Digitalisation isn’t instagrammable – and that’s a problem


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Humans are hard-wired to react to graspable things, be they positive or negative. Politicians will proudly pose for photos in front of a new bridge constructed in their constituency but it’s harder to posture with a balanced budget. The fire that all but razed the famous Notre-Dame to the ground has received more than $800m in pledged reconstruction funds, but you would be hard-pressed to find the same amount of media coverage and financial support for topics that are at least equally ethically and economically devastating, such as homelessness.

Invisible things are hard to advertise

In a nutshell, this is the greatest challenge for digitalisation. In Estonia, the digital signature saves 2% of the GDP every single year, i-voting cuts election costs roughly in half, our X-Road infrastructure annually saves 844 working years – but it doesn’t spur on many other countries because where can I pose to show my electorate that I did this?! This is what I call the Instagram challenge and digital solutions fail it spectacularly.

The lack of visuals does not just make digitalisation a less palatable topic for politicians but also for journalists who understandably need flashy and impressive imagery to captivate their audience. This is both the beauty and bane of digitalisation done properly:

  • There is no tablet that you use to register for your hospital visit – the doctor should be notified automatically without us giving special notice… and it certainly needn’t involve another gizmo;
  • There is no high-tech biometric scanning technology to access your data – PIN codes provide much more privacy to the user, and they’re also more secure… because iris, fingerprint and vein scanners have all been tricked already;
  • Invisible and proactive services like the ones the Estonian government is rolling out these days deliver you small notifications and comprehensive solutions… If your country boasts about the massive number of services that it offers online, that most likely means you didn’t optimise your structures sufficiently and your citizens won’t find the service they need.

Invisible things are spooky

As if being more attracted to graspable and instagrammable visuals wasn’t enough, humans also tend to have an inherent, somewhat inexplicable fear of and distrust toward the invisible. In the olden days, the threat of divine punishment or spending your afterlife in hell kept societies around the world docile – and today, there are still millions of people who would contend that their data is more secure on paper, black-on-white, than it could ever be in a server room.

Cultural differences mean that in some countries even the pillars that are commonly seen as crucial for proper digitalisation to take a foothold are deemed unacceptable. Look no further than to the United Kingdom where any party that were to suggest introducing a national ID card for every citizen and resident would risk political suicide. Or let’s take Germany where the courts outlawed the use of personal codes already in 1983; in Estonia and many other countries, authorities and registries use personal codes to exchange data about a certain individual.

Crucially, these doubts and worries can only be solved on that very same, invisible level. In Estonia, the data tracker allows us to see which authority looked at what part of our personal data, when, and for what reason. Still, this goes to show that there are ways to address these fears that parts of the population might have. Governments around the world must find and implement more ways to create a more solid balance of power between their institutions on one side and their citizens on the other.

Written by
Florian Marcus

Presenter-analyst at e-Estonia Briefing Centre


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