From our fixed line connection to mobiles, laptops or digital music players, all our ‘must-have’ ICTs are powered by digital technologies. Although it may sound all familiar, for many people the idea of “Living the Digital World” where digital technologies are set to play an increasingly important role in all our lives, remains a futuristic concept.
Going, going, gone Digital
Gone are the days when our everyday lives revolved simply around our home
town or village, where friends lived down the road and the workplace was
just around the corner. Now, thanks to advances in technology, we have
entered a world where we can work for a company based in London yet live in
Spain, where we can acquire whole new personae and sets of friends online
overnight, where everyone can be a film star, release a hit single or be a
comedian reaching out to a global audience, and much more. And this is only
the beginning. Welcome to the Digital World, and all that lies therein.
The Digital World is a world where the best possible use is made of digital technologies. Propelled by explosive broadband growth and soaring mobile numbers, our transition to the digital world has been rapid and innovative. Indeed many of us are probably not even aware of how important a role these technologies already play. We use a growing array of digital lifestyle technologies at
home, in the office, on the street, in cars, in trains, and in planes — they have transformed every aspect of our daily lives.
Devices such as MP3s or mobile phones with video capabilities are becoming increasingly popular. As we continue the shift towards IP-based networks we can expect even more advanced technologies to become commonplace. Voice over IP use is on the rise, with applications such as Skype fast gaining ground, while services such as IPTV now add a whole new dimension to watching television. Multiple Play models, which combine voice, video and the internet over the same network are all being launched in a number of countries worldwide.
Digital technologies have brought about sweeping changes for the workplace. Not only can offices be entirely virtual, but a raft of new applications—from remote and mobile email to video-conferencing and teleworking—are emerging, meaning greater flexibility and efficiency in the workplace.
Paving the Way for Digital Progress
Our speedy transition to a digital world has been boosted by a host of favourable factors. The foundations of today’s digital world were first laid by network digitalization. This was then helped by telecoms market liberalization, the advent of more and more competition and creation of environments in which this could flourish. Increased competition meant a broader choice as well as price cuts for end users, making ICTs more accessible to even more people. Mobile user numbers across the world have soared in recent years, for example, as have broadband users, reaching some 217m in 2005, according to ITU. More and more technologies are going digital- the most recent example being television, with the advent of IPTV.
An ongoing adoption of digital technologies and applications will not be without potential pitfalls, however, and a number of important challenges need to be addressed to ensure continued growth.
Ensuring easy usability is one critical area. Today, an ever-widening range of ‘gadgets’ provides us with access to digital communications and content. As these get ever-more sophisticated, manufacturers face an increasing dilemma of finding a middle ground between what does the job (or indeed does multiple jobs) but is also simple, easy and user-friendly enough for as wide a set of consumers as possible to use.
Regulators and policy makers also have important roles to play in shaping the digital world of tomorrow. So many new converged product offerings on the market will blur traditional telecommunications definitions, but need to be classified. Are they traditional telecommunications services? Or do they qualify as broadcasting? Or other forms of content? Not only will such classification have an impact on how services are marketed and priced, but it will also affect how regulators and policy makers examine the level of market competition in a particular sector.
With players operating across so many sectors, it will become harder to pinpoint exactly who is doing what. With a host of new wireless technologies poised to enter the marketplace, regulators will need to consider the level of substitutability between cellular mobile and other advanced wireless services such as WLAN or WiMax. The question of timing will also be crucial; who will decide, for example, when a nascent industry such as WLAN or WiMax has become a mature one and thus what types of regulation need to be applied. The issue of spectrum and how different wireless technologies should coexist alongside one another is also a major concern, as the availability of adequate spectrum is critical to support future services.
The Question of ‘me?’
From shopping to socializing, creating our own innovative content or simply paying our bills, there is no doubt that web-based interaction has come to play an important role for many people worldwide. It has also raised a very interesting conundrum; that of our digital identity and how to keep it safe. Consider how much of our lives are now spent in a digital environment. Keeping ourselves secure in this environment is a key concern. We need to be sure that, for example, no one can steal our identity and use it elsewhere (on the internet or on the other side of the world) to obtain a mortgage, pay a bill, or interact with anyone. In addition, we have to be sure that if we accidentally reveal too much personal information in the wrong place, we won’t be deluged with unwanted content. And, critically, that the identity of our children on and off the web is kept safe, that they cannot access content which is inappropriate or be accessed by anyone unsuitable.
