The next stage of the information age: building bridges in a hybrid world

We’ve been living in the information age since at least the end of the seventies, early eighties. An age in which – digital – information has increasingly become a key driver and enabler of the economy and of digital transformation.

Some point to far earlier periods and the inventions which triggered the shifts towards a knowledge-based economy. Others see the advent of the personal computer as the start of the information age and then there are those who consider the rise of the Internet in the nineties as the real start of the information age.

The information age revisited

When did the information age start and when will it end?

While we all speak about the information age, it isn’t as if one invention, one evolution or one technology marks the official start it.

The information age is at least as much a series of events and an ongoing evolution as it is a period in time. So, when someone asks when the information age started we need to give the usual answer: it depends on whom you ask.

While for this article we refer to the information age as the digital age (starting with the personal computer and augmented by the arrival of the Internet), it’s good to look back a bit. As a matter of fact, we even have no choice.

Why? Just look at all the new terms that are thrown at us to describe “game-changing” periods that have started or are about to start, often in the context of digital transformation or specific technological evolutions, where digital information obviously is key, across various sectors or ‘phenomena’.

Some examples? According to Forrester we live in the age of the customer. IDC says that the digital transformation (DX) economy is about to kick off. There is a new industrial revolution which we call Industry 4.0. We also live in a platform economy. And an API economy. Let’s also not forget that with the information age we live in a knowledge economy and even knowledge-based society. The list goes on.

One wonders if, with all these new economies and ages, we still live in the information age or in any other age someone somewhere came up with. The answer: you bet we still live in the information age. In fact, we never lived as much in an information age, in the context of digital information (bits and bytes indeed), as we do today. It has far from ended and won’t end any time soon.

The information age in transformation

Information – and information management, as well as all other areas touching data and information – are crucial in all aspects of the mentioned “new economies” and “revolutions” (a word that is easily used these days).

Whether we talk about APIs, digital transformation, the pillars and accelerators of the technologies which enable the DX economy (cloud, social, mobile, analytics, the Internet of Things, cognitive computing and AI, etc.), the drivers of Industry 4.0 or any other evolution: in the end, it is all about (connected) data and information. It’s all about the generation of data and turning it into actionable knowledge (remember the DIKW model) on one hand and about the utilization of data for any given human, business or societal goal on the other hand. Information within context and integrated with business processes, people, physical devices, you name it. Information that aims to build bridges, lots of them as we’ll see.

In his 1995 book, Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte described a future in which everything which would be digitalized would also be digitalized. And that included books such as the one who stated this to begin with.

Negroponte wrote how in the world of “atoms” physical limits stand in the way of breadth and depth, in the context of books (and thus knowledge). These limits don’t exist in the world of “bits”. You can never put the same amount, depth and breadth of knowledge/information in a book as you CAN in a digital forms unless you really have a lot of space and trees. We put the word “can” in capitals as depth, breadth and veracity do tend to be relative in many digital environments such as the Web, with its open nature and gigabytes of opinions, errors, unchecked facts and far worse.

Anyway, these differences between bits and atoms essentially characterize the information age and knowledge economy with an ongoing digitization and digitalization and, as a consequence, a lesser importance of ‘physical’ activities and products. Music as an online service. Books in digital formats. Automation eating away jobs and physical labor in the world of atoms. Data as a business asset. The shift from physical to digital assets.

From an industrial revolution of mechanization and power to a second industrial revolution of mass production, followed by a third industrial revolution of computers and automation and, now, Industry 4.0 or the fourth industrial revolution where we speak about cyber physical systems. Digital and physical, meeting in industry in a hybrid way – building bridges.

Industry 4.0 - the four industrial revolutions
Industry 4.0 – the four industrial revolutions – By ChristophRoser. “Christoph Roser at” (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The hybrid world: when bits and atoms increasingly meet and create each other

There are still many information sources, carriers and formats that can be digitized, there still is a lot that can be digitalized and there sure is plenty of opportunity to automate whereby some dream of a world where close to everything gets automated.

