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2020/05/19Towards a Post-Digital Era ? {Guillaume Tissier, CEIS}

The current health crisis offers a striking discrepancy between the eminently material nature of its causes and consequences and the spectacular explosion of digital uses that it has brought about.

With nearly 300,000 deaths worldwide, closed borders, world trade in free fall, industries at a standstill, and States forced to take restrictive measures in terms of public freedoms – something unprecedented in peacetime in democracies – the impact of the crisis on real life is huge. But the crisis has also been an opportunity to become aware of the key role played by digital technologies, which have made it possible to ensure a certain societal and economic continuity. The use of social media has increased by over 60%. More than 20 million French workers have started teleworking. New forms of encounters, leisure and sports activities have appeared. And even if all these uses will not survive, something of them will inevitably remain in the “next world”.

This observation should not, however, lead us to over-hasty conclusions: it is neither a triumph of the “virtual”, nor a return, much less a revenge, of the “real”. Rather, these are the premises of a post-digital era characterised by a total hybridisation of uses, by a fusion of cyberspace and the physical world, by a mixed reality that marketing experts call “phygital”. In fact, while digital has played a key role for the 4.5 billion confined individuals (58% of the world’s population), the crisis has also shown the importance of supply chains and physical flows for mass retailers and convenience stores. It has also spotlighted caregivers, supermarket cashiers, farmers, logisticians, delivery personnel, etc. In short, it has shown that ecosystems are now hybrid – both physical and digital – which makes them at the same time more resilient and more vulnerable. More resilient, because the digital transformation has made it possible to extend, strengthen and solidify certain physical processes. More vulnerable, because their exposure area has increased. In recent weeks, while people logically had their eyes riveted on the health situation due to the Covid crisis, “cyber” confrontations have never been so violent: a resurgence of attacks targeting sensitive infrastructures, including many hospitals; the development of opportunistic cybercrime using the “Covid” pretext; destabilisation attempts by parastatal groups; etc. Not to mention the information field, where fake news has swarmed.

Faced with systemic risks – the causes and consequences of which are global and hard to compartmentalise – the responses must therefore be global. Moreover, they must integrate the traditional blind spots of risk management: improbable and high-impact “black swan” events, which are often ignored because they are difficult to model and insure. It is therefore more necessary than ever to think “out of the box” to anticipate risks and their multiple combinations and to totally rethink the “fail-soft mode”. In spite of very comprehensive continuity plans, most organisations had not envisaged such cascading effects and such simultaneity of dreaded events.

It is also urgent to review the dependencies created by unbridled globalisation and the “fabless” model that have induced some harmful consequences: a shortage of masks and respirators; the forced shutdown of certain automotive production chains; the disruption of supplies of electronic and computer equipment; etc. Moreover, such dependency on material flows was increasingly coupled with a dependency on the major digital platforms, mainly American, whose domination will be further strengthened by this crisis. Organisations that had already chosen to move all or part of their infrastructure, services and data to the cloud proved to be much more agile in the crisis. This observation should lead us to build a genuine doctrine on strategic autonomy, and then to mobilise all the levers to implement it. At the State level, this will necessarily involve revising our national doctrine on essential activities and our contingency plans. At the industrial level, it will also be necessary to make every effort (investment, public procurement…) to relocate or develop real national industries in sectors considered as strategic and to diversify “sourcing” for the other sectors. Lastly, at the technological level, the effort will have to focus on the enabling technologies of this post-digital era: artificial intelligence, blockchain, augmented reality, 3D printing, and quantum computing.

However, the advent of this post-digital era, which some describe as the age of maturity of the digital revolution, will not be a walk in the park. Beyond the technological challenges such as network speed and latency, miniaturisation, computing power, energy, etc. (which are in fact no longer real challenges), we must first and foremost build a new social pact. The Covid crisis has indeed highlighted a divide – which is not only digital – between the “hyper-connected” and the “under-connected”, between the “white collar workers” able to telework and the “blue collar workers” or other professions requiring “face-to-face” work, between the “Anywheres” and the “Somewheres”, as British essayist David Goodhart writes[1]. The need for security and territorial anchoring, which has become widespread as a result of this crisis, argues for a rebalancing that considers both economic imperatives and societal realities. Progress is not only a matter of technology: it is first and foremost a matter of people.