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Keeping up with the digital transformation

Ursula Münch examines the consequences of digitization for politics and society. She advocates more regulation: "I see that the population feels left alone."

Ursula Münch addresses urgent questions. “Digitalisation is one of the three major forces already having a massive impact on our lives and will continue to do so in the future – along with globalisation or migration and global warming.”

As a political scientist, she focuses on the effects of digitalisation on democracies and societies. “Anyone concerned with forming political will and decision-making is constantly confronted with the fact that part of the declining reputation of political actors can be attributed to the changed digital communication formats and their regularities.”

Political processes under pressure

How much digitalisation would change public communication and understanding of politics had not been recognised for a long time.

“Today, I can be amused or perhaps horrified at how clueless we were about this just a few years ago. Even social scientists didn’t expect digitalisation to have such an accelerating effect, transforming societies so quickly and putting so much pressure on political processes.”

When Ursula Münch became director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing in 2011, which offers scientifically based conferences and seminars for citizens, offers on digitalisation still were met with little response. “Immediately after taking office, I was keen to address the effects of digitalisation on society in conferences. And I still remember how the lecturer responsible said: ‘We have to cancel the conference. No one is interested in the topic.’ That was just nine years ago. You have to imagine that!”

Don’t take too sweeping a view of digitalisation

Today, Ursula Münch, who has been a professor of political science at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich since 1999, is also a sought-after expert on questions of digitalisation and its significance for politics and society due to her many years of academic engagement with the topic.

Ursula Münch has been a member of bidt’s Board of Directors since September 2018. “You have to be careful not to treat digitalisation too sweepingly. At the Academy for Political Education and bidt, we look more nuanced at the effects on the labour market, media, society, politics, etc.”

At the opening event of bidt, Ursula Münch spoke about digitalisation as a task for politics. She stated that there was a “weakness in digital policy action”.

“I think that politics must regulate digitalisation more strongly. And not only because of pressure from populists who use the ‘narrative’ of the ‘weak state’ for themselves but also out of objective necessity. Digital media are manipulating public opinion, and consumers must be protected. Election campaigns must take place without manipulation, and we must not allow our social market economy to be ruined by the supremacy of internet giants. I observe that the population does feel left alone.”

Digitalisation from a swiping perspective

Referring to a typical hand movement on a smartphone, Ursula Münch speaks of the “swiping perspective” of users. She thus describes that the view of many users on digitalisation is limited. “Most of them are well aware that they only know digitalisation from a swiping perspective. However, very few take this to heart when it comes to learning more.”

Perceiving the ambivalence of digitalisation

Her work for the Academy gives Ursula Münch a good insight into how people perceive digitalisation. Meanwhile, their conferences on the subject are in great demand.

“The larger part of the population perceives digitalisation as progress. You also have to consider how seductive digitalisation is for most people and in what form it arrives with us: mainly as a comparison portal for insurance, as Uber and Airbnb, Google and Amazon and as a possibility of digital communication, where many applications also have an addictive character.”

And yet the political scientist also senses uncertainty from very different circles. “There are concerns about how digitalisation will affect their jobs and that of their children. And there is unease about the dependency structures we as users are getting into – not only through how we spend our free time with digital media but also through the mechanisms of so-called surveillance capitalism that are already at work on every smartphone. I think people mustn’t just think everything is good, but perceive the ambivalence of digitalisation – the many possibilities and the risks.”

Insecure school headmasters

The circle of clearly unsettled addressees includes school principals, who often approach her. “The demand for classification is very high. Just like the teachers, the school headmasters are quite overwhelmed with the topic of digitalisation and its connections, also about democracy education,” says Ursula Münch.

From her work as the director of the Academy for Political Education, she knows that many citizens are also looking for orientation. “In my opinion, that is also one of bidt’s tasks: to make it clear what is changing in probably all areas of life due to digitalisation and how, for example, craftsmen, companies, medical professionals or universities can adapt to these changes.”

Comparing digitalisation strategies

At bidt, Ursula Münch oversees the research project “Digital Transformation Strategies of the German Federal States” with Thomas Hess, her colleague on the board of directors. The project team is developing a systematic comparison of different approaches. The goal is to identify evaluation criteria for promising political digitalisation strategies and, based on this, to formulate design impulses for politics.

The researchers are also looking for examples of good practice. “We want to investigate what works best: decentralising and letting each ministry make its digital policy – at the risk that they all work on the same thing, which is then incompatible. Or is it wiser to centralise with the risk that a big mistake is repeated over and over again? We are also interested in whether individual states in Germany are leading the way. And, if so, to find out from whom they are learning and what they are taking their cue from.”

Educate also about negative developments

With regard to politics, Ursula Münch sees the bidt in the role of providing recommendations for action based on scientific findings. As a long-time observer of digital communication in particular, Ursula Münch is not unaware of its effects beyond politics.

Some of them trigger worrying thoughts in her – and strengthen her motivation to contribute to educating people about the consequences of digitalisation and thus counteract negative developments.

“In my work with students, I am shocked to see that the ability to concentrate on a text is being lost. This causes me serious distress. Where is a society – supposedly so education-oriented – heading when people only take note of the information in box form and bullet points and everyone only talks about something superficially?”