Democracy of information and the foundations of an agile future

This post is based on ideas from my latest book, The Agile Consumer. To learn more or purchase the book, you can read more here.

Let’s let’s begin a  3-part exploration of the next generation of consumers and the makings of our agile future.

The agile future requires three fundamental principles to flourish. Let’s explore each in more depth, as well as their impact on the agile consumer.

Brands that truly understand their place in their customers’ lives (and what they can help them solve) will thrive in a world where consumers’ needs and intents are made clearer and more transparent. Understanding this and capitalizing on it will set many brands apart from their competition.

There is no doubt that search and the global access to information it allows have changed humanity. Search is ground in many of the ways we have always remembered and contextualized information, which has facilitated its growth and adoption. With search engines, voice assistants, mobile devices and other interfaces at the ready, we now have the answer to many questions within a few moments or even seconds of effort. We don’t even need to type our questions anymore. Siri, Alexa, and countless other assistants are there to help us with a voice prompt.

Search’s effect on society is such that a vast amount of information has become more democratized than ever before. While we still have many challenges to overcome as a society in ensuring that there is democracy for everyone (including ensuring that the information is not only accessed but understood), the access that search allows us to almost anything we could possibly imagine is often just a question away.

Let’s now look at a few aspects of this first foundation of an agile future. I’ve divided this into two parts.

Everything is available

What does it mean when all the information ever digitally recorded is available to everyone at all times around the world?

I sometimes complain if my Internet connection is a little spotty or my cell signal is less than optimal. Which generally means my access to petabytes of information is only a few additional seconds away. How spoiled we’ve become!

Miriam Rivera, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Ulu Ventures, Kauffman Fellow, describes Google (and the indexing of information in general) in the following way:

Now Google is a global archive storing our history as it is made. It is as though a virtual world is being created right alongside our real world, a simulation of reality that grows more robust by the day. Because of Google, the creation and storage of information itself has expanded exponentially as people and scholars have access to information that enables them to make new discoveries. Those discoveries, in turn, are shared with the world thanks to the culture of sharing that has been central to the Internet and Google’s philosophy. All this has sped the pace of discovery.

Challenge to overcome: fake news and false information

All this to say, the consumer is becoming more educated more quickly, and they’re sharing more with their friends, colleagues, family, and even strangers. The challenge for those companies and organizations responsible for providing gateways to information is to ensure that it is fact-based and not filled with misinformation. We clearly have a long way to go in that regard, given the challenges that tech giants like Facebook and Twitter alone have created for others as well as themselves.

But there are some strides being made in being able to asses and predict the reliability of information. For instance, DARPA (the United States Military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is currently working on the Systematized Confidence in Open Research and Evidence, or SCORE project which is using machine learning to predict the reliability of scientific findings. This means that one-off studies with insufficient data can be sniffed out and flagged as being unreliable. This same approach could then be applied to even less scientific statements and, with the assistance of AI, help us separate the fake news from the facts.

Everything is contextual

What does it mean when machines, software, and devices know what you want before you even ask?

As consumers increasingly demand personalized experiences and customer service, it becomes imperative that the interfaces we use understand the context surrounding our requests and actions.

Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, is known for saying “My vision when we started Google 15 years ago was that eventually you wouldn't have to have a search query at all.” In other words, the search mechanism and interface would have so much context already that it would know what you want.

While we’re not quite there yet, there are many examples of context assisting our experience, as well as improving and accelerating processes. Think about something that you take for granted, like Google Maps. It’s really just a search engine that assumes (rightfully so) that when you enter information into the search fields, you want to know where a place is and how to get there. Location-based search is ubiquitous these days, but all the way back in 1996, there was only MapQuest. Google Maps wasn’t released until 2005. And that is just one way of looking at context. 

Of course, Amazon’s related products is one of the go-to examples of context and relational databases that we also take for granted. We’re getting closer to many other types of technologies becoming ubiquitous as well, including facial recognition in stores, AI-based chatbots that provide 24/7 customer service, smarter highways with self-driving cars, and augmented reality devices that can provide useful information by understanding our intent. Automation and personalization tools are already being used by many marketers in organizations and are quickly transforming customer experience. 

What democracy of information means for the agile consumer

Without simply dedicating more paragraphs to expounding on how cool the Internet is, I’ll instead say this: when everyone has access to everything, consumers are smarter, savvier, and if you believe at all in the market economy, this means that progress will occur more quickly. 

Understanding consumers’ needs and intents and capitalizing on them for their customers’ benefit will set many brands apart from their competition. But it also means that investment in innovation becomes even more imperative. Fortunately, some of this becomes easier in an agile world where consumers are more open to being part of the product development process.

Challenge to overcome: the digital divide

Of course, in order to have true democracy of information, we need for everyone to have access, not just those fortunate enough to own expensive devices and pay for costly data plans.

This disparity between the digital “haves” and “have-nots” is often referred to as the digital divide. Closing this gap is critical to allowing some of those in greatest need of access to information, opportunities, and mobility. As of 2018, the FCC estimates that 24.7 million Americans do not have access to broadband internet. And even in more populated areas, while broadband speeds continue to increase, this often only confuses the offerings available and with less direct competition, costs can remain at a premium for a disparate array of options.

This is where governments (federal, state, and local), activists and advocates, and individuals must come together to find better ways to provide access, and the means to afford that access. 

This help can take the shape of corporate partnerships like Microsoft’s Airband initiative, which promises to reach 3 million previously unserved customers by 2022 through a technology using television airwaves to allow wi-fi access to those in rural or remote areas in the United States. This same approach is being used by both Google and Microsoft to increase internet access in Africa as well.

Efforts to bridge the digital divide can also be led by governments. Costa Rica went from only 28.4 percent of the population having access to the internet to 66 percent in 2016 by intentionally finding ways to provide this access to low-income households. 

The digital divide is a challenge we all must work to solve in the public and private sectors, but the more we’re able to accomplish this, the more that all people can beneft from democracy of information..
This post is based on ideas from my latest book, The Agile Consumer. To learn more or purchase the book, you can read more here.

Greg Kihlstrom