Imagine if all these fears could all be allayed by an effective global identity management scheme, which could safeguard identities and reveal them in a structured and secure manner. If this could be implanted then our transition to a digital world would be even more rapid.
According to Lara Srivastava, Policy Analyst at ITU, the answer lies in revealing only a part of our identity at a time: “The key lies in establishing digital identities which would consist of a series of partial identities. This is because the kind of identity required to do online banking is completely different to that which is needed to join a chatroom – for online banking, an account number is required. For a chatroom, not even one’s real name is required. The various aspects of one’s identity should only be revealed as and when they are needed.”
In order to make this vision a reality, a comprehensive digital identity management system would be required, so that users would never be able to reveal unnecessary information, and so that no one could ever piece the various elements of an identity together, in order to steal a ‘full’ identity. According to Srivastava, such developments may not be too far off, but efforts at the global level are required. “Work is currently being done in many quarters to create a system which would have the power to effectively manage identity, but issues such as monitoring of identity service providers and global interoperability have yet to be resolved”.
Ensuring We Go Digital on a Global Scale
While the developed world basks in the benefits of digital technologies, the story in the developing world is somewhat different, with ICT access still a distant dream for many. Things are changing though, and in some places rather rapidly. Thanks to digital technologies— particularly mobile—major inroads toward bridging the digital divide have been made in recent years. Not only has teledensity more than doubled in most least-developed countries (LDCs) since 2000, some have boosted connectivity by 20 times or more.
In many developing countries, mobile has become the technology of choice, beating fixed line hands down. With long waiting times for fixed line connections, mobiles provide immediate, easy-to-use ICT access. Increased mobile sector competition has helped bring call charges down, and the introduction of pre-paid cards have also been critical in helping boost take-up, and in making services affordable for a whole new set of consumers.
Internet usage is also on the increase, albeit at a slower rate than mobile, with Internet user penetration in a number of LDCs now reaching the 5% mark, according to ITU; Cape Verde and Togo both stood at 4.9% and Senegal at 4.6%.
Nevertheless, a key challenge that the digital world faces is to extend its benefits to all the world’s inhabitants. In the words of the Geneva Declaration of Principles of the recent World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the goal is to build an Information Society where “everyone can create, access, utilise and share information and knowledge”.
Working to extend the benefits of ICTs is one of ITU’s core aims, and it carries out much vital work in this area such as examining innovative ICT applications for development, producing key publications, plus helping advise countries on the most suitable technologies for deployment to help extend access to ICTs and the digital world as a whole.
Bringing the World to your PC
Never before has mankind had access to such an immense knowledge bank, via the medium of the web. Now, helped by high-speed Internet technologies, access to this bank is getting easier and easier. More and more content is being contributed to this bank on a daily basis, where it can be shared and disseminated to a global audience. User-generated content websites such as YouTube and MySpace are fast gaining ground. They have enabled a whole new global outlet for hobbies and talents, and provide an entirely new platform for social interaction or networking. For the first time, a whole swathe of amateur filmmakers or comedians can showcase their talent in front of a global audience. Photographs and films can be shared across the globe, interactive games played with participants from a whole set of different countries.
Although deployed on a global scale these kinds of of digital developments bring so many possibilities closer to home, making the world a smaller place. Thanks to these types of technologies, the world really is everyone’s oyster. The remaining stumbling block to bring the benefits of all these developments is access and affordability for all.
The Road Ahead
Our transition toward a digital world has been nothing short of astonishing. How many of us 10 years ago had even heard of SMS, let alone sent one? Ditto webcams, live webstreaming, podcasts, video-sharing …the list goes on. If the rapid ascent of these technologies into the mainstream is anything to go by, what can we expect over the next couple of decades?
We could find ourselves inhabiting a fully networked world, where our houses are powered by gadgets, with much of our housework is done by robots, and where our fridges could stock themselves with healthy food, according to our exact dietary requirements, while our ovens cook it for us. Our virtual friends could play as big a part in our lives as our real ones. And the office may no longer be a place we need to commute to.
Some might argue that aspects of this not-so-distant future world do have overtones of a sci-fi film.
“Digital libraries, always-on social networking, mobile assistants, ubiquitous accessibility, environment and health sensors, on-demand interactive entertainment … the possibilities are endless,” says Srivastava, “Used wisely, there is no doubt that digital technologies have the power to enhance the quality of our lives significantly in the future, in both the developed and developing world.”