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      Digitalisation and self-perpetuation : dynamics, drivers and temporalities of the transformation of working worlds



            It is evident from current debates that an important new trend associated with digitalisation is the emergence of new processes, with wholly new qualities, which can be regarded as a form of ‘self-perpetuation’ (Verselbständigung). This article introduces the concept of self-perpetuation, the topic of this special issue, with the aim of clarifying it, making it visible in academic debates about digitalisation and examining its usefulness as an analytical tool. The contributions to this volume discuss conceptual as well as empirical aspects of this development. In addition to providing critical accounts of how self-perpetuation emerges and illustrating some of the barriers to its expansion, these articles also examine aspects of the discourses that have accompanied its historical development as well as providing glimpses into how these dynamics could be redirected in a more emancipatory fashion in the future. Taken together, these contributions demonstrate the importance of the concept of self-perpetuation for deepening our understanding of digitalisation, both as a social phenomenon and as a topic of academic research.

            Main article text

            Recent debates about digitalisation have drawn attention to new qualities in the way that information technology permeates economic and social spheres (Langley & Leyshon, 2017; Pfeiffer, 2017; 2018; 2022). Digitalisation is thought to carry the seeds of fundamental societal transformation, and far-reaching changes are indeed expected in the way that work is organised. Across a vast range of working worlds, digitalisation is being accepted, negotiated and given form in very different ways and with varying, albeit often interdependent, consequences.

            In this volume, this development is conceived as a process of social and technological transformation with three main characteristics: first, it is technically enabled by an intensification of the permeation of information technology; second, the grounds for its introduction were socially prepared in confrontations with earlier forms of informatisation and automation of work; and third, it is socially mastered and given a specific form within enterprises, institutions and, ultimately, also within broader segments of society while, at the same time, being discursively negotiated among a range of actors including industry federations, private enterprises, unions, governments, research institutions and the public sphere.

            During these processes of self-perpetuation (Verselbständigung) 1 entirely new qualities are emerging (Kallinikos, 2011; Malsch & Schulz-Schaeffer, 2007). Dynamics of scalability and acceleration (especially in the platform economy) are common (Choudary, 2015; Huws, 2017), but even more important is the extent to which human tasks are being delegated to technology in the form of autonomous machine-learning algorithms that make selection, optimisation and problem-solving decisions (Decker et al., 2017). The momentousness of the impacts of self-perpetuation processes is particularly evident in the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). These are already being used for hiring decisions and diagnostics in diverse fields of application ranging from hospitals to industrial plant maintenance. They fall into two broad categories: algorithms and networked systems. The algorithms lack transparency, either because they are kept secret deliberately or because they are the unfathomable product of machine learning. In networked cyber-physical systems, humans, plant equipment, materials and parts interact autonomously, insofar as these systems can regulate themselves and carry out micro-transactions.

            The dynamic of self-perpetuation has implications across all fields of work, with the potential for transforming labour markets, forms of corporate organisation, business processes, value chains, labour processes and activities, as well as access to the labour force. Moreover, this development challenges the institutional system because it affects companies as socially-designed places, social partnership and co-determination, health and safety regulation, qualification systems, wages, welfare systems and employment relationships. It, therefore, has technical, social and legal consequences, which might be intended or unintended. Self-perpetuation might be empowering for some actors who might disappear from some processes and contexts, while others might experience this development as a form of incapacitation, in which processes increasingly evade control and overstrain societal regulation by existing institutions.

            Nevertheless, several questions remain. How can this self-perpetuation be embraced theoretically? What or who are its drivers? Which interdependencies appear to be increased or weakened by its development? Does it lead to the loss of formative capacity by social actors, and if so, which ones? Looking at self-perpetuation makes it possible to take into account changes in technological logics, their influence on labour processes and how these have changed historically. For example, it makes it possible to examine how the current digital transformation and the development of AI compare with earlier waves of technological change, such as how the early 20th century compared to the current digital transformation and artificial intelligence. This special issue examines these aspects, bringing together contributions that approach the topic from diverse perspectives and disciplines.

            Some of the contributions focus on conceptual considerations, while others adopt an empirical approach. On the conceptual side, Konstantin Klur and Sarah Nies develop a critical concept of self-perpetuation that addresses the relationship between social domination and technology in their article, ‘Governed by digital technology? self-perpetuation and social domination in digital capitalism’.

            In ‘Artificial intelligence in the practice of work: a new way of standardising or maintaining complexity?’, Michael Heinlein and Norbert Huchler focus on AI as a contingency-generating technology, showing how new forms of self-perpetuation relate to domination and the subordination of living labour. By emphasising the concept of relational autonomy and describing various selectivities, they relativise the dynamics of self-perpetuation and thereby connect contingency-theoretical approaches with approaches that emphasise the limits of (‘intelligent’) digitalisation for the fruitful analysis of current work practices. This speaks to the interdependence of technically- and socially-induced self-perpetuation.

            Lene Baumgart, Pauline Boos and Bernd Eckstein deploy systems theory in ‘Datafication and algorithmic contingency – how agile organisations deal with technical systems’, which examines obstacles to self-perpetuation. They focus particularly on the interplay of social and technical systems to show how formal and informal interactions form barriers to self-perpetuation.

