Brief lecture on the digital society: empowerment, control, and digital literacy

Lund University’s Department of Sociology has just published a video in which I give a brief lecture on the digital society (in Swedish). Below I’m sharing the English translation of my manuscript.

Digital media are everywhere. We exchange and share text, sounds, and images with each other – on our mobile phones, computers, and tablets. We buy things online. We arrange meetings and events digitally, and some of us even organize flash mobs or smart mobs. Hospitals, schools, universities, and many other work places keep digital journals about us. We are being filmed by surveillance cameras (both state and private). And all the while we are leaving behind digital footprints: data that corporations and governments collect, for example in order to make predictions about how we might behave in the future.

The academic and public debate on the digital society has dealt a lot with questions of empowerment, but also with new forms of vulnerability and control; and with those digital skills and competencies that are encompassed by the concept of ‘digital literacy’. In a research project on the Chinese digital society, my colleagues and I investigate these dimensions, focusing on the role of digital technologies in Chinese politics, the economy, schools and every-day life.

In this brief lecture, I will focus on the aspects of empowerment, control, and digital literacy, even if there is much more to say about the digital society.


In the early days of the Internet, there was much enthusiasm about what the Internet and other digital technologies would be able to achieve. Many saw the Internet as leading to a global society without borders and hierarchies. Theoretically, the power to produce and spread news was no longer in the hands of a few, but anyone should be able to contribute through social media. Various grassroots organizations and social movements started to use social media to connect and mobilize. Well-known examples are the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement.

Many researchers agree that digital media can be used for bridging social, geographical, and economic divides. For example, poor farmers may use digital media to get access to knowledge about advanced agricultural technologies. At the same time, these farmers can use digital media to make their experiences and problems known to the wider world. However, activists and researchers have pointed out that divides exist not only in the real world, but also in the virtual world. These ‘digital divides’ have become a widely discussed issue. People can be prevented from using digital media at all, if they don’t have access to a connecting device. Or they may lack the experience for using digital media effectively.

Digital media may empower people and give them a voice. But it is uncertain to which extent others care to listen to these new voices. Participation online may also result in less or no participation offline – a phenomenon that has been called ‘clicktivism’. Or as one activist asked me once: “Do you want two million clicks, or do you want 10,000 people on the streets?”

Sociologists, anthropologists, educationists, and other researchers investigate under which conditions empowerment and active participation in the digital society can take place. They look for example at various forms of social exclusion in terms of class, gender, age, ethnicity or physical ability, and their methods can be quantitative – for example a social network analysis of Twitter accounts – or qualitative – for example an ethnography on the Internet, or netnography.

A scholar who has published widely on the digital society and digital divides is the Dutch sociologist and media scholar Jan van Dijk. Richard Heeks, a well-known scholar at the University of Manchester, has done extensive research on digital technologies and how they are interconnected with both development and education.

Vulnerabilities & control

The original enthusiasm concerning the Internet was soon met with more critical attitudes towards the effects of digital media. The dark side of the Internet includes issues such as cyber-crime, political surveillance, cyber-bullying, negative impact on health, to name but a few – problems that pose a danger to individual privacy and integrity. Particularly the revelations by the US-American whistleblower Edward Snowden made the broader public aware of the extent to which digital media can be used for control and surveillance.

For us as researchers, it is interesting to analyze how the definition of the very concept of ‘security’ depends on how a society is organized socially and politically. How much we can infringe on other people’s freedom and integrity often depends on a society’s norms and cyber norms. While Snowden may be a freedom fighter for some, he is a traitor for others. Chinese authorities close micro-blog accounts that are found to share messages too often; to share something to a large extent is understood as rumor-mongering – which again would challenge the government’s monopoly on producing news. The US-American lawyer and Internet activist Lawrence Lessig was early to point to the capability of digital technologies to control people.

Research on digital media includes also economic aspects. For example, individuals, when using digital media, may be exploited by commercial businesses. By allowing companies to gain insight into our online behavior, we provide them with valuable information without being paid for this. Our choices on the Internet refine those algorithms that companies use to predict consumer behavior. The more information we offer to them, the more effectively companies can influence us by way of targeted commercials. Scholars such as the US-American media researcher Dan Schiller have investigated how these new forms of capitalism impact people and society.

Digital trust & digital literacy

The capability to act as a full-grown netizen is highly dependent on both digital trust and digital literacy. Digital trust is closely intertwined with trust relationships in the wider society: are a society’s social norms, laws, and institutions trustworthy? Digital trust impacts our view of for example digital experts, firewalls, apps, software etc. Our ability to deal with these aspects is comprised by the concept of ‘digital literacy’: from a broader perspective, digital literacy does not just mean the technical skills to use digital media, but also the ability to act responsibly and safely in the digital world.

Most researchers today agree that digital literacy is increasingly important if we want to avoid new forms of inequality and injustice. What do you know about your digital footprint? How much digital literacy do you possess, as man or woman, consumer or citizen? And what tools would you need to become a full-grown citizen in today’s digital world?

November 6, 2015

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