Jan-Felix Schrape (2021): Digitale Transformation

Reviewed by Hans-Dieter Kübler

Many a confident assertion has been made and supposedly stringent timelines have been proposed concerning our digital society (or whatever epithets you may call it). And yet, this tech-sociological »textbook«, authored by a Stuttgart-based social scientist, assumes that the processes of digital transformation are open-ended and driven by a variety of changes whose »dynamics and ambivalences« can only be observed in the short term, but which will create a »intricate long-term connection between technology and society.« Its outcomes, scope, structure, and configuration are not yet finalized or clear, and probably never will be. There is thus little hope of ever capturing this process in a »final theory of digitization.« Rather, we will probably continue to see unexpected reconfigurations, detours, dead ends, and sudden innovations, as has always been the case in any technological development.

Therefore, the author focuses on the following three questions instead: 1. »How do technological and social processes interact in the addressed areas of change?« 2. »What is actually novel about these socio-technological change dynamics?« 3. »What are its societal consequences and implications?« (pp. 11f.) By answering these questions, he hopes to open a »guiding corridor« into »digitalization research informed by tech-sociological considerations.« (p. 13)

Accordingly, the second chapter pitches a broad arc, from a general overview of sociology, including its beginnings as a scientific byproduct of industrialization and its definitions, all the way to tech-sociology with its theories and findings, in particular concerning the coevolution of society and technology. In the third chapter, he provides a very solid and structured outline of the development dynamics of »digitalization,« as it has been called since around 2013. Before that, the pertinent buzzwords were cybernetics and informatization, information and knowledge society, computerization and mediatization, the Internet and Web 2.0. However, looking back on the of history of technology, we can go back much further to find examples of the cognitive prerequisites that brought about the gradual revolutions and rationalizations that have led to what we are apostrophizing as »digitalization« today: from the first administrative registers and methods of quantitative measurement, certainly also the invention of writing and its dissemination in antiquity, to mechanical clocks and calculating machines by Blaise Pascal and Gottfried W. Leibniz in the 17th century. The outstanding value of this tech-sociological approach lies in the fact that it allows us to bring together and classify all these dimensions and aspects in a compact way. It segues to the next chapters, the »reconfiguration of societal patterns of coordination,« and an analysis of the »transformation of societal communication and public structures« under the impact of digital transformation (p. 84). All of these adaptation and appropriation dynamics are subject to the »interplay of enabling and channeling« (p. 145) or control; any claim that digitalization is either driven by technology only or dominated by economic factors cannot do justice to the diverse ambivalences and contingencies of real-life developments.

Chapter IV illustrates the »sweeping transformations and reorganizations« (p. 87f.) that digitization has caused in the following central societal fields: On the markets, transaction costs are dropping, entry barriers falling, sales opportunities becoming accessible. In principle, these processes enable decentralization, yet they are also harnessed by huge, international, dominant platforms that channel trade and consumption. On the labor market, employment relationships offer greater flexibility, which (can) afford the workers greater autonomy, yet also increases their required skill levels and their psychological strain. At the same time, digital technologies almost surreptitiously enable stricter monitoring, standardization, and control of work processes, thus increasing competitive pressure among employees. Algorithmized operations can make organizations more decentralized, less dependent on locations, and most importantly, de-hierarchized, but they can also, unnoticeably, restrict decision games and re-formalize decision routines.

In companies’ and organizations’ external relationships, digitalization could facilitate more ample and flexible structures for cooperation and exchange, which may even lead to project-based collaboration in innovation and market development. Yet as soon as such structures become interesting for markets and exploitation, they often lose their open character and their niche spontaneity. Finally, the advancing digital transformation is changing the conditions for generating and stabilizing collective formations, as shown by many current movements such as Occupy Wallstreet, Me Too, Fridays for Future etc. Social media platforms can be leveraged to quickly mobilize, organize, and manage like-minded people, but on the flipside, their activities can just as easily be monitored, channeled, controlled, and even influenced. Thus, the entire phenomenon of digitalization also fundamentally generates sociological insights into genuinely societal processes, organizations, and institutions, which have also been enormously intensified and made more contingent by the new structures and potentials of information technology.

Like hardly any other societal sector, social and individual communication is changing and revolutionizing itself (Chapter V), since it is also a permanent reflection of real-life changes and, to a certain extent, (re)constructing a mirror image of these changes in a second world, the media world. Nevertheless, so far, there is no evidence of a »radical erosion of all long-term stabilized process contexts« (p. 198), as overzealous social science observers often portend. Rather, profound transformation processes are underway, characterized by a multilayered »interaction of established and new media forms« (p. 196), as Schrape substantiates with lots of empirical data as well as explicative theoretical approaches.

Specifically, he cites »an increasing platformization of media structures, an individualization of media repertoires, a pluralization of public arenas, a changed relationship between social and technological structuring in the negotiation of public visibility, and a dynamization of social reality construction.« (p. 149) This has greatly expanded and multiplied opportunities for personal interaction and communication as well as for public exchange via social media. On the other hand, »the heterogeneous nature of the arena of public communication« equally increases the need for reliable ways to reduce complexity for society at large. This need is still generally and best met by professional journalism, whichever way it is supported, accompanied, and substituted by digital information technologies. Open-ended future developments will show how these complementary and competitive relationships will play out in the long run – probably in different ways depending on geographies, sectors, and cultures – and they will require empirical investigation (cf. p. 195).

Thus, this textbook undoubtedly conveys a compact, transparent, and thorough »sense for the larger picture of technology and society,« as the summary puts it (p. 202). Based on the aforementioned four »ambivalences«, it reconstructs the »observable processes of change in the fields of social coordination and communication« (p. 202) that affect digitalization, whose concrete emergence, structural fabric, and design patterns each depend on »multifaceted social processes of appropriation and negotiation«, which are, »in turn, embedded in a variety of different social conditions.« (p. 206)

Schrape is honest enough to point out certain thematic gaps he had to leave unaddressed, both for pragmatic reasons and to for the sake of scope, but which are undoubtedly important and part of the bigger picture: the relationship between digitalization and sustainability (and the many controversial theories about whether those two aspects are complementary or mutually exclusive), as well as the relationship between digitalization and social inequality, especially at the global scale, an aspect that does not get nearly as much attention. The author laments such unavoidable omissions in his »personal concluding remark.«

Yet he did succeed in providing an introduction to and overview of the topic of digitalization, which we have not yet seen (at least in German) in such argumentative stringency and structured consistency, theoretical complexity and plurality, thematic breadth and diversity, and, most importantly, offering such a thorough understanding of historical processes and social developments. Its textbook character is further emphasized by margin notes in each section as well as indexes of subjects and persons, a practice that has become rather rare today.

This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, 4 July 2022, accessible at https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/23329

About the book

Jan-Felix Schrape (2021): Digitale Transformation. Bielefeld: transcript, 264 pages, 22.- euros.

About the reviewer

Hans-Dieter Kübler (*1947), Dr. rer soc., was a Professor of Media, Cultural and Social Sciences at Hamburg University of Applied Sciences (HAW), Faculty of Design, Media and Information. His work focuses on media and cultural theory; empirical and historic media research; and media pedagogy. He has published numerous works and has been a publisher of the semiannual magazine Medien & Altern (Munich) since 2012.

Translation: Kerstin Trimble