This is a start to more fully describe and explore a distributed version of digitisation, digitalisation and specifically digital transformation, and state why I think bringing distributed / networked thinking into them matters.

Digitising stuff, digitalising routines, the regular way

Over the past decades much more of the things around us became digitised, and in recent years much of the things we do, our daily routines and work processes, have become digitalised. Many of those digitalised processes are merely digitised replicas of their paper predecessors. Asking for a government permit for instance, or online banking. There’s nothing there that wasn’t there in the paper version. Sometimes even small steps in those processes still force you to use paper. At the start of this year I had to apply for a declaration that my company had never been involved in procurement fraud. All the forms I needed for it (30 pages in total!), were digitised and I filled them out online, but when it came to sending it in, I had to print the PDF resulting from those 30 pages, and send it through snail mail. I have no doubt that the receiving government office’s first step was to scan it all before processing it. Online banking similarly is just a digitised paper process. Why don’t all online bank accounts provide nifty visualisation, filtering and financial planning tools (like alerts for dates due, saving towards a goal, maintaining a buffer etc.), now that everything is digital? The reason we laugh at Little Britains ‘computer says no’ sketches, is because we recognise all too well the frustration of organisations blindly trusting their digitalised processes, and never acknowledging or addressing their crappy implementation, or the extra work and route-arounds their indifference inflicts.

Digital transformation, digital societies

Digital transformation is the accumulated societal impact of all those digital artefacts and digitalised processes, even if they’re incomplete or half-baked. Digital transformation is why I have access to all those books in the long tail that never reached the shelves of any of the book shops I visited in decades part, yet now come to my e-reader instantly, resulting in me reading more and across a wider spectrum than ever before. Digital transformation is also the impact on elections that almost individually targeted data-driven Facebook advertising caused by minutely profiling undecided voters.

Digital transformation is often referred to these days, in my work often also in the context of development and the sustainable development goals.
Yet, it often feels to me that for most intents and purposes this digital transformation is done to us, about us but not of us. It’s a bit like the smart city visions corporations like Siemens and Samsung push(ed), that were basically devoid of life and humanity. Quality of life reduced and equated to security only, in sterilised cities, ignoring that people are the key actors, as critiqued by Adam Greenfield in 2013.

Human digital networks: distributed digital transformation

The Internet is a marvellous thing. At least it is when we use it actively, to assist us in our routines and in our efforts to change, learn and reach out. As social animals, our human interaction has always been networked where we fluently switch between contexts, degrees of trust and disclosure, and routing around undesired connections. In that sense human interaction and the internet’s original design principle closely match up, they’re both distributed. In contrast most digitalisation and digital transformation happens from the perspective of organisations and silos. Centralised things, where some decide for the many.

To escape that ‘done to us, about us, not of us’, I think we need to approach digitisation, digitalisation and digital transformation from a distributed perspective, matching up our own inherently networked humanity with our newly (since 30 yrs) networked global digital infrastructure. We need to think in terms of distributed digital transformation. Distributed digital transformation (making our own digital societal impact), building on distributed digitisation (making our things digital), and on distributed digitalisation (making our routines digital).

Signs of distributed digitisation and digitalisation

Distributed digitisation can already be seen in things like the quantified self movement, where individuals create data around themselves to use for themselves. Or in the sensors I have in the garden. Those garden measurements are part of something you can call distributed digitalisation, where a network of similar sensors create a map of our city that informs climate adaptation efforts by local government. My evolving information strategies, with a few automated parts, and the interplay of different protocols and self-proposed standards that make up the Indieweb also are examples of distributed digitalisation. My Networked Agency framework, where small groups of relationships fix something of value with low threshold digital technology, and network/digital based methods and processes, is distributed digitisation and distributed digitalisation combined into a design aid for group action.

Distributed digital transformation needs a macroscope for the new civil society

Distributed digital transformation, distributed societal impact seems a bit more elusive though.
Civil society is increasingly distributed too, that to me is clear. New coops, p2p groups, networks of individual actors emerge all over the world. However they are largely invisible to for instance the classic interaction between government and the incumbent civil society, and usually cut-off from the scaffolding and support structures that ‘classic’ activities can build on to get started. Because they’re not organised ‘the right way’, not clearly representative of a larger whole. Bootstrapping is their only path. As a result these initiatives are only perceived as single elements, and the scale they actually (can) achieve as a network remains invisible. Often even in the eyes of those single elements themselves.

