The History of Digitalisation in Five Phases

/**This is a shortened translation of my text „Die Geschichte der Digitalisierung in fünf Phasen“ by Julian Rybarsky for a hand-out publication of the FFT-Festival „Claiming Common Spaces II“ where I had the honor to speak. **/

There is no English word for “Digitalisierung”. Instead, one speaks of “technology”, “artificial intelligence” or “innovation”, also addressing different topics and various debates each time. In Germany, the term embraces all those processes of structural adaptation that the introduction of digital technology into our everyday lives entails. It allows us to perceive heterogenous processes as one whole, but it also makes the conspicuous vastness of the phenomenon seem intimidating. I subdivide the history of “Digitalisierung” into four phases that successively lead from the 1980s to our present day. The idea is to generate enough acceleration in the narration of the four phases to use them as a platform for the future – that is, the fifth phase – and to dare a related speculation.

Phase One: Early Networking Utopias (1985 – 1995)

Computers already existed in the 1970s, although they were very large, and mainly installed at universities, in military compounds or at big corporations. Most people knew of them only by way of second-hand accounts. With the advent of the personal computer, the PC, during the early and mid 80s, the time for a departure, for the democratisation of computing came. A sinister war technology became a tool of emancipation to the modern citizen, as far as the self-conception then went. Also, in the 80s, early online providers started linking up PCs. Early net communities such as “The WELL” became meeting points for early adopters, where they developed bold theories about the future’s networked society. In the mid 90s, the internet enters many households, while the world wide web is invented at the same time.

This moment of departure is emblematically crystallised not only in the hacker scene that grew around the PC’s origin, but also in numerous other social discourses who gratefully adopted the “network” as a new structural metaphor. It was a time when the thought prevailed that the internet, this “new space of the mind”, was a utopian space. Anonymity, decentralisation, freedom from hierarchy, openness/connectivity and total freedom of communication were the ideological foundations on which to build a new, a better society.

Of course, everything was not as bright as the net utopians envisioned it at the time. The counter-movement formed the internet, not as a post-identity space, but mainly as a new marketplace. And so, the “New Economy” also grew in the shadows of net discourse, forcing a reconnection of cyberspace into the physical realm and to (civic) identities.

Phase Two: Remediation (1005 – 2005)

At first, the internet dabbled in imitating conventional media or even in making them obsolete. The first thing to undergo “Digitalisierung” was mailed correspondence. When the New Economy bubble burst around the turn of the millenium, YouTube and iTunes followed in its wake, digitising television and the record collection. Skype took over from the telephone, and Amazon claimed retail. But there were also new media who did not attempt to replace their analogue counterparts, but who were only possible through the structural make-up of the internet. The rise of the search engines, of social bookmarking services and photo platforms offered a completely new way of working with digital objects, of sharing them, of transferring them and of communicating about them. And, of course, this birthed social networks. “web 2.0” was the catchphrase proclaiming a social net in 2005.

Phase Three: Loss of Control (2005 – 2015)

To be exact, the loss-of-control paradigm had been introduced way before 2005. What the music industry had to face since 1999, with the advent of filesharing and Napster, soon rang on the doors of the film industry, then the national states, and subsequently on our collective doors. Yet, loss of control concerning data and information streams really gained momentum starting in the middle 2000s. One of its catalysts, of course, is social media, the designation soon applied to the “web 2.0”. All of a sudden, people started uploading all kinds of data to the internet, even the most private snippets. Starting in 2007, smartphones, pocket-sized and equipped with sensors and connectivity, tied us to the internet.

The Internet of Things began connecting living space and urban space. All this data went into the “cloud”. Nothing stood in the way of ubiquitous loss of control any longer.

It was the era of the Wikileaks disclosures, concerning financial institutions, governments, parties and other instances of power, and it was the era of Big Data, of the exploitation of large amounts of data, from which previously undreamt-of information could be unearthed. And, eventually, it was the era of Edward Snowden, who made secret services come undone, yet only to show that all of us had been naked all along.