            Other contributions examine self-perpetuation in greater detail empirically. Michael Homberg, Laura Lükemann and Anja-Kristin Abendroth use a historical lens to investigate the self-perpetuation of work from home. In ‘From home work to home office? Combining work and family. Perpetuating discourses and use patterns of tele(home)work since the 1970s’, the authors analyse gender- and parenthood-specific discourses to show how certain possibilities embrace dynamic, self-reinforcing tendencies which are then ‘self-perpetuated’.

            In ‘The self-perpetuation of the promise of care robots: how doubtful application scenarios become promising’, Ingo Schulz-Schaeffer, Kevin Wiggert, Martin Meister and Tim Clausnitzer also use discourse analysis, this time to investigate the extent to which the success of robotics as a particular form of digitalisation is a result of discursive practices of sense-making. Examining field trials of robots in social care settings, they examine the decoupling of promises from actual technical developments and the ways in which the failures of these technologies are rendered invisible, thus rendering the promises self-perpetuating.

            Mona-Maria Bardmann, Caroline Ruiner, Laura Künzel and Matthias Klumpp, in their contribution, ‘In control or out of control? worker perceptions of autonomy and control using self-reliant digital systems at airports’, illustrate some of the ways that self-reliant digital systems (SDS) are partly out of control, in that they process information independently and without worker influence but, in doing so, show that it is precisely the perception of control by the workers – and thus the self-perpetuation of technology –that proves to be central to the ways in which these employees carry out their daily work, thereby giving insights into some unintended elements of self-perpetuation.

            While analysis and critique are widely represented in the texts up to this point, Luke Munn develops a positive blueprint of digitalisation and self-perpetuation. As a substitute for the contentious usage ‘dumb technology’, he draws on indigenous Māori language to develop the concept of ‘tika technology’ in Tika technology: an alternative blueprint for digitalisation’, offering two real-world examples to provoke ideas about how the self-perpetuation of technology – and its critical aspects – might be contained in the future.

            Across these diverse contributions, no single definition of self-perpetuation can be formulated. However, it is clear that the level, extent and direction on which self-perpetuation becomes effective can only be defined situationally. Across disciplinary and theoretical boundaries, all these articles, in their different ways, emphasise that this is a social process. This collection thus demonstrates the importance of the social dimensions of self-perpetuation to any analysis of the dynamics, drivers and temporalities of the transformation of working worlds. Self-perpetuation may be inherent in the actual social relations in which the development of the technology is embedded but often this can only be revealed by examining the discourses that accompany this development and demonstrates how self-perpetuation is socially conditioned. Another common thread that runs through all the contributions is the insight that, while the concept of self-perpetuation is central to the discussion of digitalisation, it is by no means linear, its form determined as much by barriers to its development as by the constellations of interests that shape it. This contextual binding is another theme that links the articles in these pages.

            The contributions gathered together here demonstrate the importance of the concept of self-perpetuation not only to academic scholarship but also to broader social concerns. In the modern era, societies have usually defined themselves as entities made up of collective actors who establish principles and norms and design measures to shape their own institutions, regulations and working conditions. However, many facets of the current wave of digitalisation seem to put this capacity for active social shaping at risk, for technical, social, property-related and temporal reasons. The trend towards self-perpetuation (whether intentionally or not) may lead to it being bypassed or evaded to a greater extent than has been the case for earlier technical transformations. In order to find ways to address these new challenges and to regain (or not relinquish) the sovereignty to shape things, further research is needed. Such research should seek to understand and explain the dynamics of self-perpetuation as well as open up a broad social debate on possibilities for action and intervention. This special issue is only a first and modest step towards the development of such a debate.

            We have tried to establish the concept of ‘self-perpetuation’ here and make the term visible in debates about digitalisation for use in future scholarship, but many open questions remain. For example, under which particular circumstances might the processes of self-perpetuation be reversible or influenceable? Is self-perpetuation a manifestation or a driver of multi-temporality? We hope that, by initiating a discussion on self-perpetuation, we have created the basis for it to be taken up and fruitfully continued in the academic community.

            © Manuel Nicklich and Sabine Pfeiffer, 2023.



            The term ‘self-perpetuation’ (Verselbständigung) can be found in several German classics of sociology, including in the works of Karl Marx, Max Weber, Theodor W. Adorno and Niklas Luhmann. While all these authors deal with entities that break away from a unity and become independent, the level and range of issues in their work is different. Marx (1844) discusses the power of technology in capitalist societies, which develops and becomes independent of the worker. Weber (1922) formulates the thesis of the self-perpetuation of the subsystems of goal-oriented action and sees these tendencies especially in connection with the increasing formation of bureaucracies, where he sees the danger of an ‘iron cage’. Adorno (1965) links self-perpetuation to the theme of totality, a totality which is brought forth by the actions of human beings, but gains a life of its own vis-à-vis all those who act, and reduces human beings to organs of execution of this totality. Luhmann (1981) sees tendencies of self-perpetuation in the differentiation of modern societies in a process whereby sub-systems become self-referential and can bring social system integration into question. In one form or another, the contributions in this volume follow on from these considerations.


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            Author and article information

            Work Organisation, Labour & Globalisation
            Pluto Journals
            07 April 2023
            : 17
            : 1
            : 7-11
            © Manuel Nicklich and Sabine Pfeiffer, 2023.

            All content is freely available without charge to users or their institutions. Users are allowed to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of the articles in this journal without asking prior permission of the publisher or the author. Articles published in the journal are distributed under a http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

            Page count
            Pages: 5

            Sociology,Labor law,Political science,Labor & Demographic economics,Political economics
            discourse,digital transformation,self-perpetuation,labour,work organisation,working worlds


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