Digitalization - fad or fundamental change? (And why does it matter?) / by Christoffer Andersson

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“Digitalization”. Isn’t that a word that keeps popping up everywhere nowadays? Some of you – maybe those of you who were born in the previous millennium – may wonder what is new. After all, computers have been around for a while and information has also been transferred and stored digitally for some time. And many of us have had access to internet and other digital networks since the mid 1990s. So what’s new? Is digitalization a fad or a fundamental change?

The answer is: both.

It is true that in combination with the increase in speed and scale when it comes to transferring data digitally, the development of digital technologies makes possible all sorts of products and services, that may be used in all sorts of contexts. The newness of digitalization today thus lies in the scale, scope and speed of the technologies and the infrastructure that are needed for the technologies to be used, rather than in the technologies themselves. What we see today when it comes to digital innovations are in fact primarily combinations of already existing technologies that, because they are combined in innovative ways, used for new purposes in new settings, feel new. In this sense, the talk about digitalization may be said to be a fad.

However, it just because digitalization builds on combining general purpose technologies such as the computer and various networks through which information may be transmitted, that fundamental change is taking place. And this change affects us all, since it takes place on several levels simultaneously.

On an individual level, our ways of doing things in daily life – both as private individuals and as employees – change when we start using digital technologies. Digitalization also changes the way we interact with other people and the way communication takes place, as the rules and norms for social interaction change. To master the genres of e-mail, chat and social media, for example, has become crucial, in order not to be misunderstood or create a false impression. And instead of watching the news chosen by and presented to us by a news channel that may be trusted, we are faced daily with a wide range of claims about what is going on in the world, from all sorts of senders, making it difficult to tell which news are fake and which are real. 

On an organizational level, digitalization makes certain jobs redundant, as well as creates the need for new roles. Heavy, manual labour may be performed by robots instead of by humans, but the implementation of digital technologies also requires system technicians and experts on digital technology in teams and organizations that have previously relied on the IT-department, or the company to which these services have been outsourced. The digitalization of organizations makes it possible for people to work from anywhere, affecting management and leadership, and the possibilities and challenges that comes with digitalization requires leaders to rethink company strategy and their position in the value-change of their industry.

On a societal level, digitalization changes the business landscape as new business models emerge (think AirBnB and Uber), and as the behaviours of consumers and citizens change. New technologies making it possible to collect, store and analyse data about consumers and citizens opens up new possibilities for marketing and activities by various interest groups. It also makes it possible to trace the spread of diseases and terrorist activity while at the same time increasing the possibilities of surveillance in a way that may be compromising the personal integrity of individuals.

The examples given here are only a few in an endless range of possible ones.

The digital development is seductive and for those of us that are fascinated by technologies like drones, self-driving cars and lorries, robots performing precision tasks of surgery, humanoids that help with household shores, and robot cats that cheer up people with dementia. For those of us that are not tech-freaks, the development may come across as frightning and worrying.

Regardless in which ways digitalization is a fad and in which ways it causes fundamental change, the development of it needs to be studied and problematized. This is our task as researchers.

The creators of this blog are researchers who aim at developing an understanding of the effects and inner workings of digitalisation and in this blog we will keep you updated about our work.

It is our task as researchers to study, reflect upon and problematize past and current development in order to develop knowledge that may be used by policy makers, companies as well as citizens to create the future we want.

Welcome to join us on your journey!

 

Anette Hallin

Program director