CfP: Digital transformation of social theory

Call for papers to a special issue of Technological Forecasting and Social Change [SSCI 3.226, Scopus, CNRS***, ABS***, VHB***].

Guest editors

Steffen Roth, La Rochelle Business School and Yerevan State University
Harry F. Dahms, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Frank Welz, University of Innsbruck
Sandro Cattacin, University of Geneva


There once was a time when leaders could both appreciate books and govern empires without knowing how to read and write (Dutton, 2016; Pascal, 1970). Today’s thought leaders are in a very similar situation. Though hardly ever away from keyboard, we scholars in general and social theorists in particular relate to the dominant media of the 21st century as if we still lived in the Gutenberg Galaxy (McLuhan, 1962), as exemplified in the prevailing use of computers and Internet mainly to write books and articles to store and search for in online libraries. The situation is even more remarkable in that we not only continue to treat the new media like traditional media, but also produce more and more traditional media on the new media. Today, there are publications on the digital transformation of almost everything. Human identity (Nagy & Koles, 2014) is being transformed digitally, along with more mundane aspects of social life such as work (Stone, 2004), production (Potstada et al., 2016), or healthcare (Agarwal et al., 2010); and then again time and space (Berthon et al., 2000), and thus even the globe (Heylighen & Lenartowicz, 2016) and all of our everyday life (Wajcman, 2008); apparently, not even the traditional media (Coyle, 2006; Roth et al., 2017) can escape the digital transformation.

In such a context of inescapable digital transformation, our professional insistence on oral and written language remains consistent as long as we have reason to believe that these traditional media remain dominant even in the new media age (Turkle, 2016). The less committed we are to this belief, however, the clearer it becomes that books and articles on the digital transformation systematically fail to “walk their own talk”. Digital copies of printed theories do not constitute digital theories, just as literature does not constitute mere transliterations of oral speech. Even if smart attempts to tie programming languages back to the traditional forms occasionally result in the discovery of new genres such as code poetry (for an example, see Bertran, 2012), to most of us even these literalised forms of computer language remain as inaccessible the Bible once was to the majority of the medieval populations. Thus, of all people, we scholars also belong to the illiterate farmers of the information age today, as we harvest our research fields at computer-mediated conferences and virtually augment our stocks of books and papers. The heirs of the medieval monks, our profession of bookworms and elaborate natural language processors itself grew dependent on trust in and reliant on spiritual guidance from a community of cybermonks who shape and administer the increasingly omnipresent knowledge architectures of the future.

Early attempts to alter this situation and to develop at least a prototype of a digitally transformed social theory include social systems theory. As is well known, Niklas Luhmann (1995, 2012, 2013) built his social theory – as much as his theory of society – on the formal language of George Spencer-Brown (1979), and a recently discovered 1961 prototype of the Laws of Forms leaves no doubt that Spencer-Brown developed his laws as elegant solutions to problems in electronic engineering (Roth, 2017). Thus, Luhmann’s social systems theory does not only theorise the digital transformation of society, but also presents an example of a theory whose architecture at least in parts is coded in a digital language. Yet, Luhmann’s digital transformation of theory has remained both superficial and largely unparalleled in the in the wider social theory community.

The digital transformation of punditry (McNair & Flew, 2017) remains an unresolved issue of social theory, which is critical in the light of the rapid digital transformation of social research methodologies and corresponding discussions on an end of theory (Anderson, 2008; Boyd & Crawford, 2012; Kitchin, 2014). In such a context, the secret hope that traditional print and pencil theories will survive the digital transformation, and at best require occasional rewrites and resubmissions, constitutes a considerable risk which we will not manage just by publishing yet another golden open access online-first version of a moderated interaction of two or more preferably established social theorists. Rather, what is at stake is how we not only (re-) activate literature and literati to trace and study footprints of the digital media, but also unfold post-literary social theory programmes within these digital media themselves.

In the light of the above, this special issue does not invite social theories of the digital transformation, but instead attempts at digital transformations of social theory. Manuscripts and other modes of presenting arguments and analyses that are cognizant with the above-mentioned systematic failure to “walk their own talk” are welcome, especially if they promise to illuminate general and/or specific aspects of the digital transformation of social theories, addressing questions and memes of the following non-exclusive type:

  • Digital theoretical languages: What are suitable programming languages for a digital transformation of social theory? Are there particularly promising constellations of natural and formal languages in general or programming languages in particular?
  • Theory debugging: How might debuggers or similar programmes be used to test and fix existing or even facilitate the development of new social theory programmes?
  • Critical updates: What are the most critical updates to be installed on the social theory platforms of the 21st century?
  • Digital detox: Since we do not randomly produce digital copies of analogue content, digital transformation involves an option to jettison the obsolete among the analogue concepts. Which concepts should be confined to literature? Are there any that systematically resits their digital transformation? Are there any that are indispensable for digital theorising?
  • Game over or next level: Toward a computer-gamification of social theory?
  • Communication from elsewhere: Social theory between fashionable nonsense and algorithmic authorship.
  • Old wires in new bottlenecks: What if we took the classical theorists and just threw them in at the deep end of the Internet age to observe what would ensue? (see, e.g. for Karl Marx: Fuchs, 2017)
  • Training the under-/dogs: From social theory programming to double-contingent human-computer interaction (Tanz, 2016).
  • Humanism versus transhumanism: Who or what are the agents in and of a digitally transformed society? Is there a place of agency in such a society at all?
  • Hacking: Is there such thing as theory hacking? What could social theorists in general and critical theorists in particular learn from hackers? For example, what options are there to move beyond brute force attacks on established theory programmes and platforms #problematization; or, how can we imagine phishing for complements for traditional social theories?
  • Empire strikes back: How do, or could, social theories change the trajectory of digital transformation? To what extent is social theory already part or even driver of the digital transformation?
  • Anticipated flashbacks: What might future generations of social theorists think of our traditional or transitory forms of pre- or proto-digital theorising?
  • Anachronisms of digital transformation: Digital transformation as narrative, myth, or any other traditional form of communication.

This call for papers is linked to the Management Theory and Social Theory Track T12_03 at the EURAM 2018 conference in Reykjavik and the Sub-theme 31: Management and Organisation Theory: A game at the EGOS 2018 meeting in Tallinn. Presentation at the conference tracks or sub-theme will not guarantee acceptance of a manuscript for publication in Technological Forecasting and Social Change; and, conversely, attending the tracks or sub-theme by no means is a precondition for acceptance of a manuscripts for the special issue.

Please do not hesitate to email to roths@esc-larochelle.fr or steffen.roth@ysu.am for informal enquiries on the special issue.

The full CFP including details on submission period and procedure will be available on the TFSC journal website soon.

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