Coming to You in 2018: Digital Backlash?

At CoDE, we’ve been discussing the thorny topic of “one big trend for 2018 for the digital economy”. It started with a simple question, and gave rise to a fascinating exchange across the team. It really shows why CoDE is more than the sum of its parts, or members, or research areas: we are able to weave together our individual threads and gain a broad perspective on the digital economy, and the ‘weak signals’ we need to be anticipating, and prioritising. Below, some highlights of our conversation:

  • The big issue for Digital Economy in 2018 is a tough one.  I will go with “Digital Backlash”. I think 2018 will see an intensification of a wave of anti-digital activities. The uncertainties and dystopian visions for the digital world are beginning to grow. So when I see efforts such as “me and my shadow” (…. The pushback on Uber, Airbnb, Facebook and others in terms of taxes, social impact etc…. and the new digital/data regulation such as GDPR coming into effect in 2018….it all tells me that we’re going to see some more significant backlash. Considerations such as Brexit will add pressure as the UK seeks to justify and differentiate its position in a digital world, and push productivity higher to compensate for trade uncertainties.  It feels a bit like “the end of the beginning” for the digital transformation….now for the hard stuff…


  • What I observed in talking to the students in Helsinki is that young people are also starting to contest against digitalisation. Many were telling me about how they feel they should de-digitalise and become less connected. So we should not assume that next generations are going to be willing to be more digitalised.


  • I also agree with the trends, and the critical responses being put forward lately. But I think these trends are a good reflection of what is happening in a particular part of the world–certainly, Europe. The trends in the developing world are rather different, with the digital economy (and the Ubers, Airbnbs, and even Bitcoin) being portrayed as the new response to the same old developmental challenges.


  • I agree. Millenials ‘disconnecting’ is a first-world European (and to some extent WASP American) problem. Try asking someone in an African or Asian country; it’s the opposite. Chinese students in personal tutor meetings with me today complained that in China they can check into hospitals using WeChat and here it takes 5 hours to see someone about having injured their toe.



  • I think a digital backlash is part of what we all have to do in the West to some degree in managing our participation in the ubiquitous digital world. We can only manage so many devices and services with limited time and money, so it is not surprising that some are rejected or shelved for periods. Increasing discomfort over privacy concerns and intrusive media may also be making people more conservative about what they engage with. This is likely to be less of a problem in developing communities where people don’t manage so many technologies, and the smartphone is the main interface to the web. I just got back from Dutch Design Week yesterday with Tijs Duel and Mark Plumbley. I think there are signs of another trend which may be coming in on the back of the internet of things. This is the merging of physical and digital information through tangible user interfaces. Multipurpose computing devices like the computer and tablet have ruled over single purpose ones for many years, but the tide may be turning as digital ‘material’ simply becomes part of ordinary product design: think this will lead to more tasteful and calming technology in the long run, that may humanise the services that currently assail us. Tijs and I hope to demonstrate this on the Making Sense of Sounds project.


  • Yes, I think that as digital technology submerges into “the way we do things” it will become less obtrusive and seamless.  But it will also raise uncomfortable questions about whether people know what they are signing up to.  For example, when I ride in a “digitally enabled taxi”, did I agree to have the electronics in the seat take a full ECG while I ride? Did I agree that it logs where I am going, who I am with, my state of emotion, my weight, the clothes I am wearing, etc.?  And that’s just for a simple scenario. If we start to look at IoT in the home we’re into a whole different ball game….The smartphone has taken us quite far in this direction. And we’re just beginning to see the implications of this (scenarios come to mind involving divorce cases, paedophile rings, human trafficking, etc…). Some organizations are waking up to this. The Government is beginning to legislate (badly) in this area. Individuals are starting to ask some questions. I’ll predict that in 2018 that we’ll have one or two high profile wake-up calls.  A heart monitor gets hacked. A hospital is held to ransom. A city infrastructure is turned off. Or worse….

What’s your view on Digital Backlash? Or do you think there will be another, bigger digital issue for the coming year?

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About the Author : Kris Henley

Communications and Outreach for Surrey Business School's Centre for the Digital Economy, a newly-founded research centre to explore the implications of the Digital Economy for business, government and society.