Simultaneously, there were occurrences of second-order loss of control. Occupy Wall Street protests, the Arab Spring uprisings, protests in Spain and Tel Aviv. The world seemed to go to pieces, and “Digitalisierung” played no small part in this. People organised eruptive “smart mobs” by means of digital tools, threatening and often even toppling government.

Still, new controlling structures were superimposed on the internet. The Napster shock was fenced in by new, manageable distribution such as iTunes or, later, Spotify. Google brought order to the web’s chaos, growing into a global firm. Facebook – please don’t laugh – brought privacy to the internet with its correspondent setting. The likeable “web 2.0” services evolved into giant platforms. They serve as a new apparatus of control and of uncanny power.

Phase Four: The New Game (2015 – 2025)

The platforms’ success is based on “control as a product” on the one hand as well as on an effect that renders the networks ever more useful, the more people participate, on the other hand. Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon are, without a doubt, the dominating players in our time, but the platform principle shapes the world as a whole by now, with entities such as Airbnb, Uber, Foodora, Deliveroo and others. This has very little to do with the decentralised, anti-hierarchical net utopias of the first phase.

During fourth phase, some individuals and institutions see through the dynamics of this loss of control, and they develop new strategies – a new game to compensate for lack of data stream control, to reach their goals.

The United States presidential election as well as the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom point to developments similar to a “second-order loss of control”. But the uproar has stabilised. While the loss of control phase was marked by “smart mobs” shaking up world history, but also quickly vanishing in all directions afterwards, new lines of demarcation break up in this new game, running against all of the traditional political spectrum. Donald Trump is no typical Republican, and the Brexit problem cannot be solved along the lines of established party politics. The AfD is fishing for votes from all of Germany’s parties. Effectively, new tribes with irreconcilable views were formed, viewing each other not as political opponents, but rather as enemies of one’s own identity. This digital tribalism fuels fake news and online trolling campaigns. It may be used to study the powerlessness of the platforms, heretofore thought of as omnipotent, now standing before this phenomenon as helpless sorcerer’s apprentices. Tribalism as “second-order loss of control” cannot be fenced in with controlling strategies already in existence. It will ring in the new paradigm of the next phase of digitisation.

Phase Five: Restructuring (2025 – 3035)

Our idea of community and of social discourse, representative democracy and much more were conceived in a time when a small number of people were able to transmit small amounts of information over short distances. This system now collides with overwhelming amounts of data, spun out of control globally, and with a hitherto unknown faculty for the organisation of people and information. It is only consistent that this radically questions power structures without prior knowledge of the structures replacing them. History has produced analogous phenomena in comparable situations.

Like the Internet today, letterpress printing changed society profoundly. If there is one cultural historic event we associate with the accomplishment of letterpress printing, it is the Age of Enlightenment. This may not be wrong, but it suppresses the fact that there is a 250-year period of chaos, war and destruction between the advent of letterpress printing and the Age of Enlightenment. The chaos wrought by the invention of letterpress printing mainly questioned the reign of the Roman Catholic church. With Reformation and over the course of bloody strife, the new sovereign, bureaucratic and secular state as a new ruling body emerged, providing in itself the condition for the possibilities for enlightenment and democracy.

A new institution, at once wielding enough power to channel the numerous losses of control brought up by the new medium onto a peaceful path, but also a legitimisation akin to that of the nation state, could also be at the end of our own phase of restructuring. I can only guess at the form of this construct.

But I would advise looking at the development of the Chinese model of state closely. The EU could also provide interesting impulse, if it wakes from its nation state-induced numbness. Perhaps we have to think much smaller again and focus on the civic grassroots organisations in Athens, Barcelona or the Kurdish-controlled territories in Iraq or Syria.

I, for one, am sure that somewhere out there, the foundations of the great restructuring have already been laid, because I have been told by William Gibson: The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.

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