Why Digital Matters

Why does digital matter?  I can download a song on iTunes or go pick up a CD at the local Best Buy.  It all ends up as music in my headphones.  It matters for the same reason that we’re in a major world-wide financial crisis right now–cash flow. 

Businesses don’t go bankrupt because they’re not making a profit.  They go bankrupt because they run out of cash.  Many great companies have died because they didn’t manage their cash flow. 

If I could invent the perfect business, my product would be made from things I could buy at a moments notice, assemble in seconds and only go through my business cycle when the customer requested it (I’m assuming its a product my customers want).  If it cost me $10 in materials to make and I sold it for $12, then I would make a 2$ profit every time I sold one.  The great part is since it only takes seconds to make, and the materials are readily available, then assuming I had lots of customers I could make quick, easy profit without any risk. 

Unfortunately, businesses are not like my imaginary business example.  The materials take time to acquire and cash, the assembly process might take days or months, and the products are often made ahead of time so they can be sold when the customer wants it.  The longer the leadtime between the start of production to the final sale, the more cash is required to keep the business afloat waiting for the profits. 

The world renown Toyota Production System is based on the idea of JIT, or “Just-In-Time” production.  The basis of JIT is to reduce lead time, or really, reduce cash flow.  This is a concept most smart businesses understand and attempt to achieve. 

So back to my original point–why digital matters.  When a product is converted to a digital product (and I don’t mean digital information on a real world media like a CD), it turns into the perfect product from a business point of view.  For simplicities sake, I’m ignoring the marketing or design portion of a digital product. 

Since most people have probably bought a song on iTunes or another digital music site, I’ll use a song as my example.  When someone wants to purchase the song, the product–a digital version of the song–is instantly assembled in their computers and sent to the customer.  The lead time of the production is virtually zero.  No cash need to be borrowed to buy the materials, ship them, assemble them or get them to the customer.  Piles of product inventory didn’t need to be created just in case the customer wanted them.  There are no piles of songs waiting for someone to buy them.  They only exist if someone wants them to exist. 

So for businesses, if they can digitize their product, they can reduce the leadtime down to zero and increase their cash flow to infinite (as always, assuming the product has been designed and the customer knows about it).  And that is why digital matters.

Things with a Memory

I heard an interesting story on NPR this week about a man who’d lost his dog-tags in 1951, and a young couple recently found and returned them to him.  No one knew what happened to the tags between 1951 and 2008, but everyone agreed they’d probably had an interesting journey. 

Knowing the past of the everyday objects in your care could be interesting.  Probably no one cares about the history of a box of baking soda in the cabinet, but what about an old heirloom passed down to you from a rarely seen great aunt?  Wouldn’t you like to know who had owned it over the years and where it had travelled?

Before the age of digital music, I used to trade music tapes of a jam band called Phish.  Taping was allowed, and encouraged at their live shows, and fans traded the tapes so everyone could enjoy their wonderful music.  When sending a tape, many fans would put a little information about themselves in the tape case and also where the tape had come from.  I always smiled when I’d see the history of the tape.  It reminded me of all the other people that also enjoyed the band, and the comradery we felt about tape trading.  The tape had a recorded history.

In a digital age, everyday items would have digital tags to help them interact with a variety of devices similar to an iPhone.  These digital tags would allow the history of the item to be understood.  Just like a package at FedEx, one could know the life cycle of an everyday item.  Garage sales wouldn’t just be the passing along of little used goods, they could be peeks into a family’s past like a digital archaeological dig.

The Digital Green Movement

As I typed the title of the this post, I realized I’m really overdoing the word “digital”.  Can someone email me one hundred euphemisms for the word “digital”, so I don’t kill the word by post fifty.  Right.

Moving on.

As we heat up the world using carbon based fuels, we’re going to need to tap into other methods of carbon emmission reductions.  Solar and wind are nice, but based on the rate middle-class Indians and Chinese are being added to the global demand tally, straight forward energy innovation will never keep up.  Mostly, innovation will only lessen the impact of additional global middle-class energy users. 

Another method of reducing emissions is to reduce the demand for energy.  Energy is used in the creation of goods and services, and the transport of these goods and services.  In a future digital life (FDL), we would be able to minimize our energy use by trading in real life goods and services for digital ones. 

The concept of the staycation, or taking vacation time and playing games and watching home based entertainment, has already arrived.  My own family had a staycation at Christmas time: playing lots of World of Warcraft, board games, Wii, Guitar Hero and watching TV together.  The family that games together, stays together.  By staying home, we didn’t use up valuable fuels travelling or require the infrastructure to be built to house and entertain us. 

