Thomas Lühr

The Corona pandemic provides a vivid illustration of what is important as we move towards a digital society: the conditions under which people can and must implement the possibilities of digitalisation in their private and professional life are crucial.

December 9th, 2020

Current studies suggest that during the Corona pandemic people’s attitudes towards digitalisation is changing. This was stated, for example, by more than half of the participants in a survey presented by the Bitkom Association during summer 2020. According to this, one in three people would now be more open to digitalisation and only one in five would be more critical than they were before the Corona pandemic. A similar impression was conveyed by recent results from the third survey wave of the “Legacy Study” by WZB, ZEIT and infas. Fear and a lack of motivation, which have previously determined people’s relationship to digitalisation, especially in Germany, are giving way because the pandemic is creating pressure to act. Hence, this has produced a conclusion which is full of promise: “Blockades to modernisation have been loosened.”

Accordingly, it looks as if the restrictions that people are currently putting up with are at least creating a new impetus in this respect. Digitalisation would seem to be gaining more approval among the population. Or are appearances perhaps deceptive?

The pandemic as a sneak preview of the digital future

Certainly, the Corona pandemic has given digitalisation a boost, with companies increasing their investment therein. Even older people seem to be using digital services and the media to a greater extent than before and perceive the ‘digital world’ as a natural part their lives. Furthermore, the distribution and intensity of home office use has increased massively in the world of work, as one of the surveys by the bidt has shown. Everyday life in the pandemic is thus unexpectedly providing a preview of how society will continue to change in the course of digital transformation. But how do these experiences affect people? What do they think about the digital society?

Digitalisation’s potential is currently being revealed as if it were under a magnifying glass. For better or worse, it is opening up new possibilities for action and making everyday life easier during the pandemic. For instance, this can to a certain extent be seen in our ability to compensate for social distancing by utilising digital means of communication. At the same time, older people and people living alone in particular are likely to experience real pain in not being physically close to loved ones, given that it is ultimately impossible to convey the full extent of human experience via the internet.

Since the outset of this pandemic, there is probably nothing that has been more heavily researched than the topic of home office working. However, the findings on how this form of mobile working is experienced diverge wildly. The bidt survey mentioned earlier states a high level of satisfaction and the desire for more home office working to continue even when pandemic is over. Nevertheless, results from a different online survey point in the opposite direction, particularly for women, the self-employed and low-income earners.

The bidt study #UmbruchErleben

The experiences that people are having with digitisation throughout the corona pandemic are thus presumably far more ambiguous than one would commonly assume. This is hardly surprising, insofar as research was unable to paint a consistent picture of how people experience digital transformation even before the pandemic. Against this background, our research project #UmbruchErleben (‘experience change’) was initiated at the bidt under the direction of bidt Director, Professor Andreas Boes. However, unlike most other studies, this project is different in that it consistently follows a qualitative research approach. In order to understand better how digitisation and digitalisation are perceived, lengthy conversations were held with the people themselves. In interviews lasting up to two and a half hours, we were able to gain some very deep insights into the changes that occur when people associate with digital transformation in their everyday lives. Moreover, we were able to consider carefully how such changes are being subjectively experienced and processed. Together with colleagues Elisabeth Vogl and Alexander Ziegler, Professor Boes conducted 35 of these individual in-depth analyses, which included subjects across all social circumstances, occupational fields and positions.

One important insight thus gained is that people were experiencing digital transformation as a radical social and societal change long before the corona pandemic. Hence, they associate digitalisation with more than the use and acceptance of new technology that makes it possible to communicate or work with each other at any time and from almost anywhere. They are experiencing a fundamental change that permeates all aspects of social existence and “intervenes in all areas of life”, as it was succinctly put by one of our interviewees, the head of a small-town forestry office. He associates this with a change in values within society along with adjustments in people’s social interactions. Then again, other interviewees refer to structural change, for example in the economy and the world of work, comparing the scope of change to that associated with the 19th century Industrial Revolution.

Subjective perceptions and assessments of this change differ widely. While it is perceived by some as a threat and a departure from an old accepted world in which the individual was at the centre, others are effectively experiencing it as a break-through in the course of overcoming outdated circumstances, for example with “old structures being broken up” in companies, so that a gain in freedom is emerging.

How do people live the change?

Hence, the change is being experienced in very contrasting ways and in part with opposing perceptions of what the future could hold. “All tight, rusty conditions with their entourage of time-honoured ideas and views are being dissolved”, wrote Marx and Engels – seemingly poetic today – with regard to the permanent upheaval of living conditions in their time. What Marx and Engels analysed with regard to the onset of industrialisation also applies to digital transformation: people have to adjust anew to the conditions of their existence over and over again. Within the framework of our study, we examined through the interviews how our interviewees are not only coping with the change but also looking for ways to manage new requirements. Whilst on the one hand we hardly ever found an attitude of refusal, on the other hand people are having to cope with very different conditions resulting from the changes in their everyday lives.

