Defining Digital Trade
There is no set definition of “digital trade“. Depending on the organization, digital trade is used interchangeably with “e-commerce.” To give you an idea of the variance in definitions, consider the following:
“The production, distribution, marketing, sale, or delivery of goods or services by electronic means.” — World Trade Organization
“Purchases and sales conducted over computer networks. E-commerce can involve physical goods as well as intangible (digital) products and services that can be delivered digitally. ” — United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
“The delivery of products and services over either fixed-line or wireless digital networks. It excludes commerce in most physical products, such as goods ordered online and physical goods that have a digital counterpart, such as books and software, and music and films sold on CDs or DVDs.” — United States International Trade Commission
“The direct exchange of digital goods, and digitally enabled exchanges of services or labour. The exchange of personal communications is included in the definition.” — McKinsey Global Institute
What strikes me about most of the definitions is that “digital” refers to an alternative method of delivery of goods and services versus the actual construction of the market itself. The value from digitization is likely lower costs to producers and distributors and to consumers likely benefits are lower costs of product acquisition, assuming the costs of shipping and handling resulting from online shopping don’t exceed the costs of shopping in person.
Where’s the Surprise?
But beyond this, where is the “surprise” from using a communications medium like the internet to engage in e-commerce? In my opinion, the real value, the surprise, should be beyond the actual goods and services exchanged.
The pursuit of time saving, one of the benefits of online trade, is nothing new. Today I saw two women walk into Starbucks and grab coffee ordered via an app. The value for them was getting in and out of the coffee shop with the coffee versus sitting down in a Starbucks at 7:45 am with a group of people admittedly looking a bit too scruffy.
But is this enough, the time saving to the consumer and the costs savings to the producer to treat digital trade separately from traditional trade?
The Value in Digital Trade is in the Independence of a Digital Market
As currently constructed, digital trade is more an infrastructure adjunct to traditional, physical trade. True digital trade will happen when there are pure digital players exchanging data that can only be created in cyberspace through cyberspace. A true digital market and the digital trade that occurs within should be separate from human intervention where machines are responsible for analyzing, organizing, and distributing information and knowledge over digital networks.
One example of this digital market independence is occurring in the financial markets. In an article for Forbes.com, Bernard Marr shares how artificial intelligence is being used by hedge funds to trade stocks. According to Mr. Marr, what is extraordinary is an artificially intelligent machine making trades without the assistance of a data scientist. Mr. Marr goes on further to say that:
“Artificially intelligent machines analyze inordinate amounts of data at extraordinary speeds that is impossible for humans. They learn from the information they analyze to improve their trading acumen. This information includes market prices to corporate financial reports and accounting documents to social media, news trends, and macroeconomic data. Once the information is analyzed by thousands of machines, the machines then “vote” on what action to take and the best trades to make. “
While Mr. Marr doesn’t go on to discuss AI machines on the other side of the trade, I can envision the next step where an AI machine for Trader x exchanges shares with an AI machine for Trader y making a market entirely without human assistance. This exchange of shares or information and the making of a market for information independent of human intervention is the true digital trade.
While the commercial internet is three decades old, I don’t think we are at a stage yet where we can say we have complete digital trade. At best, digital trade is a subset of cross border trade and robust markets for autonomous trade between pure digital players in cyberspace is around the corner with the innovation and inclusion of artificial intelligence. The definitions we have now for digital trade should be changed to reflect the creation of true digital markets.