[SCMP Column] Your digital afterlife

May 16, 2016

The business world is awash with breathless hyperbole about the new “Digital Economy”, and they are probably right to be. But getting a concrete grasp of what it all means can still be challenging. And so a few “eureka moments” over the past four weeks of globetrotting have helped me to glimpse the awesome implications of the changes we face – both the dizzying opportunities, and the even more dizzying challenges.

The first glimpse was a fascinating exploration by author Laurence Scott into our digital afterlife. When you die, you may nurture hopes that you are heading to heaven and eternal happiness. But those are just hopes. Much more certain is that when you die, you will live on in your virtual form. The you in Facebook, or LinkedIn. The you in libraries of photos, music and WhatsApp messages floating up there in the cloud.

“Dying no longer necessitates a withdrawal from sociability, nor is death tethered securely to the idea of absence,” says Scott. Imagine someone creating hundreds of messages or missives, and giving instructions for them to be sent out intermittently after he or she dies. I’m sure it’s easy to create an algorithm for something like that. Scott mischievously asks, is text messaging the key to immortality? “The prospect of enduring as data is one of the more spectacular ways in which digital life is reformatting mortality in its own image,” he concludes.

One enterprising English company called QR Memories is taking the digital economy into the cemetery, embedding polka-dot QR squares into tombstones so that anyone visiting your grave can with a click on his or her smartphone learn all about you: “A person who has died becomes a person who once lived,” says QRMemories director Elizabeth Normandale. Imagine the potential for that across those thousands of little memorial plaques in Hong Kong cemeteries.

More important, lawyers are warning that you must now include instructions about what you want to happen to your digital self when you write your will. Just as families squabble over who gets the family silver, so in future they will squabble over who gets – or gets to take control of – your Facebook history and photos.

The new buzz words around the digital revolution – from IoT, or the Internet of Things, to Fintech and 3D printing – may be a bit less exotic, but are no less disruptive. And most of us still have only the most fragile grasp on what it all means – and is going to mean.

By 1995, the digital revolution was pretty much limited to music, videos and photos. By 2010 it had swallowed the print media, retailing, TV programming, travel and tourism services and the human resources profession. By last year, it was engulfing financial services, healthcare, education, the auto industry, and agriculture. It is now lapping at the door of two even more fundamental activities in our economies – accounting and legal services.

Our accounting conventions were never designed to wrestle with digital products and services – either in terms of what to do with them in a balance sheet, or in terms of which countries you attribute them to. I now realise I had a mind-warping introduction to this phenomenon back in 1995, when a brilliant polymath friend set up a small four-man company to build computer programmes that planned and synchronized multi-year procurement schedules for space launches, and for military procurement by the Pentagon and Britain’s Ministry of Defence. Forget the dizzying detail. What was significant to me was that he sat in his lounge at home and with a click on his mouse sent an encrypted computer programme to the Pentagon, shortly after followed by a “key” to dis-encrypt. In the press of a computer key, he earned literally hundreds of thousands of dollars. He had not moved from his seat in Oxford, but the digital product was delivered in Washington. Who paid what where? Who paid tax to whom, and on what profit? This kind of digital challenge still sits unresolved at the heart of the accounting profession, and building international agreement on how to resolve it sits quietly in the “too difficult” box.

Many even today believe the quill-and-ink conventions of the legal profession will remain unscathed by the digital revolution, allowing lawyers to continue charging breathtaking hourly rates to resolve even the most simple of legal problem. But along comes Dragon Law in Hong Kong providing low cost computer-driven services to SMEs. It is anyone’s guess how far digital algorithms will go in writing wills, settling divorces, and providing the thousands of other standardized legal services. All at a fraction of the present cost.

Of course, it is in retailing that the most awesome impacts of the digital revolution are being felt – and nowhere more forcefully than in China, now by far the world’s largest E-commerce market. Online sales last year amounted to an estimated RMB3.88 trillion, up 33% from 2014. As E-wallets, E-payment and touch-pay systems are rolled out by Alibaba, WeChat, Taubao and numerous others, there are forecasts that e-commerce will account for 30% of all retail business in China by 2018.

But amid all the hyper-ventilation, here is where two other glimpses over the past month have forced on me a reality check. First, at meetings of the APEC Business Advisory Council in Papua New Guinea, and second, last week in Arequipa in the south of Peru, enthusiasts of the digital revolution came face to face with grindingly slow, and intermittently non-existent internet networks. As we all struggled to send or receive even the simplest emails, one had to wonder who in his or her right mind would yet chance setting up an E-commerce-dependent business. Perhaps 4G or 5G networks are just around the corner. But then, perhaps they are not. On the ground in bedraggled Port Moresby, or impoverished Arequipa, one could be forgiven for thinking the digital revolution might still be a decade or two in the making. It will be some time before anyone in a city like this worries about the fate of their Facebook afterlife.

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