Our societies, including the nodes that make up the network of this new type of civil society, lack the perception to recognise the ‘invisible hand of networks’. A few years ago already I discussed with a few people, directors of entities in that new civil society fabric, how it is that we can’t seem to make our newly arranged collective voices heard, our collective efforts and results seen, and our collective power of agency recognised and sought out for collaboration? We’re too used, it seems, to aggregating all those things, collapsing them into a single voice of a mouthpiece that has the weight of numbers behind it, in order to be heard. We need to learn to see the cumulative impact of a multitude of efforts, while simultaneously keeping all those efforts visible on their own. There exist so many initiatives I think that are great examples of how distributed digitalisation leads to transformation, but they are largely invisible outside their own context, and also not widely networked and connected enough to reach their own full potential. They are valuable on their own, but would be even more valuable to themselves and others when federated, but the federation part is mostly missing.
We need to find a better way to see the big picture, while also seeing all pixels it consists of. A macroscope, a distributed digital transformation macroscope.

9 reactions on “Distributed Digital Transformation

  1. Somehow the following webmentions don’t get stored:
    Read: https://boffosocko.com/2018/11/08/distributed-digital-transformation-interdependent-thoughts/

    Reply: https://ramblinggit.com/2018/11/in-reply-to-distributed-digital-transformation/ Brad Enslen writes:
    Great article!

    Yes we need a macroscope. The first practical thing that needs to be done now is to publicly catalog all these initiatives as a first step in building that macroscope. Part of that cataloging (indexing) requires defining just what is a worthy initiative and explain it. Then we we figure out how to network. And part of it needs to be practical, boots on the ground stuff, because we don’t have infinite time to come up with perfect solutions.

    Those steps I listed above, are doable right now. Somebody needs to start. If there is a way I can help, let me know.

  2. This is a naive exercise to explore what ethics by design would look like for networked agency. There’s plenty of discussion about ethics by design in various places. Mostly in machine learning, where algorithmic bias is a very real issue already, and where other discussions such as around automated driving are misguided for lack of imagination and scope. It’s also an ongoing concern in adtech, especially since we know business practices don’t limit themselves to selling you stuff but also deceive you to sell political ideas. Data governance is an area where I encounter ethics by design as a topic on a regular basis, in decisions on what data to collect or not, and in questions of balancing or combining the need for transparency with the need for data protection. But I want to leave that aside, also because many organisations in those areas already have failed their customers and users. Which would make this posting a complaint and not constructive.
    My current interest is in exploring what ethics means, and can be done by design, in the context of networked agency, and by extension a new civil society emerging in distributed digital transformation. A naive approach helps me find a first batch of questions and angles.
    The notions that are the building blocks of networked agency are a starting point. Ethical questions follow directly from those building blocks.
    First there are the building blocks related to the agency element in networked agency. These are technology and methods/processes, striking power, resilience and agility.
    a) For the technologies and methods/processes involved, relevant are issues relating to who controls those tools, how these tools can be deployed by their users, and if a user group can alter the tools, adapt them to new needs and tinker with them.
    b) Low thresholds of adoption need an exploration of what those thresholds are and how they play out for different groups. These are thresholds of technological and financial nature, but also barriers concerning knowledge, practicality, usability, and understandability.
    c) Striking power, the actual acting part of agency provides questions about if a tool provides actual agency, and isn’t actually a pacifier. Not every action or activity constitutes agency. It’s why words like slacktivism and clicktivism have emerged.
    d) Resilience in networked agency is about reducing the vulnerability to propagating failures from outside the group, and the manner in which mitigation is possible. Reduction of critical dependencies outside the group’s scope of control is something to consider here. That also works in reverse. Are you creating dependencies for others? In a similar vein, are you externalising costs onto others? Are you causing unintended consequences elsewhere, and can you be aware of them arising, or pre-empt them?
    e) Agility in networked agency is about spotting and leveraging opportunities relative to your own needs in your wider network. Are you able to do that from a constructive perspective, or only a competitive/scarcity one? Do your opportunities come at the cost of other groups? When you leverage opportunities are you externalising costs or claiming exclusivity? In a networked environment externalising costs will return as feedback to your system. Networks almost by definition are endless repeats of the prisoners dilemma. Another side of this is which ways exist in which you can provide leverage to others simultaneously to creating your own, or when to be the lever in a situation.
    Second there are notions that follow from the networked part of networked agency. The unit of agency in networked agency is a group of people that share some relationship (team, family, org, location, interest, history, etc), that together act upon a need shared across that group. This introduces three levels to evaluate ethical questions on, at the level of the individual in a group, at the level of the group itself, and between groups in a network. Group dynamics are thus firmly put into focus: power, control, ownership, voice, inclusion, decision making, conflict resolution, dependencies within a group, reciprocity, mutuality, verifiability, boundaries, trust, contributions, engagement, and reputations.
    This in part translates back to the agency part, in terms of technology and skills to work with it. Skills won’t be evenly distributed in groups seeking agency, so potentially introduce power asymmetries, when unique capabilities mean de-facto gatekeepers or single points of failure are introduced. These may be counteracted with some mutual dependencies perhaps. More likely operational transparency in a group is of more importance so that the group can see such issues arise and calling them out is a normal thing to do, not something that has a threshold in itself. Operational transparency might build on an obligation to explain, which also is a logical element in ensuring (networked) agility.
    The above output of this first exercise I will try and put in an overview. Not sure what will be useful here, a tree-like map, or a network, or a matrix. A next step is fleshing out the ethical issues in play. Then projecting them on for instance specific technologies, methods and group settings, to see what specific actions or design principles emerge from that.