Not everything can be digitialized, of course, but anything that can be converted to information cheaply can be.  At this point this means entertainment, computational services and communications.  The app store on the iPhone is proving there are products to be bought that no one ever dreamed of. 

But maybe in the FDL we can change other industries to be digital.  If a digital world could be superimposed over the real one, ala The Digital Sea , then paint would be made obsolete, clothes would be cheap and utilitarian underneath the fabulous digital ones.  Most importantly, I wouldn’t have to get a bigger monitor for my computer everytime my friend Rafe comes over with his JumboTron and I get monitor envy.

The Digital Sea

When I was a kid, I was a hardcore fantasy geek.  I’ve read most major fantasy franchises and I loved playing fantasy based games.  When I was in eighth grade at Catholic school, I started a Dungeons and Dragons club, but when the nuns found out there were demons involved, they shut me down.  Didn’t they realize we were killing the demons!  Come on Sister.  Fireballs for Jesus!

The advent of computers stretched my love for fantasy into new mediums.  I could play fantasy based games on the computers for hours on end.  One Christmas, I pulled the discs for the game Wizardry out of my wrapped present and loaded them into our 8088 (this was the mid-1980s) computer.  I would play late at night, so my parents didn’t know that I was enjoying the fruits of Christmas morning two weeks early. 

Even then I imagined computer games of the future that would immerse the player in the game.  With my limited imagination I envisioned a wrap-around wall of video screens on a coin operated video game.  I figured by the time I was old enough to have a job, I’d be able to buy my own video game to have in my house.  Considering that I own three computers and a Wii hooked to my 42″ TV, my prediction wasn’t far off, except I don’t need to keep a sack full of quarters around the house. 

So you could say I’ve always been thinking about a digital life, though mine involved hacking limbs off of virtual orcs.  Come to think of it, I still do that, regularly playing World of Warcraft, but I digress. 

When I was dreaming up a world for my main character Zel, I was trying to think of something gritty and realistic, but not so far into the future.  I wanted the world believable and based on real science.  In some ways like any William Gibson novel, but not so lyrical.  Mostly because I could never pull off the poetry of his prose. 

Once I had the concept, that the Internet could be seen–not as a computer monitor–but like reading a book, the rest came easy.  The Digital Sea would be seen as a living Internet, superimposed upon our real one.  Television screens would become obsolete as virtual screens could hover a few feet away in what ever size you wanted it to be.  Clothes would not be limited to fabrics and gravity, but could shimmer like a sunset and rustle in unseen winds.  Painting walls would be wasteful, when a new digital color could be used instead.  The old real color would still exist underneath, but seen through the screens on the eyes, the walls would be what ever color you wished, or covered in dog hair, if that was your thing.  And changed in an instant. 

The Internet, in a sense, is woven into our lives.  The immersiveness of it and the way it is viewed, led me to the name The Digital Sea.  The evolution of the Internet.  There would need to be three parts for this Digital Sea to happen.  A connection of real world to the digital one, a way to see the digital world and a way to control it.  I’ll try to tackle each one.

The first, the connection of the real world to the digital one, is sometimes, as I later found out, called ubiquitous computing.  The Internet of Things.  Imagine a refrigerator that knew what was in it and could suggest recipes.  Ubicomp requires the world to be mapped digitally.  Right now Google is attempting to map the world for their Google Earth project.  This is placing all the big non-movable objects in a digital world. 

It’s all the moving pieces in-between that cause issues, but that can be solving through the use of cameras and tagging.  If the car you drive has a series of tags, or I call them motes, on it that help define its dimension and location.  These motes can communicate with the digital world, so the car can be doubly represented in the Digital Sea.  While the scope of this is huge, if the cost of tags were cheap and people were sufficiently motivated to place them, the world could be mapped quickly.  Of course, I’m not outlining how the Digital Sea could happen, just how it works.

The second step is the visual representation.  The first step would most likely be through screens on a pair of glasses.  Glasses could allow stereovision which in turn creates three dimensional space.  At the time I was dreaming of the Digital Sea, I though maybe screens could be implanted onto corneas.  This dream isn’t so far off, because already, they’re implanting HUDs into contacts. 

The first two when working together, allow for some amazing things to happen.  If the Digital Sea knows where your car is because of the motes on it, then a different car could be drawn over the real one as seen through your glasses.  So instead of a 2030 Toyota Camry, you could be driving a giant fish.  Would other people see you driving a giant fish?  This would probably depend on laws, or how you set your car-fish motes.  This would be the same as having a private web page that only selected people could see, or having a public one that everyone could see. 

