the digital economy, KPMG tells us that this quest will not mean CEOs “simply have to embrace data and intelligent technologies wholesale at the expense of human qualities. CEOs are also bringing their own intelligence to bear, combining their experience and intuition. . . to spot new growth opportunities.”

Financial institutions are learning to digitally transform and leverage their strengths to combat the new Legion of Doom competitors in the digital economy — GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) — who threaten to capture markets by capturing customers through their data.

And CIOs are strategically aligning with their businesses to learn the smartest ways to deal with the new digital wave that the internet of things (IoT) will unleash, as I discuss in “Dr. Seuss and the Internet of Things.”

Related Article: Tim Berners-Lee Has a Plan to Reinvent the Web

Beware of Digital Lipstick

As the adventures of digital continue, I am sure there will be more exciting chapters (and movie sequels) to reveal. However, there is also a warning we should all heed. As McKinsey tells us in a briefing titled “Digital Lipstick,” we must avoid turning our digital strategy to mere cosmetic change. An article originally published in MIT Sloan Management Review reports the following results of McKinsey research:

“Few companies are responding appropriately to digital disruption, according to our findings. While 90 percent of companies indicated that they are engaged in some form of digitization, only 16 percent said their companies have responded with a bold strategy and at scale. Likewise, only 30 percent of companies are focusing on new ways to bundle demand or resegment their market.”

So with all due respect to Wonder Woman — now my favorite superhero in the Justice League — lipstick is good, but it is not enough. For meaningful digital change in the future, we’ll also need Diana Prince’s unrivaled force, intelligence and grace, and genuine compassion and understanding.

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