With the internet, a gigantic new world has emerged,” says Andreas Boes. “It is not technology as we knew it before. The internet is a participatory infrastructure. It is actively used by millions of people. That represents a new level of social action. In terms of human history, this is completely new. Until now, the world has taken place for us where we are physically bound as human beings.”
Andreas Boes is a member of the bidt board of directors and is often referred to as a “digitalisation pioneer”. Yet he thinks little of the term “digitalisation”. For more than 30 years, Andreas Boes has been dealing with the phenomenon of the “informatisation of society”, as he calls it. Back then, in the 1980s, there was still talk of EDP, electronic data processing.
A network for all
For him, digitisation is a “shimmering term that says little” but has had an amazing career.
Andreas Boes traces this by analysing Google searches and the frequency with which the word was used in the German Bundestag: In Germany, people have been talking about “the” digitalisation since 2013. “If a term suddenly shoots up like that, an event would have to have taken place, like everyone is talking about Corona now. That was not the case with digitalisation in 2013. Computers have been around since the 1950s.”
Digitization is transforming the whole of society.
A new space for action
Rather, it was only then that the realisation matured in politics and business of the fundamental importance of this technological development for society. “Suddenly it was realised that digitalisation is not a technical gimmick that engineers and computer scientists are doing somewhere in the basement. It is turning the whole of society upside down.”
Germany is late with this realisation. The triumph of the internet has been dismissed as a gimmick for far too long. After the hype about the New Economy, as the internet economy was called at the time, ended in a stock market crash in 2000, people felt confirmed in dismissing the internet in Germany “as a marginal phenomenon”. And this despite the fact that it increasingly established itself as a network for everyone, to which more and more people gained access and which fully entered everyday life with the rapid spread of smartphones.
Andreas Boes has longstanding and intensive contacts with companies through his research. In numerous projects over the past decades, the sociologist, who is also on the board of the Institute for Social Science Research (ISF) Munich, has researched what digitalisation means for the future of work and how much it is changing the way we work. He is therefore a sought-after interlocutor in politics and involved in many working groups.
His trips to the USA and talks with companies in Silicon Valley, among other places, have shown him that the discourse in Germany lags behind “by at least ten years”.
With the Internet, a new global social action space has emerged.
Even now that the term is on everyone’s lips, the implications associated with it are often not grasped, according to Boes.
“Digitalisation basically means transferring work processes in the information sector to digital media so that they can be processed by machines. But that’s not what it’s about any more. Many still move in the old paradigm of automation and machines that can be switched on and off to replace people. But the internet is something different. It invites each of us to join in.
Bringing people along
For Andreas Boes, there is therefore not a real and a virtual world. Rather, he speaks of “two interlocking stages”: “The information space of the internet is a highly real world and we humans must constantly decide how we relate to this interlocking of the two stages.”
The Corona pandemic has shown many that the digital transformation is more than just robots and AI. Rather, “a new living world” has emerged.
At bidt, Andreas Boes has been committed to interdisciplinary research into the challenges of digital transformation from the very beginning.
We need to drive digitization in Germany with the aim of ensuring that people benefit and that society experiences progress as a result.
That also means: making digitalisation, which for a long time seemed to be a purely technical matter, where supposedly only experts from computer science and engineering can say something, a matter for everyone, because it also affects everyone.”
At bidt, dialogue with society therefore plays an important role. The aim is not only to communicate scientific results, but also to receive impulses from society for research.
Digitisation as upheaval
A study he published shows how much digital technologies intervene in the lives of every individual and how people position themselves in relation to them. In this context, the effects of digitalisation in work and private life are definitely experienced as upheaval.
The research team conducted individual case studies with people of different ages and in different professions. Some experience the effects of digitalisation in their private lives as enrichment, but see it critically in their professional context – or vice versa.
People are making an effort to incorporate digitization into their lives. Depending on their experience and qualifications, they may or may not succeed in translating this into a positive life plan. It depends crucially on their competencies and on how they assess their ability to act.
Question of skills
The Corona pandemic recently showed how unequal access to digital technologies and their use are in society. While some professionals switched to the home office as a matter of course and some students used digital technologies for learning, many others could not.
Schooling and vocational training determine who goes online and what he or she does there.
What he first showed with a study in 2005 had “become very clear again” with Corona.
In the wake of the Corona pandemic, Andreas Boes expects a “gigantic wave of digitisation”. “But if you push digitalisation without a view to the social divide, in ten years you’ll have an irreversible split between people who can navigate the digital world and those who can’t.”
It is one of many challenges that need to be addressed in the coming years. Many questions are still unanswered, such as what it means for the future of work when so many jobs can be done from home or when, as a result of data collection, there is transparency about everything employees do.
Decisive for what the digital world of tomorrow will look like is also to consistently use the information space of the internet and to develop a new form of value creation and working world. “I am researching what the levers are for shaping digitalisation for people,” says Andreas Boes. So that everyone benefits from the network for everyone.