Digitalisation is an essential part of our lives across all dimensions. Many people think that it is a technological process, i.e. it is mainly about computer servers, algorithms, Internet and the like. But that is insofar only half of the truth, because it is difficult to separate digitalisation from almost all activities in our lives. When we shop online – are we online or are we shopping? When we play computer games – are we playing or are we at the computer? And when we are active in social media, we are both social and
active in an electronic medium. Moreover, our health system is already digitised, the pollution of the planet is, to a growing extent, caused by digital technology, and activities such as navigating a car or collaboration in civil society are increasingly facilitated by digital technology.
This example seeks to point out that what we ultimately understand by ”digitalisation” depends very much on how technology-centered we look at the topic. A too strong focus on technology is, however, preventing us from raising the questions relevant for democracy which are popping up at several stages of this transformation process. We need raise more consciousness to the social, cultural and economic impact of the digitalisation and also start to explore the different and alternative paths to the digital transformation.
Where is Civil Society?
Lobby battles about infrastructure investments and media markets. Platform regulation, setting rules for AI, automatisation and big data. Fears and concerns of citizens regarding possible job loss, or concerns about their rights such as privacy or security. A strong voice of civil society would be necessary. However, still most CSOs seem to dive away from the seemingly too complex, too technical, or too economic issues. It were influencers mobilising the public around the upload filter/copyrights decisions around the last EU decisions. Artists are experimenting with the digital form, are addressing social issues and also challenging the omnipresent digital narratives.
And Civil Society Organisations? For sure, there are also CSOs engaging in debates on digital transformation, like organisations dedicated to net-politics or digital rights, the networks of hackers, net intellectuals and geeks, some media NGOs, or trade unions. But is not everybody impacted by the transformation? Should not consequently the voices of much more civil society actors be present and the discourses be more diverse, representing the social impact of the transformation adequately in the public debates? From local engagement for open data and privacy-sensitive smart public infrastructure, to involvement in national level homologation and monitoring regimes and promotion of their story of digital transfomation.
Where are the Alternatives?
One indicator and outcome of this lacking engagement is the biased discourse and imagery of “digitalisation”. Images and imagination are semantic siblings, cultural artifacts represent our beliefs and values. In this sense, our imagery of the digital transformation is inviting us to reflect which hopes and fears, expectations and desires we are connecting with the change.
The visions and imagery of the digital today is mainly created by the industry. Ubiquitous computing and intuitive datafication of our society finds expression in the perfect design of commercial digital spaces and the pricey digital devices sold there. It is suggesting clarity, intuitiveness and user-centered technology, while letting us forget the complicated issues behind the surface. For instance, the resource-intensive “third party” processing of data, which is the condition for miniaturized and intuitive ubiquitous technology.
A lot of bits and bites are sweating and running behind under the brushed aluminum surfaces from processor to data center, squeezed into algorithms, merged with aspects of our personal identity and finally landing as relevant data on your tablet, in another “smart” device, or in a database at the other end of the world. On might ask, if Jonathan Iveˋs and Apple’s adaption of Dieter Rahmˋs design is an incremental transition or a break with the design principles. Form follows function – but it is obfuscating tracking, connection and integration in a closed platform ecosystem. If we would look at this design as representative of the whole issue, the question appears, if the PR machine is not creating an utopia rather then describing scenarios for the near future.
The imagery of digital transformation is suggesting a not too technology-like looking futurism, served by engineers in cloths and habits of missionaries and tackling systematically the earthly chaos with digital tidiness. Complexities, problems, or incompatibilities between vision and reality are banned behind a curtain of zeros and ones. There are so many zeros and ones in the imagery of digitalisation.
It’s plausible that those who gain from “all the complicated things” such as big data, platform oligopolies, datafication of individuals and extracting added value from personal data, would have no original interest in better and more explanatory imagery. But did this prevent people in the past from imagining alternatives? Also today these alternatives do exist and are visible for those that are willing to explore them. Remember, for instance, that networked computing is a chaotic and anarchic work in progress. Or even the term “hacking” lost its only technical meaning and is today describing an universal alternative, proactive and solution-focused attitude toward hierarchies, structures and social problems – not necessarily connected only with computers.
In this context one might be surprised why the imagery of hacking is still reduced to anonymity, illegality and coding? By replicating this criminalising iconography we are discrediting alternative path to digital transformation. A decentral and non-hierarchic, power-critical, inclusive and rights-sensitive aproach to digitalisation is represented by open source, data activism, self-organisation, grassroot transformation. And more important than ever: It’s represented by us, the producers and users in one person, the produsers. We are subjects and objects of digitalisation and as such also responsible. Look at the idea of “hacking”, look at yourself, look at the impact of technology on your life and our ecology. Do you feel represented in the clean Apple stores in your city centre? Although acknowledging that a minority of people is in favour spending their lifes in spaces like these, at least I don’t want to live in a cleaned-up-society where invisible platforms are providing me often magic solutions and my most relevant choice is between a T-shirt or a turtle neck. I want exploration, mess and co-creation. I want a diversity of opportunities and would like to perceive the social diversity around me. And I want to see that technology is pushing democracy and civil engagement forward.
A broader engagement of civil society in this field would support the co-creation of a democratic vision of the digital transformation, where data, platforms, networks and automatisation are human-centered, fair, sustainable and serving democratic change. This involvement across sector boundaries is also a condition for public awareness and the presence of democracy aspects in discussions and decison-making about digitalisation.