  3. Frank writes about how the Netherlands became the first connection outside the USA on the open net by the NSF (as opposed to the military initiated ARPANET academic institutions used then), thirty years ago yesterday on November 17th 1988. Two years previously .nl had been created as the first ever country top level domain. This was the result of the work and specifically the excellent personal connections to their US counterparts of people at the Amsterdam CWI, the center for mathematics. Because of those personal connections the Netherlands was connected very early on to the open internet and still is a major hub. Through that first connection Europe got connected as well, as the CWI was part of the European network of academic institutions EUnet. A large chunk of the European internet traffic still runs through the Netherlands as a consequence.
    I went to university in the summer of 1988 and had the opportunity to early on enjoy the fruits of the CWI’s work. From the start I became active in the student association Scintilla at my electronic engineering department at University of Twente. Electronic engineering students had an advantage when it came to access to electronics and personal computers and as a consequence we had very early connectivity. As first year student I was chairman of one of Scintilla’s many committees and in that role I voted in late ’88 / early ’89 to spend 2500 guilders (a huge sum in my mind then) for cables and plugs and 3 ethernet cards for the PC’s we had in use. I remember how on the 10th floor of the department building other members were very carefully connecting the PC’s to each other. It was the first LAN on campus not run by the University itself nor connected to the mainframe computing center. Soon after, that LAN was connected to the internet.
    In my mind I’ve been online regularly since late 1989, through Scintilla’s network connections. I remember there was an argument with the faculty because we had started using a subdomain directly of the university, not as a subdomain of the faculty’s own subdomain. We couldn’t, because they hadn’t even activated their subdomain yet. So we waited for them to get moving, under threat of losing funding if we didn’t comply. Most certainly I’ve been online on a daily basis since the moment I joined the Scintilla board in 1990 which by then had moved to the basement of the electronics department building. We at first shared one e-mail address, before running our own mail server. I used telnet a lot, and spent an entire summer, it must have been the summer of ’91 when I was a board member, chatting to two other students who had a summer job as sysadmin at the computer center of a Texas university. The prime perk of that job was they could sit in air conditioning all summer, and play around with the internet connection. Usenet of course. Later Gopher menus, then 25 years ago the web browser came along (which I first didn’t understand as a major change, after all I already had all the connectivity I wanted).
    So of those 30 years of open internet in the Netherlands, I’ve been online daily 28 years for certain, and probably a year longer with every-now-and-then connectivity. First from the basement at university, then phoning into the university from home, then (from late ’96) having a fixed IP address through a private ISP (which meant I could run my own server, which was reachable when I phoned into the ISP), until the luxury we have now of a fiber optic cable into our house, delivering a 500Mbit/s two-way connection (we had a 1Gb connection before the move last year, so we actually took a step ‘backwards’).
    Having had daily internet access for 28 years, basically all of my adult life, has shaped both my professional and personal life tremendously. Professionally, as none of my past jobs nor my current work would have been possible without internet. None of my work in the past decades would have even existed without internet. My very first paid job was setting up international data transmissions between an electronics provider, their factories, as well as the retail chains that sold their stuff. Personally it has been similar. Most of my every day exchanges are with people from all over the world, and the inspiring mix of people I may call friends and that for instance come to our birthday unconferences I first met online. Nancy White‘s husband and neighbours call them/us her ‘imaginary friends’. Many of our friends are from that ‘imaginary’ source, and over the years we met at conferences, visited each others houses, and keep in regular touch. It never ceases to amaze.
    To me the internet was always a network first, and technology second. The key affordance of the internet to me is not exchanging data or connecting computer systems, but connecting people. That the internet in its design principles is a distributed network, and rather closely resembles how human networks are shaped, is something we haven’t leveraged to its full potential yet by far. Centralised services, like the current web silos, don’t embrace that fundamental aspect of internet other than at the hardware level, so I tend to see them as growths more than actualisation of the internets’s foremost affordance. We’ve yet to really embrace what human digital networks may achieve.
    Because of that perspective, seeing the digital network as a human network, I am mightily pleased that the reason I have been able to be digitally connected online for almost 30 years, is first and foremost because of a human connection. The connection between Piet Beertema at CWI in Amsterdam to Rick Adams at NSF in the USA, which resulted in the Netherlands coming online right when I started university. That human connection, between two people I’ve never met nor interacted with, essentially shaped the space in which my life is taking its course, which is a rather amazing thought.

