The digital economy doesn’t understand humans – ask me how I know

I am starting to lose faith in the digital world, and for all the wrong reasons. As a “digital devotee”, I have embraced online transactions of every type from the earliest days. Everything from emails and messaging to online purchases of travel and goods, banking, health advice, translations and social networking. But now I am beginning to see major flaws in the digital world that could, if not rectified, see its demise.

Surprisingly, it’s not the privacy issues that worry me most. That horse has well and truly bolted. I have been compromised so many times I’ve lost count, and they are just the ones I know about. Unsecured Wi-Fi networks, rogue apps, dodgy websites, scanners and my own stupidity has exposed everything from login passwords to bank account details. I have adopted a password manager that runs on all my devices and I now have over 700 unique passwords that I change regularly. Paranoid? Probably.

And it’s not security. It really doesn’t matter what I do to secure my devices, my home network and my online activities on public networks, because the security lapses are most common at the server end – the massive and supposedly impenetrable data collection and storage systems run by supposedly security-savvy companies like Uber, Dropbox, Yahoo, etc. If some of the world’s biggest online entities cannot secure their own systems, what chance do I have of being 100% certain my personal data is safe? Even with my 700 unique passwords changed regularly I can’t rest easy.

What really spells out the downfall of the broader digital economy is its failure to remember that I am still human and have not, as yet, been converted into a cyborg that conforms to some machine learning algorithm and accepts whatever the computer says. Let me explain.

In the not too distant “old days” if I wanted to book travel, I used a travel agency. When I needed to do banking, I went to a bank. When I wanted to buy clothes, I went to a mall. Every commercial interaction was with another human – someone who often (though not always) had empathy, communication skills, knowledge, opinions, advice and, above all, the ability to reason and think like a human.

I used to be able to call a number to talk to another human if I needed help with services, or had a complaint or needed something urgently. Trying to find a number to call in the digital world is like finding a needle in a haystack. The assumption is that I shouldn’t need to talk to anyone, because everything in the digital world is so bloody clever and well-designed I couldn’t possibly need another human being to sort out an issue.

No matter how brilliant these digital portals are, I can guarantee that I will manage to find a way to make something go wrong. It’s not intentional – it just happens, and it happens far too often for me to feel totally comfortable that what I trigger online will actually get a result somewhere else in the digital ether.

At least once per week I go into an apoplectic fit because something inexplicable happens in my digital world. For example, I booked air travel online with my favored airline, the one I have gold status with because of my loyalty. It wasn’t an easy itinerary but after an hour of fiddling around I got it sorted and managed to get a great price. Two weeks after completing the travel (over 20,000 air miles) I noticed I had not been credited the mileage. My online inquiries didn’t give me the answer so I resorted to calling and be told that the fare basis I booked on was not eligible for any mileage credits. Oh great, why didn’t the supposedly clever system tell me that before I booked. My old fashioned analog human travel agent would have!!!

And who could ever trust a computer to tell you that you would look good in a new suit and that it will fit you perfectly? I’d rather have an expert and human shop assistant do that and advise me on color and style, and point me to some potential bargain buys at the same time.

And don’t start me off about the benefits of online healthcare as opposed to visiting the doctor!

I’m not saying it’s all bad in the digital world – it’s just not good enough for me to rely on, not nearly good enough. Every online portal should have a ‘suggestion box’ so customers can easily report poor user experiences. They don’t and most affected customers, like me, just move on.

I know that retail bricks-and-mortar outlets are suffering just now, but my advice would be not to panic. Sure, provide an online option, but unless the digital world becomes more humanized it’s only a matter of time before we all go back to visiting the mall, enjoying a coffee with friends, talking to other humans, and experiencing and touching the goods we intend to spend good money on.

The digital world may not be doomed but if it doesn’t get its act together soon, the fad could well pass – unless we all become digital cyborgs in the meantime.


  1. I see your point, but my experience is that it is not only for digital services. I feel many ‘call center’ services are even worse. Or basically you have easily complex issues, if you do something that is not exactly according to the standard process, or something goes wrong in the process. One my conclusion is that this goes back to ‘process optimization’ that many large companies have now done at least 20 years. And many of them get them from traditional management and process consultants. They just wanted to plan perfect optimized processes, but often forgot many external factors, including human behavior.

    Actually, I feel the latest technology has started to improve certain things and often worse are the largest companies with quite old fashion big IT systems that limit many things. I think management consultants went too far with many focus, process and optimization things, and successful companies must think also other aspects. Of course, this my theory is just one factor, but I think one important one in these issues.

  2. Nice rant, Tony! I’ve experienced many of these things myself, but I’ve concluded that it’s not digitization (per se) that’s to blame here, though we remain in an immature digital environment. A big part of this is poor focus on customer experience, inadequate business processes, and the effect of competition and capitalism on business models and practices. Digitization just automates that. Read Hugo’s article on digitization vs. transformation. It’s more about business process than automation/technology. As Hugo says “What is key is a well instrumented process delivering the metrics that support the right critical business choices.” Many companies sacrifice customer experience for profit, or just implement processes poorly. And who’s to say that travel agent you mention would be astute or well trained enough to inform you of the lost award mileage (after you sat in the call queue for a hour), or that the clerk in the mall store isn’t driven more by a higher commission on the suit that they recommend? And would you get the same price with the additional labor required? And would you get the same range of choice? And how would you get back the extra time you lost dealing with the physical world?

    There will always be a mix of high tech and high touch services. We all need to figure out what works of each of us. I think digitization is here to stay, and hopefully it will continue to improve, but it’s the business goals, models, policies and attitudes that will make the difference in the end.

    Two parting words, as true in the future as they are today and were yesterday. Caveat emptor.

  3. Tony, Nice rant. But… We’re in the midst of a huge transformation of digitizing the whole of society and everything about it. The web sites we use today can be paralleled to the first bulbs with electricity that you had to reach up and turn them on and off at the bulb before there was wiring in the walls. And our wiring in the walls is the same compared to future houses that will not need any wiring to control the lights. etc.
    People, who are pre internet, still believe that interaction between humans is clear and helpful. And that sex is for making babies. (just kidding).
    The world we are entering into, in a short time, will truly challenge humans with the biggest challenge to our minds in all times. We are going to confront on a daily basis the infinite. Three elements: 1) Big data and quantum computers, 2) artificial intelligence or machine learning 3) blockchain technology, these will eventually (sooner than later) transform every experience we have ever known. Indeed, computers and their algorithms will know us better than we know ourselves (statistically) and we’ll let them know us.
    They will know, what clothes we like, they will know what we think fits us and suits us. They will be able to make far reaching decisions for us that we’ll follow because they will be able to plan how to dress for every occasion based on what results we wish to achieve. Think of it like an application called “Social Waze” i.e. want to get there? here’s the way to dress, here’s what you need to say.
    For example: when I want to get somewhere in the city, I already trust Google Maps more than I trust my instincts. And regarding OnLine Health Platforms, how can I trust that my doctor will pay attention to every symptom I give him and give me the right medicine? what is his/her true motivation? I would prefer a proven algorithm taking into consideration a thousand parameters, before offering the statistical best 3 choices for me and then I decide based on my preferences…
    My rant on ranters… ha!
    Keep going, you’re great.

    • Oh dear, when I get to the stage that a computer tells what to wear please turn off the life support system! I have a wife that tells me all those things without the use of big data, AI or blockchain and a doctor who treats me with empathy. Guess that makes me a digital dinosaur. 😱

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