SINC’s Director of Content Annie Liljegren spoke with Kenneth McGee in October 2021 for this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
I recently sat down with Kenneth McGee, Research Fellow at Info-Tech, who’ll be featured at our 2021 Canada IT & Security Leaders Virtual Forum, November 15th-17th, delivering a keynote presentation entitled “The Digital Economy.”
Ken’s notable career includes 29 years as a VP at Gartner, and VP roles at Goldman Sachs and later Salomon Brothers, where he served as VP International Communications Director in London, and VP IT Budget Director in New York.
Kenneth McGee: We’re going to first establish a digital economy’s definition. And therefore, there’s fodder for disagreement and debate. But having said that, no—COVID did not bring about this idea. Claude Shannon did in 1948, when he wrote the first paper on converting physical atoms to digital bits. So we have to blame Claude.
Tongue in cheek, of course, but no–it’s been going on for decades. But, we are at this level (indicates gap between thumb and forefinger) of completion so far. It’s been an initiative that’s been undertaken for decades, but we have a long way to go.
There have been recessions, there have been pandemics throughout history. This is the first time that we are coming out of a recession where there is a digital economy, a fundamental change in economic principles, waiting for us. Never happened before.
The last time we came out of a recession we were still doing manufacturing, we were still doing services. This is brand-new stuff.
COVID, and the need to recover from it, and therefore the recession, is accelerating digital transformation. And the way it’s doing that is digitally transforming manual things to electronic things–things performed by humans will now be performed by non-humans. Digital transformation is nothing if not that.
KM: I certainly don’t see backlash, but there is an element here that’s worth considering: once you go past this line you’re never coming back. You’re never coming back. And therefore you see things like blockchain and disappearing intermediaries.
But here is the point: I do not believe in the merit of the comment that technology is changing all the time. I think that’s rubbish. Products change all the time, and therefore it’s the difference between discoveries and inventions. Inventions change a lot of things, but there are only 107 things on the periodic chart, for example. We don’t keep discovering fundamental elements.
And therefore, there are things that come along that—like on the periodic chart—are so distinctly different they forever change things, and will forever change the future, and from which you will never return. One of them is the telegraph, another is penicillin: fundamentally changing the course of the human species. And we are saying the aspects of the digital economy are similar to that. They are of this ilk. They are ‘realm’ changes that will change humans forever and from which we will never return.
We have to reach a point where we can say: what other example can we cite where so many failures have occurred, on an ongoing basis, and yet we continue to spend money on it?
Keep talking about spending money–you’re wasting your time. Blow it up, and let’s start over.
KM: The answer is that is not going to come from the industry. Secondly, it is not going to come from anywhere more potent than for nations to realize they are already at war, and they are–as in the common adage complaining about generals–they are preparing for the last war. The next war, I don’t yet see it on the radar screen, being formulated and compiled by anybody.
Now if it is, I’m not even sure I would be amongst those who would detect it. But I know this: my daughter works at the White House. She had her name stolen by a foreign government, this was all over the papers, and the fact that they could reach in to this kind of secure domain and have her name, among many thousands of others, from the other side of the planet is so not acceptable that I cannot see the scenario that could accommodate: Well, we have to get used to it.
That is against nature, it is so wrong. And yet we are continuing to use the 1980s and 90s book of how to prepare, and how to protect your data. For the love of God, let me get in my DeLorean.
Kenneth McGee: And what is the difference? Claude Shannon told us in 1948 what the difference is, and we haven’t caught on yet.