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.

Home Office Workers Unite! That is the call Sebastian Fiedler put out earlier this week. He ponders about working a lot of your time in virtual environments, without close colleagues anywhere in physical vicinity: Though I am in frequent contact with various people in different parts of the continent and around the world, I have done very little to establish a local network of people who live and work in a similar way like I do. There must be loads in town… but we never seem to meet… and what I often find missing during a normal work day at home is the equivalent of the occasional coffee break that one gets with co-workers, the little chat on the corridor, and so forth. Sure, I compensate with mediated communication of all sorts… but the urban landscape and my mind is calling for something else.

Witbiertje aan zeeI recognize Sebastian’s thinking and feelings in several ways. Proven Partners, the company I work with, has no office at all. We are 12 people, voted last year’s ‘most mobile company’ in the Netherlands, who meet at clients, along the road, or virtually. Phones, exchange server, e-mail, roadside restaurants and IM take the place of offices, conference rooms, coffee machines and gossip in the cafetaria during lunch. And I can emphatize with what Sebastian is saying. Face to face contact has different rhythms and nuances from our virtual encounters. In part this is of our own making, when we think that our virtual channels are for ‘business only’, where city sidewalks, terraces, markets but also our offices are geared to different rhythms and nuances. Marcel, a colleague who recently joined us was amazed at the amount of banter we were exchanging through e-mail. In his former job e-mail was ‘serious’ only, reminiscent of what Euan Semple recently wrote about. E-mail is our virtual coffee machine.

Whenever I work from home a number of days in a row, I get a bit restless. Because of working on your own. And the daily and frequent virtual contact with coworkers is not cure enough for that. To balance that we sometimes arrange to meet with colleagues to work together in the same geographic location. This isn’t perfect of course, as you find yourself usually in some café or restaurant at a considerable driving distance, without the usual office appliances, and without the comfort of being in an environment you ‘own’, in a territory that is marked as ‘yours’.

So being able to step outside for a bit and meet up with people in similar working conditions in your own neighbourhood seems like a good thing to me. Or agreeing to work together in some spot for a few hours, at someones place even. Fact is, apart from my partner Elmine, I don’t think I know anyone in our home town either that works the way she and I do. And I am certain there must be quite a few. I think I would enjoy having a small circle of people around in the immediate vicinity like that, so why did this not happen and emerge? All other routines I have emerged in response to a felt need, as far as I can tell, so why not this one?

Perhaps it is the result of how your focus starts shifting once you enter a more virtual working life. When I first started building relationships around the topics that interested me, knowledge management e.g., I started looking outwards. I knew I was unlikely to find people in my home town, and knew I had to take an international perspective. Two years on, while looking for a new job and finding my current position, I realized that while I was busy building international contacts around knowledge management I did not know anyone (well, one or two) in the Netherlands around this topic, let alone in my town. Even though I was looking for a job in the Netherlands. I had been so busy looking outside, and so captivated by the conversations I found there, that I did not notice I was creating this big blind spot called ‘local environment’. When we are used to meeting our virtual co-workers in Copenhagen, Vienna, or elsewhere, or that when they visit your home for f2f discussion it is not from within driving but from within flying distance, we easily forget that there might be people in similar working conditions right down the block. I think Lilia Efimova and I had already been in contact for several months on-line before we mutually realized we both lived in the same town, a ten minute bike ride apart, and had our first lunch discussing knowledge and blogging together, somewhere in 2002.

So I pick up the banner that Sebastian raised, and ask how many home office workers have you connected with in your home town? Home Office Workers Unite! And I think I might need to translate this into Dutch as well….

Photo Solidarity Mural by Atelier Teee, Office by Elmine, both under Creative Commons license, photo Witbiertje aan Zee by me.