Others even believe literally everything will be digital one day, including many parts of ourselves. Even if that will happen to an extent (it already is in fact) and more breakthroughs (among others in health) are still upon us We’ll leave the latter to the futurists. These range from the believers that we will transcend our biological limitations like Ray Kurzweil and his Singularity to the believers in simulated reality or simulation hypothesis (in a nutshell: reality is a simulation and/or can be simulated), the adepts of computationalism (in a nutshell: our mind, brain and/or thinking is essentially a computing information processing system) and those who say parts or all of the before mentioned is nonsense.

What we see in the here and now and as briefly touched upon in the hybrid context of Industry 4.0 is that the information age in many aspects has entered a next stage.

We don’t want to call it the information age 2.0 or any other fancy name (we’ve mentioned enough of those already) but it’s certain that the information age is moving to the intersection of the ‘bits’ and the ‘atoms’ and to the role of information as a builder of multiple bridges in novel ways.

Talking about that ‘bits’ and ‘atoms’ part: in a sense it’s ironic that with 3D-printing we’re moving from the information age’s world of bits to the world of production of more tangible items than most can imagine, thus again creating atoms out of bits.

Building bridges amidst the blurring of digital and physical borders

We’re also seeing the ongoing blurring between digital and physical worlds (since quite some time and after all, WE made the distinction between both, whereas there is no real border), whether it’s in the customer experience, the shopping journey, the Internet of Things or the before mentioned cyber physical systems of Industry 4.0.

Information about information is more important than information (Nicholas Negroponte, 1995)

And while for many it is tempting to see the future as fully digital, this next information age stage is a hybrid one where information drives production, physical and digital worlds convergence, artificial intelligence augments human intelligence and decision-making and information gets a more important role than ever. Last but not least, in this hybrid information age, information gets its place alongside human and physical assets, which are the foundations of the DX economy.

People want digital and physical experiences, they want digital information and books they can touch and read, they want to produce and create digitally and physically and they want to tell stories, which once consisted of information and were passed on in the form of storytelling.

Moreover, the information age and its knowledge economy requires physical phenomena to even exist, from energy to other forms of infrastructure. But here as well, we see how both worlds convergence and complement each other. After all, what else is a smart grid? This is the next stage of the information age: one in which bits and atoms join each other.

Building bridges between islands of splendid isolation

In these hybrid times of digital transformation, cyber physical systems, augmented ‘anything’ and so forth, the information age is about building bridges in far more ways than just the blurring of digital and physical.

Information needs to build bridges between:
  • Back end and front office
  • Increasingly interconnected processes
  • Human and machine
  • Machine and machine
  • People and people
  • Silos and silos of splendid isolation, still a major challenge
  • Insights and actions (both being neither ‘bits’ nor ‘atoms’)
  • Existing and new business models
  • Functions and responsibilities
  • Facts, stories, experiences and emotions
  • Existing ecosystems and new ecosystems
  • Raw data, meaning and value
  • Intent and response
  • Chaos and context
  • Prediction and pro-action
  • Workers and workers
  • Location and access
  • Case opening and closing
  • Input, process and output
  • Communities and platforms

The list goes on…

Beyond the hybrid digital-physical stage

What comes beyond that hybrid age where information is crucial in all possible perspectives?

Ray Kurzweil book signing at Global Directions - picture J-P De Clerck
Ray Kurzweil book signing – picture J-P De Clerck

Maybe some futurists will be right with ongoing digitalization. Probably we’ll totally forget the notion of digital versus physical, bits versus atoms and this hybrid stage altogether, as the convergence of ‘everything’ is simply a given and maybe we’ll use 3D-printing to build our own printing presses that print books without the need for paper.

It’s not a coincidence we mentioned books (and printing) of course as, among the many, really many, inventions which are often mentioned as foundational for the information age is obviously, on top of the computer, the Internet, the telegraph and so forth, the movable type printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439.

To end, here’s a quote from Negroponte’s Being Digital, whom we also mentioned in the context of books earlier: “Information about information is more important than information.”

Think about it and how we are massively seeking meaning context and meaning within mountains of data and information in order to feed processes and actions in digital(ized) activities and in the real world for real people and outcomes. The question is what will be real.

Top picture: purchased on Shutterstock. Copyright: AVN Photo LabAll other pictures: see mentioned owners in image description and links.