CCool blue tones, glowing rows of figures made up of zeros and ones, networks and data clouds. And in the middle of it all: idealised heads, and hands tapping on touchscreens.

Even though we are just beginning to understand digital transformation as a societal development process, it has already developed its own imagery. We come across it in political strategy papers, in invitations to tender for research projects, in the PowerPoint presentations of companies, universities and institutions.

Digital transformation imagery awakens associations to objectivity and clarity, it evokes notions of a profound rationalisation and increased efficiency through digital data. Abstractions and generalisations characterise this imagery. But not all that appears generic at a first glance can withstand a second one: Children and older people, women and domestic contexts all appear surprisingly rarely in current digitalisation imagery.

Stefanie Büchner

Picture digital transformation!

JAM #28 — Image Language

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Picture digital transformation!
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Poster
Illustration: Dicey Studios

Regarding this imagery purely as a marketing tool, falls short of the mark. It is developed and disseminated in concrete contexts and digital imagery markets — and its omnipresence shapes our understanding of a transforming society. Social scientists have a particularly tense relationship with this imagery. These canonised representations are problematic for science communication that aims to refer to both theoretical approaches and specific research projects and results, given that these representations, in many cases, contradict social science insights into digital transformation.

The digital transformation processes are, in contrast to generalised abstractions, often heterogeneous and specific to a field: They are implemented differently in fields which are traditionally highly technical, such as medicine, than in less technical sub-sectors. The flow of data streams is continuously facilitated by social players, an immense amount of data work and last but not least, legal reforms. At the same time, available data is far from being able to be used directly, it always has to be extensively cleaned and recategorised. This is down to the fact that data is always produced in specific contexts with specific selectivity and omissions. In this sense, data is never »raw«, but »cooked«, something which media historian Lisa Gitelman pointed out in 2013 with reference to the work of data scientist Geoffrey Bowker in his book »›Raw Data‹ is an Oxymoron«. The interplay between social and technical concepts when optimising decision-making is therefore not just complex and consequently ambiguous, but is a long way from improving the quality of decisions in a linear manner. A crucial reason for this is the fundamental social framework of decision processes. Daily decision-making in organisations, administration, hospitals and universities is less of an encounter between people and decision support systems, but is embedded in a social context. Decisions are therefore integrated in professional and organisational hierarchies, subject to pressures to make a decision and take action, and not least connected to other, non-digitalised knowledge and information.

Picture digital transformation! What would our digital transformation imagery look like if it reflected the reality of the social interconnectedness of technologies? What if representations for the messiness, ambivalence and ambiguity of data were found, if invisible data work and ambiguous decision support relationships were made visual? The design of this alternative imagery is not just crucial to the science communication of social scientists, but also for an informed societal discourse about the future of an increasingly digital society.


Stefanie Büchner is a Junior Professor for the sociology of digitalisation at Leipniz University Hannover. She joined Die Junge Akademie in 2019.