The dark and unexpected sides of digitalization

Posted in: Digital, Research, Technology

January is “Debating Digital Detox” month on the Business and Society blog. An increasing number of people are choosing to give up their electronic devices in January, as a type of new year's resolution. We are exploring why people feel the need to do this - why we see our relationship with digital technology so negatively. Are we so addicted that we need a period to ‘cleanse’ ourselves?

Hannah Trittin-Ulbrich is guest editor of a special issue called the Dark and Unexpected Sides of Digitalization for Organizations and Organizing for the journal Organization. She sat down to speak with the Business and Society blog about the ideas explored in the special issue.

Thanks for speaking with us! And congratulations on the special issue. It seems like a perfect time to be discussing this topic, with so many of us now living our lives online.

Not that we ever could have expected or wished for a global pandemic, but it’s sort of the perfect backdrop. Suddenly everyone – from kids in school to elderly people – is having to contend with digital technology. So, it really shows how necessary it is to bring dark implications of the digital transformation of organizations and our society out into the open. But let me preface by saying that digitalisation is not necessarily a dark phenomenon in itself. Many digital technologies are great and we’re lucky to have them. They make our lives easier, more convenient, and more joyful in many ways. Particularly at the moment, technology is one of the only ways many people can get friendship and support and continue to work and earn money. But the dark sides exist. These elements emerge in various contexts with various implications for various stakeholders. And in this special issue we wanted to look at a variety of different and sometimes unexpected negative implications for corporations, but also public organizations, or social movements.

How did this special issue come to be? And why should our audience read it?

It was around 2017/2018 when we started to think about the ideas for the special issue that was around the digital transformation. I just finished my PhD on CSR communication and I was interested in the role of communication for business and society relations. In the CSR communication literature, there was a growing awareness that there are more and more digital communication tools available to facilitate the interactions between business and society. So that was how I started to explore this topic of digitalization. But very early on I saw an interesting, parallel debate going on.

At that time, we found that much of the Management and Organisation research was concerned with the positive sides of digitalization and the commercial benefits that is has, especially for corporations. But there was also a growing number of journalists, activists and scholars starting to suggest that certain constituents and certain stakeholders are experiencing negative implications of this growing proliferation of digital technologies in and around organizations. And while there was a lot of discussion, there was a lack of a coherent narrative to that side.

So, our motivation was to develop a more consistent or more comprehensive way of understanding these dark sides. Also, to counterbalance this overly celebratory narrative around digitalization. Because we could see clearly that there were almost always two sides to the coin – it can have instant positive effects for one party, but negative implications for another party. I think we have collected a nice collection of essays that shows us the breadth and variety of these dark and sometimes unexpected sides. I think our special issue thus is an important milestone in developing a comprehensive critical research agenda around the digital transformation. 

Can you give us some examples of these dark sides?

There are so many! One interesting and somewhat unexpected thing that became apparent as we were going through submissions is that it’s not easy to say who the winners and losers of digitalization are. For example, people often see the winners as being big companies who get access to our data etc, and the losers as the individual person whose privacy is being compromised. But we can observe that even corporations can suffer negative effects of the digitalization of work and processes because there a lot of overly idealistic narratives about what you should be able to achieve. People think that it should revolutionise how organisations operate. And corporations actually often struggle to implement digital technologies, because generally they need to change a lot of things to integrate the technologies in a productive and effective way. So that means that they can ultimately face a backlash or a sense of failure when the expectations and reality don’t align. That’s one of the most interesting takeaways from the special issue is that even if you’re in a position to benefit from these new technologies, it won’t necessarily work out positively for you.

We also have some really interesting submissions around the platform or gig economy. Gig economy workers are a group who can suffer a definite dark side as they have to not only negotiate relationships with their clients, but also need to handle the algorithms that are used on these platforms to distribute tasks and work assignments. So that creates negative implications in that it takes considerable effort to stay employed. One study that I found particularly fascinating was the study from Eliane Bucher and her colleagues who studied workers of the platform Upwork. These authors investigated how workers had to make additional efforts to receive “gigs” on the platform. Their study shows how these workers tried to pacify the algorithm that is used to distribute work. The workers used online communities to exchange experiences and ideas about how they could engage in complaints practices to pacify the algorithm, in order to stay engaged and stay at work on the platform, and to safeguard their relationship with the clients but also with the platform. However, this is obviously more effortful than the work that comes from the “gig” itself.

