While I’d love to lay claim to inventing the word phygital, unfortunately I can’t. I’ve seen it pop up a fair bit on digital marketing blogs and consultants fumbling a bit with it. From my research, it seems to have evolved out of academia somewhere in the early twenty-teens in the computer science field. If you haven’t guessed already, it is the combination of physical and digital.
For marketers, it is largely used a term to impress readers and prospective customers that this is some entirely new and amazing approach to marketing. It isn’t. It won’t be. It’s not a tactic, it’s more a state of affairs with technology and humans today. It’s a way to understand our current status with regard to technology and more.
What Phygital Really Means – The Non-Marketing Version
Essentially, phygital is a liminal word and concept. It is that place where our physical world and being meets the digital world. It is this phase we are in before we really do become more like cyborgs. For now, we aren’t plugging our brains directly into the Web, although Elon Musk is working on that, as are others.
Smartphones and Internet-of-Things devices are an excellent example of phygital technologies. We can, through voice or touch, control our furnace at home, lights, television. Anything we can connect to the internet. For now, the limitation of that interface is touch and voice. Direct brain control is being developed, but is very much in its infancy. We can also automate a lot of these activities and information processes through things like IfThisThenThat (IFTT), which is rather cool. We can also, through apps like Apple’s HomeKit and others, set up various commands and routines so that lights and furnace or AC come on at certain times in the day. We can schedule social media posts in advance as well. These are phygital activities.
In some senses, we are already cyborgs as Elon Musk says and was well proposed by anthropologist Amber Case back in 2011 (who makes a far better case than Musk does in my view.) But one could argue that isn’t true either until we really are connected in real time to the internet. But we do put some essence of our “self” out there when we post on social media, walk away and an entire conversation happens around what we posted.
But as we increasingly do things like place our grocery orders online, tell devices in our homes and offices what we want them to do and when and as we connect more and more devices (nearly 50 billion devices are connected to the internet today), the reality is that our world has increasingly become phygital. The biggest drivers of this are smartphones and the sensors and technologies that connect “things” to the internet.
In the early days, the “internet” was a hard thing to get to. You needed a PC, which was fairly expensive, a modem (either in the PC or standalone) and you had to be hardwired. It meant a specific place in the home or office and time. Today, because of smartphones and smartwatches, the internet is everywhere, information is always available and the ability to input through touch and voice to tell connected things what to do is all-pervasive in the Global North. The Global South will have the benefit of leapfrogging where developing nations invest in 5G infrastructure and lower cost but powerful enough smartphones can hit the market.
So that is what phygital really means. It is not a marketing term, nor is it a marketing strategy. It is a function of our digital society driven by devices that are connected to the internet and respond to touch and voice commands.
Author: Giles Crouch is a digital anthropologist, managing partner and CIO for sapient.d and is regularly interviewed by national and international news media on issues relating to humans and technology. He writes a regular column in Silver Magazine (where he is also Group Publisher) and has been featured in Wired Magazine.