A remedy for "Digital Angst"

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An article by Reinhard Clemens, from 2007 to 2017 Member of the Deutsche Telekom AG Board of Management and CEO of T-Systems.

Reinhard Clemens, Member of the Deutsche Telekom AG Board of Management and CEO T-Systems

Reinhard Clemens, from 2007 to 2017 Member of the Deutsche Telekom AG Board of Management and CEO of T-Systems.

As an expert for digitalization, I keep my eyes on the opportunities that interconnection offers. That's only natural. But I'm well aware that where there is light, there is also shadow. At the moment, a Trojan has unleashed a vicious ransomware attack. This event is highly disconcerting – for people and companies alike. For many people, the negative aspects of digitization are not limited to the openings it offers hackers and cyber criminals. They also include digital technologies' threats to jobs, and their potential to limit entrepreneurial options, along the lines of "digitize or die!" So the pressures surrounding digitization are increasing. And thus the mounting worries about digitization shouldn't surprise us. "Digital Angst" is an term for such concerns. I'm here to offer a remedy: "smart digitization," or digitization with a proper sense of perspective.

Technology fascinates me. It always has. I was fascinated by all the digital innovations shown at the Hannover Messe trade fair, that took place some weeks ago. It was only natural for me to become an engineer. And it was only natural for me to begin focusing on digitization – I've been doing that for years now, both privately and in my work. As a member of the Deutsche Telekom Board of Management, with responsibility for business customers, I have the opportunity to help shape the digitization of our society. And I would say I've had some success in this, in that many of our customers are now routinely using the digital solutions we offer, in areas such as cloud-based services, big data, the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0. And when I say "routinely," I really mean "routinely." Our customers are using these things just as matter-of-factly, as they use office software such as Word and Excel. So, basically, I'm a digitization optimist. I'm bullish on digitization, because I know that autonomous systems, VR and AR technologies, artificial intelligence and robotics have the potential to open up great new opportunities for companies and their employees. At the same time, I'm well aware that digitization is something much bigger than the little universe I'm able to take in as a technology expert. Digitization is about more than algorithms, bits & bytes, and sensors and actuators. Digitization keeps penetrating more and more deeply into things. Into the ways we work, for example. Into the ways we think, and into the ways we live. It's been bringing up entirely new issues, such as the issue of what ethics we should apply to our interactions with robots.  Or the issue of what legal framework we should develop for use of self-driving cars. Or the issue of whether artificial intelligence can "peacefully" coexist with our concepts of freedom.  

We need to consider these issues very carefully. And we need to do so as soon as possible. But to do that, we need to look now at something much more fundamental: Digital Angst. This is because for many people, digitization is something to fear. All the possibilities get pushed into the background. We engineers and IT experts have to realize that acceptance of digitization and Industry 4.0 isn't going to simply happen by itself; people are going to need help in understanding them. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted in her opening speech for CeBIT, "We shouldn't ignore people who feel unsettled by digital change; this is about millions of people who still don't know what to expect." Or to put this idea more starkly: Our German angst is giving way to digital angst, to Digital Angst.

Alarmism produces fear

There are many triggers for Digital Angst. A fast Internet search for the keyword "digitization" turns up the following, for example: A recently published McKinsey forecast indicates that over 20 million jobs in Germany are at risk of being automated. The business consultancy A.T. Kearney goes so far as to suppose that nearly half of Germany's current jobs could be lost to robots within 20 years. A suitable footnote for these forecasts would point out that they are about as reliable as the one predicting a white Christmas for 2017 – finally, after all these years! Another would remind us that while some jobs will be eliminated, others will be created. In any case, the more people learn of such forecasts, the more they wonder if, and where, they're still going to fit in, in a world in which more and more value creation is handled by ever-smarter robots and machines. By robots and machines who never take vacations. And who never complain about a never-ending workday. And this trend is going to affect all social strata. Already, for example, even highly educated university instructors are having to compete with machines, with machines such as "Jill Watson," an AI teaching assistant based on Watson, the "Jeopardy!"-playing supercomputer. Already, the replacement process has reached stock exchanges. Goldman Sachs, the investment bank, now has only two stock traders on the trading floor. It used to have 600. The other 598 have been replaced by algorithms.

