| Glossary | General | Digitalisation


Definition and delimitation

The term “digitisation” has different meanings.

In its original sense, the term “digitalisation” [Latin digitus, meaning finger, toe], a technical term in the field of electronics, computer science, communications engineering and signalling technology, is defined as “the conversion of analogue signals into digital data that can be further processed with a computer” [1, IX; 2]. In the English-speaking world, the term “digitisation” is used with largely the same meaning and is defined as: “The action or process of digitizing; the conversion of analogue data [esp. in later use images, video, and text] into digital form” [3]. “Digitalisation” and “digitisation” are distinguished relatively consistently in English [4, 56]. Examples include the transformation of music from a record to a CD or the conversion of slides or videos for use in digital media.

In recent years, the term, together with related terms such as Digital Transformation, Digital Innovation, Industry 4.0 and Digital Revolution, which are often used synonymously, has become a term that is both common and ambiguous in its meaning. As a result, its meaning has been significantly expanded compared to its use in a specialist context and its original meaning has been modified.

The term digitalisation is now used broadly and indistinctly for the use of various digital technologies and associated transformation processes in society and its social subsystems, such as the economy and work, education, politics and the public sphere. This can be seen in the more recent approaches to definition:

  • “Today, digitalisation is often equated – somewhat more broadly – with the introduction of digital technologies in companies and as a driver of digital transformation.” [5]
  • “Definitions of digitalisation range from software-based device control to online-based product offerings to changing business models through new IT-based solutions.” [6, 190]
  • “Digitalisation […] in a broader sense, the process of a transformation encompassing all areas of life towards an existence determined by digital data.” [2]

In the meantime, therefore, it is no longer a clearly defined scientific term, but an umbrella term that conveys different meanings and is used in different connotations depending on what is required. “In our opinion, the extremely blurred use of the term ‘digitalisation’ is not a happy episode in the history of the German language.” [1, 45] The demarcation between the English terms digitisation and digitalisation, on the other hand, is relatively unambiguous [4].


For a long time, the term digitalisation was used exclusively in technical disciplines and was not very familiar to the general public [1, IX]. Although the looms controlled by punched cards in the 18th century, Babbage’s “analytical engine” [1833] and the Turing computer [1936] are mentioned today as early digital machines, and the first digital computers have been in commercial use in Germany since the 1950s, the term has only received much attention in all scientific disciplines since the second decade of the new millennium [7, 204 ff]. Moreover, it has since enjoyed great popularity, especially in public debate [1, 63 ff.].

The history of the term also builds on the distinction between analogue and digital computers. The distinction was first defined technically in the 1940s. Researchers in cybernetics further distinguished these analogue computers, which performed calculations based on continuous mechanical or electrical processes, from digital computers, which operated based on discrete, discontinuous numbers [8, 299-300]. The meaning of the term “digital” underlying this technology, in the sense of “discontinuous[n] representation of numbers” [7, 204], follows on from the Latin word “digit”, which translates as finger [7, 195]. Because counting was supported by the fingers until the Middle Ages, numbers from 0 to 9 were called “digiti” [7, 201-2] and machines based on discontinuous counting were called digital computers. The early practice of counting on the fingers thus forms the basis for the meaning of the term “digital” in use today as “counting, digitwise” [ibid]. Simone Loleit goes on to say that the Anglicism “digital” came to Germany in the mid-1950s as part of the language of technology. The word was popularised and passed from technical language into everyday language as well [7, 194]. A large number of composites followed. For example, the derivatives “digitalise” and “digitalisation” were first mentioned in 1971 and 1985, respectively [7, 206].

The dualistic use of the term pair “digital” and “analogue” by cybernetics [8, 299 f.] clearly influenced the history of the term. With the use of the terms for two distinguishable spheres, the term “digital” acquires a universal claim beyond its immediate use in computer technology, and also in the cultural and natural spheres [9, 11-12]. Accordingly, to digitise something means to transform it from an analogue to a digital state. In turn, to the extent that Von Neumann’s binary computer architecture has prevailed over other digital technologies, the term “digital” is often used synonymously with the term “binary” [ibid].

