2023 – Digital & Society

With multiple lockdowns and social distancing, the boom in teleworking, e-learning and e-commerce has fuelled demand for intensive connectivity and laid bare digital divides around the globe. Technologies, such as computers, smartphones and the internet, are too often seen as tools that neutrally contribute to digitisation: the technical process of converting information to a digital format. Social scientists critically investigate these technologies as “devices”, in the broadest sense, that structure the social world and through which people actively transform societies. Social sciences have explored how digital technology is changing our institutions, and our lives. Digital worldmaking is driven by social, political and economic choices. Understanding these choices, and the interplay between the various actors, individuals, public authorities and private operators who make them, is a core focus of the social sciences. Digital social research looks at how digital technology, as perceived through its instruments (the internet, social networks, mobile applications, databases), is reshaping our institutions, and our ways of working, exchanging and being together. It also documents what individuals do to digital, through uses, mobilisations, repurposings and acts of rejection. While the notions of “network society” or “wireless world” provide a relatively uncritical approach to the current expansion of digital technology, work on internet policies and algorithms and on the logics of uberisation of our societies describe both the considerable extension of the “power” of digital technology and the way it structures social practices and commitments while creating market value. All these scholars analyse how being-in-the-world increasingly involves relations between humans and digital devices that are generative, contributing to the making of social, cultural, economic and political worlds.

However, just as globalisation has often been used as a synonym for Americanisation, the digitalisation of the world is assumed to be dominated by the corporatist America of Big Tech: the GAFAM five. Indeed, the West also attracts and concentrates the majority of social science production on digitalisation. Yet the new champions of digital are also yesterday’s developing countries, in Asia and in Africa, with China and India

leading the way. Their huge markets have five times more internet users than the United States, and their factories and digital back offices supply the entire planet. Very recently, China has been studied as a counterpoint to an American-led digitalisation of the world. And digital social science analysis seems to be moving more and more towards a new bipolarity, with China and the US seen as the countries competing for the global IT challenge, and for our data, influencing the rest of the world.[1] Such a bipolar analysis, however, overlooks the role played by other regional powers and alternative models, particularly from so-called developing countries. How, indeed, does digitalisation unfold in non-Western settings, within fragile democracies, or flimsy economies?

This Winterschool edition will give voice to distinct digital practices and epistemologies emerging in the myriad of non-Western countries, their specific challenges, and the associated demand for alternative models. But it also plays with the many geographical denominations still inhabiting digital scholarship, disaggregating familiar oppositions and prevailing dichotomies such as North/South, Western/non-Western, or developed/underdeveloped. The digital technology deployed in India , Kenya or Senegal reveals singular forms of experimentation. For example, the low level of bank account ownership has helped spark a flurry of innovative virtual payment processes offered by players in the digital economy. Studies of mobile money usage in Kenya or biometrics in South Africa and India show that the massive digitisation experiments taking place there are spilling over into the rest of the world. A central instrument of North-South development policies, digital is also a factor in reconfigurations between the Souths and is reviving old questions about the unequal transmission of technical knowledge, and about relations of hegemony and dependence. This Winterschool will also question the way in which so-called “peripheral” or “less developed” countries are appropriating and creating innovative digital systems and thus offering alternative models of digital worlding. It proposes to bring the analysis of digitalisation beyond the Atlantic and towards a still unexplored area of investigation, thus providing a new perspective on global socio-technical dynamics.

Interdisciplinarity, methods and tools

Digitalisation is an ongoing and highly dynamic process resulting from particular choices, policies, coalitions and economic constellations. It raises transnational issues – its financing, technical implementation and infrastructures are all managed by different actors located around the globe – but it also has local features and specificities that depend on its context of deployment. The Winterschool will combine online and offline methods to explore the digital & Society through its cultural, economic, political, environmental and infrastructural dimensions. If we are to gauge the impact of digitalisation on the environment, on local inhabitants, on a country’s economy, then it is crucial to mix approaches from different disciplines and to investigate different countries and settings around the world. In order to do this, the Winterschool will mobilise interdisciplinary skills and qualifications coming from the different social science disciplines. Since the phenomenon concerns the whole world, a multi-sited approach will be adopted, comparing the situation of different countries while at the same time gathering knowledge at a supranational scale.

Social researchers are increasingly encouraged to innovate in their methodological practices, in ways that have led to both the invention of new tools for research and new ways of thinking about the kinds of knowledge that social research can be expected to produce. Digital technologies have extended the kinds of research tools used by social scientists and perceptions of the social are being remade by these new methods. Working on and with digital technology, this 2023 edition of the Winterschool seeks to contribute to a reflection on methodological innovation in social sciences, and especially to the links between the classical qualitative ethnographic and biographic approach and a web-based computer-driven quantitative analysis of the social in the pursuit of answers to questions about the nature of society, culture, polities and economics in the digital era.

[1] “USA and China account for 75 per cent of all patents related to blockchain technologies, 50 per cent of global spending on internet-of-things, at least 75 per cent of the cloud computing market, and 90 per cent of the market capitalization value of the world’s 70 largest digital platform companies. Seven “super platforms” – Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Tencent and Alibaba − account for two thirds of the total market value. Thus, in many digital technological developments, the rest of the world [is] trailing considerably far behind the United States and China” (UNCTAD 2020).

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