Another interesting angle that came out through the submissions was around social activism. A common narrative is that digitalization and digital technologies help social movements and activists. However, what we see here, from a study by Michael Etter and colleague Oana Albu, is that social media platforms are actually built to counteract social activism in many ways. They distribute too much information or misinformation and that stops activists from motivating and mobilizing larger groups of people. The economic logic of social media platforms, and communication takes place on there – filter bubbles for example - really often counteracts social media activism. Which is a perspective we haven’t seen much. We have to become more aware of these things - what is the argentic role of digital technologies for business and society relations?

One more dark side I’d like to talk about the effect on efficiency in public organizations. Some of the submissions investigate how, for example, firefighters or public management workers experience the automation of public service. Society needs to become aware that the optimization through automation of public services can create very unsafe, insufficient processes that ultimately sort of reduce the outcomes. We need to reflect more on these efficiency ideals where we believe that digitalisation makes everything better. Many organisations don’t know how to deal with these optimization processes so it actually makes everything less efficient! Future research definitely has to look into how automated processes change public service.

Could you elaborate on that point you just made about future research? What do you think future research on digitalization should focus on?

 Something that we discuss in our introduction, which is becoming a growing concern of business and society scholars in general, is the role of social media firms and the platform economy. This has really been brought into public awareness recently too, given that Twitter banned Donald Trump. So I think scholars need to study and better understand how these large media and platform firms influence the public sphere. How they can manipulate, change or even censor our public communications. And I think this is unrelated from whether Trump's opinions are right or wrong. It's problematic that a private company is able to decide to shut down a communication channel of the leader of one of the biggest economies of the world, forcing him out of the public discourse. While other political leaders who are also controversial or even democratically dangerous can stay on the platform, one may add.

That really showcases the power that these corporations have now. It really brings to mind the comparison that so many people make when talking about business and society relations is that some corporations are richer than countries now. But I think it’s equally disturbing that they have more power over our public discourse than any other actor in society at the moment. So I think and hope that scholarship will be looking more closely at  these corporations that provide us with the communication infrastructures where business and society relations are now taking place.

On that, do you any thoughts around what the change in the government in the US and might mean for big tech and regulation in general?

I'm not extremely familiar with the specific policies or programme that Joe Biden has put forward with regard to platform regulations, but I do see indications that we will go towards more regulation of that industry. Given that, for example, GDPR in Europe has had quite a positive impact amongst Silicon Valley CEOs. Many of them are actually inviting European politicians to talk about regulation! But at the same time, they will not relinquish power without a fight. Lobbying expenses of companies like Google are exploding in the EU at the moment, as the EU is known for being the main actor that puts pressure on these firms. But obviously most of these social media firms are located in the US and I’m not sure to what extent the government are willing or able to regulate that industry. But it’s an issue that our global future depends on - whether we find a way of dealing with these corporations to safeguard our public discourse and public sphere.

This month all of our blog posts have featured research on digital issues, and we’re specifically exploring the concept of digital detox. Do you have any thoughts on that? Is a detox desirable? Is it possible?

First of all, I’m not a fan of digital detox. I find it very hard to switch off, but also I don’t think a singular digital detox for a certain amount is time is solving the issue. Moderation is key, and individuals do need to educate ourselves. Many people aren’t aware that there are mental health implications, and you can become addicted to your phone. So while there's definitely a need for more awareness on the individual level, I don’t think it's the duty of individuals to switch off. The key issue is structural and institutional support. We need politics that safeguard our rights. We need safer, more responsible technologies. It’s the role and responsibility of public institutions to make sure that we are safe, and the responsibility of corporations to develop better technologies. I don’t want to take the position that it’s my role to remove myself from this system - I voted politicians into their positions, so I would like them to do their jobs to make sure that my rights are respected. And that will involve a conversation about coping mechanisms on a broader scale in society and what every societal actor can do. This means my role as academic is to educate students and teaching ‘digitalization literacy’, rather than just ‘data literacy’ - understanding what digitalization as a social phenomenon does and what implications it has for you in any role from a parent, to employer, to employee, to friend. So, as individuals, as citizens, as users, we have to become more critical and reflective. But we have to take away the narrative away from individual responsibility and focus more on the role and responsibility of governments and corporations in ensuring that individuals are safe while online in the same way they would in an offline context.

I mentioned earlier how timely the Special Issue is, with everyone suddenly living their lives online. And that’s partly why I don’t think we should be talking about a detox, this year especially. We’re all under extraordinary pressure just to function, so why make things harder on yourself? These are the tools that are helping us cope, connect and stay sane so I would like to say to people not to feel bad about using digital tools. Just be a bit cautious!

Photograph by Bjoern Schoenfeld

Posted in: Digital, Research, Technology


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