Are we losing control over our data?

Big data also drives Digital Angst. This is about what is really happening with all the data that are constantly being collected. The amount of data collected in all of the year 2000 is now collected in a single day. All kinds of data are collected, and there is concern that big data could turn our data against us. Might it raise our health insurance premiums, for example, if our cholesterol levels are too high? Or if we haven't been walking the 10,000 steps a day that are recommended for a healthy life? A job-seeker's data might induce a potential employer to refrain from offering a job interview. Such consequences definitely do not inspire. Such data, instead of helping us, can undermine our opportunities. 

A new study by the Körber Foundation has found that only one out of every two persons who earn a university entrance qualification (Abitur), and only one out of every four secondary school (Hauptschule) graduates, believes that digitization will increase his or her opportunities. Obviously enough, if I'm a taxi driver, the prospect of self-driving taxis will not excite me, and if I'm a truck driver, I won't be eagerly awaiting the day when autonomous, connected trucks begin to solve our traffic problems. Simply because I'll be afraid of losing my job. I'll probably be feeling plenty of anger as well. Then I'll understand all the professional drivers who have been protesting – from Hamburg to California – against Uber and its digital ilk, by blocking roads, lighting wheels and overturning cars. Many of the rest of us dismiss these people as short-sighted and old-fashioned. Of course.

Horrific scenarios as a message

If those protesters are wrong, we're just as wrong when we preach a digitization mantra to SMEs, muttering that the end is near for those who stay non-digital. After all, companies are well into the transformation process, as our "SME digitization index" shows. There are even indications that digitization is making production in Germany profitable again, after decades of "Made in China." While many are far from having completed the process, do we have to remind them of that constantly, and paint gloom-and-doom scenarios that only worsen their Digital Angst? No, we don't, in my humble opinion. If we do that, we might as well tell ghost stories to a small child who is afraid of the dark. As everyone knows, when a child is afraid, we calm and reassure – we don't add to her fright! So we need to be thinking along these lines when it comes to companies' Digital Angst.

Digitization is not a new doctrine of salvation

Well, then, what do we do against Digital Angst?