  4. Having spent the weekend after Christmas in Freiburg, in southern Germany, we drove to Lake Zug in Switzerland on Monday. There we celebrated New Year’s Eve with dear friends. We stayed with P and B. P, like H and R who were also there for NYE as they also live in Switzerland, is an old room mate. This new year we’ll have known each other for 30 years. We stayed for a few days, with our little one enjoying jamming on P’s digital drums, and Elmine going to Milano in Italy for a day together with B and M. We drove back on Thursday, and spent the weekend at home.
    The coming week is the first working week again. This week I did a few small things:

    Made the Q1 planning
    Did some preparatory work for doing the 2018 accounts
    Made a mind map for January as a braindump of everything that needs attention and to specify what might hold me back
    Worked on my first ‘weekly hack‘. I plan to do something small every week this quarter
    Bought several books, after asking my twitter network for tips, on digital distribution. I have a personal perspective on digital transformation, but not much insight into how others see it. What does stand out to me is that many organisations claiming to be at its forefront to me seem rather lackluster in embracing the consequences of digitisation, and the results seem rather dull. To my mind mostly because the focus is on digital only, not first or even only also on networked structures and processes and how that mirrors human behaviour.

    After days of clouds, we only got to enjoy the full view and some snow the morning we left Switzerland

  5. Aral Balkan talks about how to design tools and find ways around the big social media platforms. He calls for the design and implementation of Small Tech. I fully agree. Technology to provide us with agency needs to be not just small, but smaller than us, i.e. within the scope of control of the group of people deploying a technology or method.
    My original fascination with social media, back in the ’00s when it was blogs and wikis mostly, was precisely because it was smaller than us, it pushed publication and sharing in the hands of all of us, allowing distributed conversations. The concentration of our interaction in the big tech platforms made social media ‘bigger than us’ again. We don’t decide what FB shows us, breaking out of your own bubble (vital in healthy networks) becomes harder because sharing is based on pre-existing ‘friendships’ and discoverability has been removed. The erosion has been slow, but very visible. Networked Agency, to me, is only possible with small tech, and small methods. It’s why I find most ‘digital transformation’ efforts disappointing, and feel we need to focus much more on human digital networks, on distributed digital transformation. Based on federated small tech, networks of small tech instances. Where our tools are useful on their own, and more useful in concert with others.
    Aral’s posting (and blog in general) is worth a read, and as he is a coder and designer, he acts on those notions too.

Reading

  • Chris Aldrich

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