Release | Special Issue | Digital transformation of social theory

Digital transformation of social theory | Virtual Special Issue of Technological Forecasting and Social Change [SSCI 5.846, Scopus, CNRS***, CABS***, VHB***].


Steffen Roth, Harry F. Dahms, Frank Welz, and Sandro Cattacin: Print theories of computer societies. Introduction to the digital transformation of social theory

Abstract: ICT and the increasing availability of digital data are dramatically changing the processes of research and knowledge production in the social sciences and humanities (SSH). Whereas the methodological momentum in digital humanities and computational social sciences is already immense, theory development in the SSH is much less dynamic and consists mainly of digital resurrections of the classics of our fields. The contributions to this virtual special issue of Technological Forecasting and Social Change do, therefore, not constitute efforts at presenting new social theories of the digital transformation, but rather, efforts at digitally transforming social theory. This introduction presents an overview of the topic and the contributions and outlines key elements of a research agenda on the digital transformation of social theory.

An irritated Twitter comment in reaction to the call for papers to this virtual special issue of TFSC


Marinus Ossewaarde: Digital transformation and the renewal of social theory: Unpacking the new fraudulent myths and misplaced metaphors

Abstract: In this article, it is argued that social theory must be renewed to comprehend the new power constellations and new challenges to aesthetic and intellectual ways of life that are being shaped by digital transformation. However, while social theory has to renew its tools in order to grasp previously unknown realities, it also runs the risk of being assimilated into the very process that it seeks to understand, or to assimilate so much of the dominant belief system that it loses its critical and creative potential. The aim of this article is to propose a particular, renewed social theory that consists in a recasting some social theoretic insights to be able to preserve aesthetic and intellectual potentials of critique and negation. Through the lens of this renewed social theory, digital transformation is understood as a form of economic domination, which, as this article shows, is sustained by un-enlightenment, that is, by fraudulent myths and misplaced metaphors.

Emrah Karakilic: Rethinking intellectual property rights in the cognitive and digital age of capitalism: An autonomist Marxist reading

Abstract: The transition from industrial capitalism to cognitive capitalism and the rise of the digital revolution have brought the subject of intellectual property rights to the forefront as a controversial issue. This paper holds that the theoretical apparatus and concepts belonging to the industrial phase of capitalism largely fall short with respect to the repercussions that intellectual property rights regime yields. Embracing the methodological precept that social theory must be moulded in order to address the contours of contemporary social reality, this paper engages in an autonomist Marxist update on the concept of intellectual property rights. It ultimately challenges the “intellectual property rights are a socio-economic need” thesis and speculatively argues that the current system of intellectual property rights, directed politically towards the enclosure of commons, constitutes a structural contradiction by i) forming a basis for a social crisis in terms of the established relations of production, and ii) curtailing a part of the socio-economic opportunities for innovation, profit-making, and growth.

Karl Palmås: From hacking to simulation: Periodizing digitally-inspired social theory

Abstract: Interrogating the question of whether critique can be reimagined through inspiration from the world of digital computing and hacking, this article explores the work of four theorists who converged on that very topic in major texts published just after the turn of the millennium. Structured as a historical literature review, the article compares this body of theory with recent work by the same authors. The literature is, in turn, analyzed through the lens of a theoretical framework that stipulates that in any given “machinic era”, social theory tends to operationalize conceptual models abstracted from dominant technologies. The article makes three claims. First; in the early 2000s, theorists were challenging traditional, hermeneutic modes of critique by replacing motor metaphorics with conceptual models borrowed from computing. Secondly; when reviewing more recent work of these same authors, this project appears to be abandoned. Instead, there is now a shared interest in computer simulations, inasmuch as they act as proxies for comprehending the stakes of the Anthropocene. Thirdly; this suggests that digitally-inspired social theory – construed as a period of thought emerging after the demise of the motor-based machinic era – itself needs to be periodized.

José Javier Blanco Rivero: The fractal geometry of Luhmann’s sociological theory for debugging systems theory

Abstract: Social theory faces new challenges as society changes. The question is not only if social theory can keep up with – and account for – social transformations, but also if it can avail of social changes (in this case, the current dominance of digital media) in order to reinvent itself. The most attracting features of modern digital resources, such as Big Data, lies on their tools of analysis. But it just might be that the most promising contribution to social theory resides in the epistemological foundations backing these developments and the conceptual tools they can offer to rephrase epistemological issues. In this sense, the function debuggers play with regard to their target programs could shed new light not only on the process of knowledge formation, but also on the process of theory-improvement/updating. The present contribution intends to show how theory-debugging might work, by taking the sociology of Niklas Luhmann as a target program to be debugged by fractal geometry with the goal of delivering an enhanced version of system theory. It concludes by arguing for the plausibility of describing communication as a natural fractal susceptible of being modelled by some kind of fractal set, and for how communication media are responsible for the fractal structure of communication along sociocultural evolution.

Steffen Roth: Digital transformation of social theory. A research update

Abstract: This article outlines the basic design of digitally transformed social theory. We show that any digital world is created by the drawing and cross-tabling of binary distinctions. As any theory is supposed to be concerned with truth, we introduce to and insist on the distinction between true and false distinctions. We demonstrate how flexible matrix-shaped theory architectures based on true distinctions allow for the reduction and unfolding of the entire complexity of analogue social theories. The result of our demonstrations is the idea of a theoretical Supervacuus. The social equivalent of a universal Turing machine, this supervacuous social theory is virtually empty as it is based on only one proper theoretical premise (the idea of distinction [between true and false distinctions]), and therefore able to simulate all other social theory programmes. We conclude that our digitally transformed social theory design is particularly useful for observations of a digitally transformed society.

Jean-Sébastien Guy: Digital technology, digital culture and the metric/nonmetric distinction

Abstract: Digital culture is identified as both a component of the current digital transformation of society and an epis- temological obstacle toward the sociological analysis of the same phenomenon. Two theoretical distinctions are bought in to remove this obstacle: medium/form and metric/nonmetric. Digital culture is then analysed as a nonmetric form specifically and criticized for leaving aside other social forms, most notably metric forms such as the flows of information connected with the operations of algorithms for instance.

Matthias Wenzel and Matthias Will: The communicative constitution of academic fields in the digital age: The case of CSR

Abstract: Although the digital transformation of knowledge production has put communication front and center in the production and recreation of academic fields, research on scientific communities still mostly promotes an actor-centric or institutionalist understanding of academic fields. This, we argue, points to the need for a digital transformation of our understanding of academic fields, one that does justice to the important role of communication in the production and recreation of academic fields. Therefore, in this paper, we draw on the “communicative constitution of organizations” (CCO) view to explore how academic fields are communicatively constituted. Our GABEK-based discourse analysis focuses on the communicative constitution of the academic field of corporate social responsibility. Our findings illustrate how academic fields are constituted through the enactment of three communicative practices: embedding, diverging, and converging. Furthermore, our results indicate how the communicative constitution of academic fields occurs through the sequential enactment of these practices. Our theoretical framework extends the literatures on scientific communities and CCO by beginning to develop a communication view of academic fields. These ideas also have implications for the digital transformation of social theory more generally.

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