What problem does digitisation solve?
When we speak of digitisation, it’s often about the technologies and their effects, but not about what social problem it actually solves. That’s exactly the question Armin Nassehi asks in his new book.
By Holger Moos
Muster. Theorie der digitalen Gesellschaft (Patterns: Theory of the Digital Society), the Munich sociologist first establishes the correlations between the phenomenon of digitisation and the essence of our modern information and data-driven society. The fetishisation of data and information derived from it began in the nineteenth century with public social statistics. States grew so large and complex that they began to collect data about their citizens. This early form of data processing was used to discover regularities and to maintain control, but also to monitor citizens.
Ever since, the more this data processing – or digitisation – has progressed, the clearer it becomes that the patterns and clusters it recognises serve as evidence of social order. It makes clear that our lives are far more oriented to predefined patterns than we, as illusionists of individualism, want to admit.
The digital discovery of society has therefore also led to political disappointments. While the liberalisation and pluralisation of society after the Second World War was linked to the hope that the world could be shaped and even changed for the “better,” the digitisation of society showed “that the regularities are more stable than the politically formulated expectations”.
Digitisation perfectly suits societyIf digitisation did not “perfectly suit this society, it would never have arisen, or would have disappeared long ago,” is one of Nassehi’s basic assumptions. But societies and states are never just concerned with recognising patterns, but also with their generation and stabilisation. And that’s exactly how digitisation works. Nassehi reverses the cause-effect relationship, stating, “It was not the computer that produced data processing, but the centralisation of rule in nation states, urban planning and the operation of cities, the need for the rapid provision of goods.”
Nassehi further elaborates that due to the networking of data, the digital sphere has become a self-referential system: “There is no ‘outside’ for the networked data; they are only feedback in the medium of themselves.” That’s nothing new. The philosopher Edmund Husserl, for example, already raised the accusation of self-reference with regard to the sphere of science; science has also lost sight of the outside world.
Data duplicate the world, but don’t contain itAccording to Nassehi, modernity is full of closed systems. There’s no escape from the “dynamic of closure.” As a system theorist, Nassehi naturally also refers to Niklas Luhmann: “Systems stabilise themselves by restricting their scope over time, by destroying contingency, by forming a structure within which they secure structural connections.”
Book printing alone led to books only referring to other and ever more books. While we have been able to grasp the world in the form of letters and words ever since, digitisation only recognises the world as data. Consequently, today data “are both unlimited in their possibilities, but radically limited to themselves. […] Data duplicate the world, but don’t contain it.”
Simple patterns, yet infinite varietySo we live in a matrix of data. As in the science fiction movie classic of the same name, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deduce or question the splendidly functioning world behind the data streams. For “Functioning is the enemy of reflection.”
Overall, Nassehi wants to open our eyes to the insight that digitisation is nothing really new or even alien. No, digitisation is “the flesh of society’s flesh”; it is inherent in modern society. Our resigned conclusion could then be that there is no alternative to the extremely successful binary code of our digital society. There is only 0 or 1, true or false, power or powerlessness. Yet this at first glance simple pattern makes an almost infinite variety of recombinations possible.
Armin Nassehi: Muster. Theorie der digitalen Gesellschaft
München: C. H. Beck, 2019. 354 S.