What Is The Digital Age And What Does It Mean?
By Steve Denning

As books like Dignity In The Digital Age (Simon & Schuster) 2022) by Congressman Ro Khanna begin to appear, as talk of “the digital age” becomes commonplace, and as executives  grapple with “digital disruption” as their top management challenge, it can seem odd that no one seems to know what exactly is “the digital age”, or what it means.

The Birth Of The Industrial Era

Some light can be shed on the cause of this silence by looking at the arrival of the last great age, the Industrial Era, some 250 years ago. Even in retrospect, there is no agreement among historians as to what we are talking about with “the Industrial Era”.

Some historians see it primarily as an economic phenomenon that began in Britain, starting with mechanized spinning in the 1780s, and only reaching the rest of Europe by the mid-19th century .

Others see it as an engineering and technological phenomenon, starting with mechanized spinning in the 1780s with high rates of growth in steam power and iron production occurring after 1800. Some see it as the beginning of management as a kind of expertise. Some writers see it as an offshoot of improved agricultural productivity that freed up agriculture workers to be employed elsewhere the economy. Others adopt a gradualist perspective and suggest that there was no sudden transformation at all, but rather a confluence of many factors. Each discipline tends to pursue its own perspective  as “the” way to understand the era, to some extent distracting from the fact that the era was the result of “all of the above.’

Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations (1776)

Back then, in the 1770s, describing all the implications of the new era would have been like trying to tell the lords and ladies living in luxury on their  grand manors and agricultural estates, with all their tenant farmers touching their forelocks as these aristocrats drove by in their grand horse-drawn carriages, that they were going to be replaced by crass upstart businessmen, who would be tearing their aristocratic world apart, driving their tenant farmers off their estates and into the cities to undertake boring repetitive work known as "jobs.” Even less plausible would be telling the lords and ladies of their eventual destiny in the new era as tour guides of their grand manors for the hoi polloi. It would have been a story that would have been too complex and too horrible to contemplate, let alone write about.

The Scottish philosopher and economist, Adam Smith, took a stab at it, but even he could only see or tell part of the story in his masterwork, The Wealth of Nations (1776). There was only so much news that was fit to print. And a lot of the big things had yet to happen. A factory that made pins more efficiently than before hardly seemed like headline news.

Even so, Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776) covered a lot of ground. It was part economics textbook, part management textbook, part finance textbook, part social commentary on how this was all playing out, and part an example of early futurology. That combination was possibly the best that could be done at the time with the onset of a phenomenon as vast as a new age.

Almost by definition, any book that tried to describe the whole shebang would not have fitted into any existing category of book. If The Wealth of Nations book had been shoehorned into any existing category of book, it would never have had the impact that it did have. It was because the book was multi-faceted that readers could begin to grasp the enormous implications of what had begun to happen.

After a few decades, the landscape became clearer. For those with eyes to see, the era felt like a revolution. Thus in 1813, the Scottish statistician Patrick Colquhoun wrote in “A Treatise on the wealth, power and resources of the British empire” (London, 1813): “It is impossible to contemplate the progress of manufactures in Great Britain within the last thirty years without wonder and astonishment. Its rapidity, particularly since the commencement of the French revolutionary war, exceeds all credibility. the improvement of the steam engines, but above all the facilities afforded to the great branches of the woolen and cotton [manufactures] by ingenious machinery, invigorated by capital and skill, are beyond all calculation, these machines are rendered applicable to silk, linen, hosiery and various other branches.”

Thus, by the early 1800s, the well-to-do could now begin to experience the impact of the new era, though it would be another half century before the average citizen would see major gains.

Explaining the Digital Age

Today, with the emerging new age, which is most commonly - and inaccurately—called “the digital age, each book or article has so far covered tiny fragments of the whole. There is writing on the amazing new technologies that are now available. There is writing on how our lives are being transformed. There is writing on aspects of the management changes that are needed to succeed with those technologies. There is writing on how corporate finance has been transformed. There is writing on how individual sectors have been affected. There is writing on the potential gains that are available, as well as on the failure of many existing firms to take advantage of those opportunities, resulting in “digital disruption.” There is writing on the need to update the foundations of economics to incorporate what is happening. There is writing on the missteps of the digital winners and the risks of the new age, as well as what should be done to regulate or ameliorate some of the negative impacts. There is futurist writing that talks about where this is all heading.

What is lacking, and what is needed, is writing that presents a coherent picture of all the various aspects of the new age in a way that it can be understood, and dealt with, rationally, in its entirety.


Steve Denning

Steve Denning is the author of six successful business books on leadership, leadership storytelling, and management, as well as a novel and a volume of poems. Since 2011, he has been writing a popular Leadership column for Forbes.com and has published more than 600 articles on the Creative Economy, with more than 6 million visitors and more than 15 million page views. He has interviewed eminent gurus such as Clayton Christensen.

Steve is a member of the Advisory Board of the Drucker Forum, headquartered in Vienna, Austria. The annual Drucker Forum, held in November each year, has become the leading global conference on general management issues. Each year, Steve has chaired a panel at the Forum, which attracts the world’s top thought leaders in management.

Steve Denning is the author of The Age of Agile, The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management: Re-inventing the Workplace for the 21st Century (Jossey-Bass, 2010), The Secret Language of Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2007) and The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling (Jossey-Bass, 2005).

From 1996 to 2000, Steve was the Program Director, Knowledge Management at the World Bank where he spearheaded the organizational knowledge sharing program.

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