Concluding remarks on our blog series „Norms and Digitalization“

Planning this blog series, we came up with a laundry list of issues we felt were necessary to be discussed. Fittingly, we ended up with an unwieldy title: "Congruence and Competition of Norms and Values in the Context of Global Digitalization". The articles in the series – ranging from responsible research in the light of technological progress, to the digitization of cultural heritage and new digital borders – covered a lot of ground and a broad set of topics. What have we learned from them?

Most importantly, in our view, it is striking that digitalization is still considered an umbrella term under which disparate issues are being discussed. As planners of this series, we are just as guilty of using it haphazardly as others that apply this term to all sorts of changes throughout society, but it remains curious that the technological aspects of digitalization often remain the sole common denominator. This lack of specificity is rarely encountered in other, more established areas of discourse. It seems almost comical to imagine a blog series by social scientists on democracy in general, or publications by biologists on live forms that breathe, both without further narrowing things down. But here we are, unable to come to grips with how digitalization is shaping our lives and, in turn, how we want to help shape this process.

Networked computers offer unparalleled ad-hoc organizational capabilities and likewise their surveillance, whether it is keep tabs on a population or to ensure that people do not enter a country unsupervised. The data that is being produced also makes for great business model opportunities, which can be used to invade and fundamentally change markets that are entirely unprepared for such a well-resourced onslaught – such as the educational market in third world countries (of course, it might also behoove us to ask why we consider eduction a market in the first place). Large troves of data, readily and cheaply available thanks to new technologies, also change the way we perceive the environment around us, often to the detriment of those that do not understand the technology and institutional apparatus that propels these changes. New technologies also require new infrastructure, they create new power imbalances and this, in turn, leads back to the song and dance of great power politics.

Maybe none of this is special because computers are involved in some way. They merely change the ways certain challenges arise and take form – though admittedly in sometimes fundamental ways. The articles all served to highlight that the challenges we face are not challenges because they involved computers, but because they take place in a social context that happens to increasingly and heavily rely on a specific set of technologies.

The problems and solutions will likely involve technology, but it is naive to assume that technology alone can create solutions. It is up to us to question their social context and neither be blinded by the fascination for nor condemnation of technology. We would like to express our gratitude to the contributors to this blog series, who raised questions we as scientists and as society must find answers to: How does technology reinforce global power inequalities? Who has access to global information networks? Do we want innovation at any cost – or how could “responsible innovation” look like?

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