  • Demystify digitization
    Digitization is definitely not the promise of a never-never land where everything is beautiful. Digitization simply provides tools and methods that enable companies to operate more cost-effectively. And it makes new business models possible. But the business ideas still have to come from us, the human beings in the room.
  • Break digitization down into bite-size portions
    Taking small steps is the best way to familiarize ourselves with something new. Perhaps you are familiar with "agile" methods of software development, such as Scrum. Their secret to success is to divide tasks into sections (known as "sprints"). In addition, they move toward the goal step by step, all the while retaining the ability to adapt to any changes in the context.
  • From a euphoric view on digitization to a realistic one
    Many self-proclaimed digital evangelists think the numbers say it all. Numbers such as those of the Bitkom digital association, according to which digitization will boost value creation in Germany by 78 billion euros by 2025. And who hasn't heard the old saw to the effect that "everything that can be digitized will be digitized"? That's too euphoric, and it's about as useful on the digitization front as the eternal pessimists are. Here's a better saying: "Everything that can usefully be digitized will be digitized." We need to let companies and their ecosystems digitize at their own pace. Some will move fast, and some move less fast. For a digitization newbie, the process could entail search engine optimization (SEO) for the business's website. For a company much further along, it might involve an Internet of Things (IoT) solution for logistics operations. For visionaries, it might be about a completely new business idea.
  • Specify the risks and side effects
    It's not enough to simply describe the functions and possibilities inherent in a new technology. So we need a "package insert" for digitization. When we take medications, we want to be aware of any risks and side effects involved. Similarly, when we use digital technologies, we need to keep our eyes on their risks and potential "side effects." We have to accept the fact that digitization does not automatically improve all processes. This is also a question of perspective. For example, one can view Airbnb as a bold, friendly, rule-breaking company that has made travel much cheaper, and far more interesting, for many people. Or one can view it as a tourism giant that has been changing entire districts of cities. We have to know the risks and side effects if we want to be able to make good decisions and to control developments instead of letting them control us.
  • Initiating a conversation about digitization
    We – policymakers, associations and companies such as Deutsche Telekom – have to put our heads together to find ways of overcoming our digitization anxieties. In this case, "we" are among those who are driving progress, and those who do that have to be willing to take responsibility. That said, who can know now who is going to be affected by digitization at some point in the future? In sum, therefore, we need a very broad-based conversation about digitization. A conversation that does not sound like the carefree speeches that specialists give us. This is especially important in that the next step, artificial intelligence, is going to be a giant leap in the digital evolution. And that leap is something most people either will not understand or not want to understand. To promote acceptance on that front, we will need more than the conventional techniques available for providing information and raising awareness. What we will need – and what we already need today – is a conversation that is both interdisciplinary and immune to hierarchies. Why? Because without frank, open discussion, with all participants able to contribute equally – a discussion serving as a sort of internal compass to guide us – we will not be able to establish digitization as a permanent force in our society and economy. If we do not actively support this transformation, fear and resistance will grow. And that would be unfortunate – now, yes, in our "super election year," and later as well. Because, to make a lasting success of digitization, big data and Industry 4.0, we need to convince as many people as possible of the benefits these things will bring in the medium and long terms. To that end, we need a platform for discussion between computer scientists, engineers, moral philosophers, economists, ethicists, historians, entrepreneurs and politicians. For discussion of the central questions involved in the transformation process. Such as "how can Industry 4.0 enhance our quality of life and the competitiveness of our companies?" Or "how can we minimize the risk that digitization will begin dividing our society into two irreconcilable camps?" And, most important, "how can we address and relieve Digital Angst?"
  • Developing a digital codex
    From the answers we produce for these questions, we need to develop a digital codex – i.e. guidelines that will allow companies, our economy and our society to move forward with the process, safely and securely. Guidelines that will enable us to handle digitization confidently, with control. To relieve Digital Angst, and enable society to embrace digitization wholeheartedly, we have to offer credibility and openness.

    A look back assures us that we do not have to consider these ideas utopian. We look back to 2004, to a time before robots such as "Pepper" and his robotic siblings had appeared. In that year, the "First International Symposium on Roboethics" took place in the city of San Remo. The term "roboethics" had been coined by Gianmarco Veruggio, a robotics expert who served as the General Chair for that symposium. The roboethics concept defined a framework for peaceful coexistence between humans and machines. It is a concept similar to the "Laws of Robotics" that science fiction author Sir Isaac Asimov had formulated in 1942. Long before these new technologies appeared, Asimov had the far-sightedness to understand that they would call for a new ethics.

Driven by anxiety?

As all these examples show, Digital Angst is not incurable. I can overcome it, and you can, too. In fact, Digital Angst can actually be a productive driving force for the digital transformation process. We Germans have some of the world's strictest data protection laws. Do you think we ever would be been able to develop them if we hadn't had to grapple with such anxiety? Our smart security experts are a big reason why German providers have achieved such an outstanding position in the area of security – in connection with cloud-based technologies, for example. Our Digital Angst is another big reason. Why is that? Because our habit of closely inspecting and questioning things has a positive side. As long as we can overcome our anxieties, that is. And if we can convert them into the courage to develop solutions with which we can live and work, positively and productively. "We have a real problem when people are afraid of progress, instead of delighting in it," to paraphrase words once spoken by Bill Gates. So let's do something against Digital Angst. Before it does something with us.

How bad is your Digital Angst? Do you encounter Digital Angst on the part of your customers, business partners and co-workers? What concerns and what hopes do you encounter? Please share your thoughts with me. I'm looking forward to our discussion!

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