What role does connectivity play in our digital lives?

Thanks to fixed and mobile network development, digital technology has become instrumental in transforming our societies and social norms. So what role does connectivity play in today’s digital societies? Patrice Carré, historian and Director of Relations for French local authorities at Orange, gives us some answers.

Networks: an essential historical role for collective interest

“By definition, a network promotes relationships and creates collective communities: family, common interests, proximity, neighbourhood, friendship, social groups, authority… the oldest networks were social networks long before they became digital!

However, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th century that we saw the development of technical networks that led to socio-economic modernisation. Railway expansion in the 1850s/1870s brought about the need to unify national markets and build a standard economic forum. The first international telecoms network – via submarine telegraph cables – led to the beginnings of globalisation. This was characterised by the accelerated growth in international trade, business exchanges and information circulation.

Connectivity has become fundamental for everyone, from yesterday’s telephone to today’s digital tools that simplify our daily lives. Just like running water or electricity, connectivity over a digital network is now a basic essential that contributes to our collective interest.

What will our digital society look like in 10 years?

“If we take the last 10 years as an example, we can easily see that social media, blogs, chat and also Open Data, Big Data, Cloud computing, Smart Cities, smart grids, e-administration, e-democracy… are all essential uses that we didn’t even know existed before then. So digital has well and truly entered our everyday lives and a new ecosystem has emerged because of it. In the office, at home or on the move, digital services are commonplace.

We can safely imagine that today’s connectivity boundaries will be broken in the next 10 years, artificial intelligence will make a huge leap forward, and connected objects will become ever better at talking to each other. Today’s devices will also evolve – who imagined the iPhone 11 years ago – and their performance will be linked to new forms of connectivity enabled by 4G, then 5G then ubiquitous fibre.

On the other hand, Big Data, IoT, augmented reality and artificial intelligence (which will undoubtedly find new uses and markets in sectors such as transport, health, energy, smart grids etc) will in turn become mainstream. New ecosystems will then be established.

How networks respond to the global and regional digital divide

“The deployment of telecoms networks and infrastructures in all their forms is absolutely essential to ensure that everything and everyone can connect. Without the physical network … no Internet, no services!

At a global level all countries experience some form of Digital Divide, the term coined in the USA at the end of the 1990s. Roll forward to 2015, and the World Economic Forum noted how digital’s economic and social benefits were still only available to a minority of the global population in its report on information technologies. Economies ranked in the top 10% have seen twice the level of improvement since 2012 than those in the bottom 10%. It’s not just a North/South split. There are other inequalities too: between affluent and populated vs deprived and isolated regions, between social groups and between people with the necessary wealth and culture vs those without.

In France, a socially responsible company such as Orange is working hard to reduce the geographical digital divide through innovation development and making considerable investments to ensure the decrease continues. However, as the Secretary of State in charge of Digital Affairs, Mounir Mahjoubi, pointed out on 12 December 2017 during the launch of the national strategy for digital inclusion – 13 million French people still don't have basic digital skills. According to recent studies, almost a quarter of adults have little or no Internet access and don’t feel comfortable using it. This geographical divide has taken the place of a cultural and social divide.

New digital uses for a new ethic?

“Whether young or old, born in the digital age or not, people are continuing to develop new ways of using digital technology. In all territories, from the smallest village to the capital city, innovative uses are spreading and becoming popular. These changes are gradually integrating into our daily lives. They change our habits, disrupt our ways of working, revolutionise the way we consume and redefine our relationship with our communities.

However, the “digital world” does not develop in a uniform way. There’s a historical tension between the fast pace of innovation and long-term adoption into our lifestyles. One thing is certain is that nothing will be left untouched: our cities, work life, relationship to culture, senses… will all be affected if they haven’t already been. Meeting these needs involves a significant R&D effort and constantly listening to needs.

What’s certain is that increasing digitisation raises many questions: it’s not just about the technology or business organisation. It’s also profoundly political in the meaning given by the ancient Greeks: it’s about the ‘body of citizens’, or “Polis” and so in this sense it is also radically ethical.