Physical – Digital – Native Digital

We are currently in the middle of a transition from a society dominated by Industrial Age institutions to ones that are Digitally Native that come from the Internet. A useful pattern is that the transitions seems to occur in a 3 stage process:

  1. Physical
  2. Digital scan of the physical thing
  3. Native Digital

We transitioned from paper to a scanner that scans paper into a digital version, and then to a native digital text file that begins life on the computer. We transitioned from physical cash to credit cards and PayPal (a scan of the pre-existing banking system), and then to the native digital version of money: cryptocurrency.

Balaji Anthology

First is the analog/physical version, then there is an intermediate stage of where they digitally scan the physical version, and finally a digitally-native version. To take another example:

  1. Physical: Conferences existed where people would come physical together to discuss ideas and present talks.
  2. Digital Scan: TED Talks which filmed interesting conference talks and shared them online.
  3. Digital Native: The digitally-native version is Twitter or X, where people exchange views every day.

Notice how the digital-native version (Twitter/X) is not advertised as “the online conference” but instead replaces the core functions of broadcasting and curation of different voices. Also notice that Twitter enables something a digital conference could never achieve(ability to read and view someone’sthoughts in real time).

Education is stuck in the Digital Scan Stage

Where else can we spot this 3 stage transition?

This is a useful progression to think through for many areas because you can see inherently digital versions often don’t exist yet. The last twenty years has just been taking our existing offline versions of things and uploading them to the cloud…

Once you see this pattern, you can see it everywhere. Look for places where we’re still stuck at the scanned version—where we’ve taken an offline experience and put it online but haven’t fundamentally innovated. These are opportunities for innovation.

Balaji Anthology

One area that is stuck in the intermediate stage is the higher education system. The last 15 years of “innovation” within the higher education sector has been dominated by the advent of online courses and the effects of the COVID pandemic.

In both cases, these “innovations” haved resulted in taking existing physical things: tests, lectures, and coursework and putting them online in the form of graded tests, lecture recordings and weekly readings.

As the fundamental medium changes, the form changes. Search engines and social networks are digital-native concepts which couldn’t exist offline.

Balaji Anthology

The question is then what does a digitally native version of the university look like? This is a question I am going to answer in the next upcoming series of blog posts – the Network University. Catch you in the next posts.