Critical reconstruction of the history of the term includes, in particular, reflection on its practice of use and the accompanying shift in meaning that has occurred, especially in more recent times. The question is why a term that previously had meaning only in a disciplinary context has suddenly become a “buzzword” with a very broad meaning.

Mertens et al. investigate the strong increase in interest in the term by analysing the relative frequency of use of the search terms “digitalisation” and “Industry 4.0” in Google Trends. They make it clear that the use of the term in public discourse in the German-speaking world only increased in 2013, but then rapidly [1, 51]. The evaluation of the Bundestag debates based on the analysis tool of the weekly magazine “Die ZEIT” confirms this finding [10]. Here, too, the use of the term “digitalisation” has only increased rapidly since 2013.

Figure 1: Absolute frequency of use of the term “digitisation” in the speeches of the German Bundestag [1949 to 2019]

Source: Evaluation tool on the speeches in the German Bundestag of the magazine “Die ZEIT”

The comparative evaluation of the terms “digitalisation” and “Industry 4.0” presented by Mertens et al. gives an indication of what the increased importance of the objects designated by these terms can be attributed to. The data suggest that the term digitalisation was first popularised by the industrial policy initiative “Industry 4.0”.

Figure 2: Relative search queries for the terms “digitalisation” and “Industrie 4.0”

Source: 1, 51

The sudden increase in the use of the terms cannot be reconciled with the real expansion of digital technologies and can be interpreted as an indication of a “fashion” [1, 50-51]. However, this “fashion” in turn does not arise from a whim of public consciousness, but is closely linked to the increased attention that the industrial policy initiative “Industry 4.0” has aroused in science and the public at large [10]. Even though the roots of the term digitalisation point to a scientifically based concept, in the course of its inflationary use in recent years it has developed into a cypher with a variant meaning. In the binary juxtaposition of analogue and digital, the term “‘digital’ […] has meanwhile become a buzzword that can be assigned to almost any phenomenon. It connotes ‘new’, ‘progressive’ and ‘computer-technical’ in a diffuse way. In contrast, everything analogue seems hopelessly outdated in an indeterminate way.” [9, 7] Loleit, therefore, concludes, “Such a euphoric-inflationary use of digital leads to the meaning ambiguity of the term; the technical denotative ‘counting, digit-like’ is displaced by the ideological connotative ‘new’ with arbitrary interpretative possibilities.” [7, 211]

Application and examples

The term digitisation now has great significance in the linguistic usage of all scientific disciplines and is widely used for a wide variety of circumstances.

Depending on the definition, different applications and examples fall under it:

  • Conversion of analogue signals into digital data: Since the 1950s, the first mainframe computers have often been used to perform mass data processing in accounting. In a company in India, for example, all documents of British jurisprudence are converted into a computer-readable form in order to make them transparently available for posterity.
  • The term digital technologies subsumes technologies from the most diverse fields of application: the internet and various forms of application, cloud, social media, production technologies and networking in the form of Industry 4.0, the internet of things, mobile, big data, artificial intelligence and various forms of application of learning systems.
  • The term covers various changes associated with the use of digital technologies, such as digital innovations, business models, value creation systems and work.
  • The term is often used in the sense of fundamental processes of social change that are related to the use of digital technologies. Here, for example, there is talk of digital transformation or digital revolution or the fourth industrial revolution.

Criticism and problems

The term digitalisation has become an inflationary term in German usage [7, 208-214; 1, 40]. In practical use, it cannot be used meaningfully without further definitions because of the different meanings and connotations. Especially in the scientific discussion, efforts to further clarify the term or its theoretical-conceptual embedding are therefore overdue, so that the social debate about digitalisation does not end in a Babylonian confusion of language.