The third aspect is the control system.  Touch screens are becoming more prevaliant in this age, but if the screen is on the eye, how do you interact?  As I said in a previous blog, I waved my writer hands at this problem and decided some sort of mind control would work.  Neural actuators, since created, have solved this problem for me.  Currently, they are crude implements only allowing for a few outputs, but time and innovations could work wonders. 

These three aspects would complete the trifecta of the Digital Sea.  After that, only the imagination, and local laws would limit someone from doing amazing or crazy things.  In the Digital Sea, the perception of reality becomes a maelable tool.

Database of your Mind

As I explained in the previous post, the technology exists to control your computer with your mind using a neural actuator.  Eventually the development of this technology could lead to structured mind-computer language used for controlling the computer. It’s one thing to move a mouse based on your brain patterns, it’s a much harder prospect to create recognizable patterns with the mind, but I’m sure it can be done.

Once this technology is available, our very thoughts could be recorded just as our mouse clicks are recorded today for marketing purposes.  I think as the legal framework of the net continues to grow, we should be careful not to let the recording of our actions on our computers be fair game for anyone to use.  While information allows for more targeted marketing, the high level of information could allow for a form of subtle control.

Our minds are built on the ability to recognize patterns and develop behavior based on that pattern.  If I like dogs because I’ve had good experiences with them, when my brain picks up the dog pattern, it puts me into the ‘good dog’ behavior mode.  If I’ve had a bad experience with a dog, then when my brain picks up the dog pattern, it puts me into the ‘bad dog’ behavior mode. 

If I, as a marketer, could identify what a particular person liked or disliked, because I was able to monitor the combination of what he saw (on the Internet) and what he felt about them (based on brain signals picked up by the neural actuator), I could use the images that would best get that person to buy my product.  Depending on your definition of free will, this is a disturbing thought.

A Use for the Other 90%

It’s often been said that we humans only use 10% of our potential brain matter.  Somedays I think that estimate is a tad high.  During the development of the concept of my novel I wondered about the control systems for an imbedded computer one sees through screens on the eyes.  Hand signals or typing seemed so outdated, but I couldn’t come up with a logical system that would be easy to carry.  I’ve watched plenty of Discovery programs showing how the mind can be observed in action using big expensive imagers, but I couldn’t fathom how they could be reduced small enough to be portable.  Without a solution, I just decided to wave my writer hands at it, and say that it could be done. 


My surprise as I was reading the October 2008 issue of PCGamer was intense when I found the very technology I had hand waved away earlier in the year within its colorful pages.  The OCZ Neural Impulse Actuator description  put me in a zombie-like state as I wandered to my wife to shove the magazine in her face.  She was not impressed by the implications, but after I explained all the possibilities (and that I had only imagined such a device six months before), she started to see my way.  She still thinks I’m a little crazy, but that’s a different story.


Though I’m an avid gamer, and the review appeared in a gaming magazine, the possibilities the device offered had nothing to do with gaming.  Crude with its intentions, the device, or subsequent iterations, could be configured to control more than a mouse.  Computers to be controlled with the mind?  Could you create ‘thought patterns’ that could be translated into words?  Words could be transferred across the Internet to other users to form crude mindspeak.  Could you control other devices with it?  I had more ideas than I could shake a stick at, and I have a pretty big idea stick. 


When I was young, one of my best friends, Bill, had a brain tumor that reduced him to a quadriplegic.  He passed away five years ago, but would his life have had more meaning if he had been able to control his wheelchair easier?  Or been able to surf the web while he lay in bed?  I think of the book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.  A man with shut-in syndrome could be given a new life (albeit much reduced, but improvement is improvement) using systems like this.  I found I was not far off the mark when I heard an NPR program about the subject. 


I’ve haven’t yet ponied up the $169.99 to purchase the device to play with it (it is a recession and all), but I have been tempted on more than one occasion.  So for now, I’ll dream of other uses for it and keep an eye out for a mindspeak device that allows me to tell my wife the dog needs to be let out from my writer’s desk.  I’ll have to get up and let the dog out myself, but at least I’ll have the satisfaction of having told her with my mind.

A Digital World Awaits

Everywhere we look, the processes and products that make up our lives are being turned digital.  The general medias that transfer information are slowly being absorbed by the digital mass called the internet.  The seemingly ubiqutious iPhone has opened up markets for products that didn’t exist a year ago.  Fast foward to the middle of the century. What will the digital world hold for us? That’s what I would like to find out…