As an example, there is the call centre employee who, given increasing automation in her field of work, has taken the initiative to seek further education in her free time. She does so out of fear of losing her job. Or there is the journalist with a managerial function in a small publishing house who does not know how to cope with the demands of an increasing workload and constant availability without breaching the boundaries of his work to encroach on his leisure time and family life. As a result, he repeatedly endures phases that take him to the limits of his resilience.

These people are neither technophobic nor sceptical about progress. On the contrary, as a rule they even stand out because of their highly digitalised lifestyles. This is the only way for them to achieve the necessary efficiency to come to terms with changing demands. But they still face the prospect of their futures in a digital society with mixed feelings. As the call centre employee puts it, “in my working life, I have to fear for my job because the machine takes something away from me, whilst in my private life it gives me something… more time, more flexibility”. An auditor we interviewed described these technical possibilities for making work more flexible in terms of location and space as “both a blessing and a curse”.

Struggling for the future

We as a society must not close our eyes to such experiences of upheaval and the contradictions that people have to compensate for as part of their attempts to cope with changing lifestyles, if we want to understand exactly how people are contending with digital transformation. Hence, in our study we understand the ways in which people experience and manage digitalisation as a struggle! By this we mean a struggle for the future, a struggle with changing conditions as well as demands and ultimately a struggle for agency.

People are keen to use the possibilities for action that digitalisation opens up for them in ways that they make their lifestyles and the managing of their everyday lives easier, perhaps even enriched, but at least not more difficult. The extent to which this succeeds depends not only on technology or the people themselves – for example their affinity with technology, their formal education, their age or gender and even their income level – but primarily on the respective conditions under which they have to cope with digitalisation.

Contrary to suggestions in previous studies, our research results show that it is not solely the young and mostly male, better-earning highly qualified workers in big city offices – the core of so-called “digital pioneers” in the Digital Index of Initiative D21 – who experience the change positively. Liberation from outdated conditions is now also being experienced, for instance, by the semi-skilled laboratory machine operator we interviewed, whose use of automation technology does not make him fear for his job, but rather provides him with a massive reduction in sheer physical strain. Another example is the 50-year-old fitter who has worked in a factory for half of her life. She is now having the doors to the world of office working opened to her as a result of the technological changes.

Give more than take – Digitalisation for the Future

For these people, their relationship to digitalisation is decisively determined not by the extent of their use or acceptance of digital technology. Rather, it is determined by conditions that facilitate positive experiences from the changes, whetting their appetites for futures in the digital society.

It is precisely this insight that we should take into account when we ultimately sum up how the relationship to digitalisation is changing in everyday life throughout the Corona pandemic. If the pandemic merely brings us more digitalisation, this is still no guarantee of people’s ability to cope successfully with the changes. Of course, especially during the pandemic’s so-called first wave the potential of a different kind of digitalisation became clearer than before. This was, namely, digitalisation that not only meets people in the same way as before the pandemic, a “tsunami on the job market” or “surveillance capitalism”, but also enables many to maintain crucial components of everyday life, not least of which is gainful employment, even in times of crisis. However, as long as it hits people as an external constraint that merely increases the pressure to act, it will not be able to realise its full potential as a “Digitalisation for the Future” that can “give more to people than it takes away”. Accordingly, it is not surprising that after a certain initial euphoria, home office, for example, if it is implemented under unfavourable conditions, soon appears for some only as a poor alternative, rather than an additional option that expands rather than restricts employees’ potential for action in the office. Moreover, even if digital tools for staff monitoring gradually become more important, this will not improve the prospect of successfully mastering the digital transformation either.

In other words, digital transformation has not yet passed its litmus test. In order for it to prove itself in the future, it is important to understand that the most persistent blockages to modernisation do not exist among the people themselves. Rather, the central challenge is first of all to create the necessary conditions for as many people as possible to succeed in their struggle for the future.

The blogs published by the bidt represent the views of the authors; they do not reflect the position of the Institute as a whole.

Thomas Lühr

Thomas Lühr is a social and political scientist, conducting research at the ISF Munich from a subject-scientific perspective on change in the world of work and its implications for societal (dis)integration. Most recently, he published an in-depth analysis of the results presented here from the bidt study #UmbruchErleben under the title “Struggling for Conformity – Experiencing work in transition” in the journal DAS ARGUMENT, 335/2020.