In the common usages, the use of the term digitisation harbours conceptual ambiguities that are further reinforced by the inflationary, blurred and unreflected use. For example, various authors point out that the term is conceived in an unhelpful and contingent dual distinction from the term ‘analogue’ [1, 36-37, IX-X; 8, 295-97]. As a consequence of the dualistic distinction between digital and analogue, interpretations of the potential replacement of everything natural or human by technology emerge. As a consequence, the use of the term digitalisation with such connotations shifts the patterns of perception of scientific and public discourses. The impression is created that digitalisation is predominantly about the replacement of the analogue by the digital and that, as a consequence, human activities are to be replaced by machine activities [1, 64-65]. Consequently, the process of digitalisation appears as a linear, steadily progressing process of automation [1, 45]. The fact that automated structures, for their part, must always be tied back, i.e. that each new stage of digitalisation must in turn be embedded in a new relationship between analogue and digital structures, threatens to be insufficiently taken into account in this perspective [cf. 9, 13].

Basically, the question must be raised whether the term digitalisation, in the vagueness that it has become popular in German usage since 2013, even describes what is to be understood by it. Specifically: Is it really about the ongoing replacement of everything analogue by the digital or is it not rather about using digital technologies in a much broader understanding of the use of information to expand human agency? Thus Floridi suggests [11] suggests that it would be better to speak of the informational era [11, 21] rather than the computer age because it is the life cycle of information that has been increasingly influencing the well-being of society and individuals for a short time. Computers, he says, are only a small part of this broader phenomenon, which has its core in the relevance of information processing for society [ibid., 21]. His key term is therefore “infosphere”, an environment made of information [13, 25-27]. Similarly, Boes argues [14] from the perspective of the theory of informatisation. Here, the process of digitalisation is historically and logically embedded in the systematic generation and use of information to expand people’s capacities for action. The current increase in the importance of digitalisation is embedded in the emergence of an “information space”, which is increasingly taking shape on the basis of the Internet as a new kind of social space for action in world society [15].


With the industrial policy initiative Industry 4.0, research on various subjects of digitalisation and in a wide range of disciplines has been significantly expanded. This development was initially triggered to a large extent by research funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), which funded various projects in the engineering sciences and computer science to accompany the initiative. Since 2013, this funding initiative has been significantly expanded in terms of quantity and disciplinary diversification. In this context, the concept of digitalisation was increasingly used, first as a synonym for Industry 4.0 and later to replace it, and became a key term in various scientific disciplines.

Since then, a rapidly growing research landscape has developed in Germany around various topics in the context of digitalisation. At all universities and higher education institutions as well as non-university research institutions, research focuses have been established that deal with the topic. In the course of a call for proposals by the BMBF to establish an “Internet Institute” in Germany, a large institute was founded with the Weizenbaum Institute (WI) in Berlin and others followed in various federal states. In this context, the Bavarian Research Institute for Digital Transformation (bidt) was founded, which bundles the competencies in Bavaria on this topic.


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[2] Brockhaus: Digitalisierung. (accessed 08.07.2021).

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[8] Pias, Claus.  „Elektronenhirn und verbotene Zone. Zur kybernetischen Ökonomie des Digitalen.“ Analog/Digital – Opposition oder Kontinuum?. transcript Verlag, 2015. 295-310.

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[12] Floridi, Luciano. The onlife manifesto: Being human in a hyperconnected era. Springer Nature, 2015.

[13] Floridi, Luciano. Information: A very short introduction. OUP Oxford, 2010.

[14] Boes, Andreas. “Informatisierung. “ Berichterstattung zur sozioökonomischen Entwicklung in Deutschland. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden, 2005. 211–244.

[15] Boes, Andreas, and Tobias Kämpf. „Informatisierung und Emanzipation.” Das Argument 335 – Online-Kapitalismus. Argument Verlag, Hamburg, 2021. 133–156.