Developing a Multi-focal Perspective for the study of Digital Transformation

As researchers within the field of Information Systems, we may bring the individual, organisations and/or societal perspectives to examine specific ICT-related phenomena. In this article, I focus on the emerging phenomenon of Digital Transformation  and argue that this can and should be studied from different perspectives.

I come into this debate with my research interest to understand who is leading Digital Transformation.  With my colleague Dr Jostein Engesmo at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology,  we developed  a newfound interest to understand new leadership roles that have been created as a result of the increased organisational interest in  Digital Transformation programmes.

For this we interviewed Chief Digital Officers (CDOs) across different organisations and industries and  related roles such as Heads of digital, Director of Digital Transformation, Heads of Digital Strategy etc. The study was motivated by a need to understand who has the responsibility for digital transformation, but not only in terms of skills and experience, but more importantly their relation to and influence on the executive board and senior management as well as IT and other functions of their respective organisation. We view CDOs as protagonists for digital transformation in their organisations. As leading figures, CDOs are expected to be on central stage, take decisions and follow these through to their implementation. 

So as you would expect, we brought the view of organisational managers into our study. However,  other choices we made influenced the study and helped in broadening up the theoretical perspective adopted. Though the voice of these digital leaders was important in informing our understanding of Digital Transformation we also took the decision to focus on specific types of organisations. 

Early on in our study we made the conscious decision to distinguish between pre-digital and post-digital organisations recognizing that the latter are born with and often because of digital technologies, but traditional pre-digital organisations (i.e. those that existed prior to the internet revolution) must seek ways of incorporating Digital Transformation into their operations and strategies while overcoming structural and cultural constraints. 

This aspect therefore of our research necessitated a ‘within the organisation’ approach where we sought to explore not just the role and characteristics of the CDO but also the wider transition that pre-digital organisations are going through in order to accommodate this newfound role and how this transition is managed. In our process of exploration, participants talked about their  relationships with CIOs and the IT department and about how the structures of the IT departments had to be modified to accommodate Digital Transformation. We identified four different organisational structures for the IT function in organisations that are undergoing Digital Transformation: one structure depicts the case where Digital Transformation is treated as a project, and this is managed by the IT manager notably the CIO; A second one, where a new digital function is introduced and this is led by the CDO’ this  remains separate to the IT department  which is managed by the CIO. In the third structure,  the IT and digital remain separate but are both integrated within the same wider umbrella what may be called digital function, and finally, a fourth structure where IT and digital are merged and the leader has an integrated title such as the Chief Digital Information Officer.

Despite their differences, these organisational structures collectively confirm the organisational need to adapt the IT function in order to accommodate the need for digital capability when they embrace Digital Transformation and more broadly, the findings contribute to the discourse on the impact of Digital Transformation and how it shapes organisations.

The findings also suggest that ‘digital’ is a nebulous word, associated with vagueness and confusion, and show that organisations go through a learning process in their attempt to unpack the  opportunities of digital transformation for themselves. In doing so, they are rethinking their strategies, structures, digital leadership, skills, digital capabilities and the role of the IT function. These findings contribute to a wider perspective on DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION, one that posits that even though digital has become pervasive, organisations are still going through a process of figuring out how to embrace digitalisation in their business activities and this  falls within the remits of the societal approach.

If I draw on the specific study I presented, I have to acknowledge that the study did not start with a multi-focal perspective. Instead, it was at its initial stage rather single-focused, in terms of what we wanted to examine and the kind of participants we sought to interview, and ultimately what we wanted to get out of the study. This on the outset looks like a limited perspective of a phenomenon that is both multi-dimensional and multifaceted.

Having this narrow focus, gave us the opportunity to be in control which was hugely important based on the resources we had available.  It gave us clarity as to what we were seeking to achieve and helped us to set up a reasonable timeframe for carrying out the study. It also gave us possibilities to access a range of very interesting organisations – some of which we got in touch via LinkedIn without having done any previous work with as we were asking to interview CDOS whilst not knowing much about the organisations they worked with.  In this process however of exploration, we discovered additional themes, in fact more fascinating than the initial question we had. So, we moved from the managerial view to the organisational view, and thereafter towards the societal perspective.  

So my position on how to move towards a multi-focal thinking for the study of Digital Transformation  is that as researchers we have to exhibit and demonstrate adaptability in what we study and allow the numerous possibilities that may come our way to influence our thinking and subsequently our research. It is fine to start small and single-focused. It is where you go from there that matters, and that perhaps is the way to a multifocal thinking.

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Niki Panteli (PhD) is a Professor of Digital Business at the School of Business and Management, Department of Digital Innovation and Management & co-Director of DOS (Digital Organisations and Society) Research Centre at Royal Holloway, University of London. She can be contacted by email: niki.panteli@rhul.ac.uk

Publishing ‘Digital’ Research in Management Journals

September 09, 2021, 15:00 – 17:00 BST

DOS Meet The Editor Event Series

We are pleased to announce a new DOS Meet The Editor Event Series to take place during the new academic year 2021-22. The purpose of the Series is to explore the publication of ‘digital’ and other related research in top-rated management journals. The editors will be providing talks on “digital’ related research in their journals, then general information on publishing their journals, followed by a Q&A session. Our first event will be with Professor Shlomo Tarba and Professor Ming-Hui Huang (Editor and Chief of the Journal of Service Research).

The event will be virtual (via Zoom) on the 9th of September 3:00– 5:00pm.

Professor Shlomo Tarba, PhD, is Chair (Full Professor) in Strategy and International Business at the University of Birmingham, UK. He is a Fellow of the  Academy of Social Sciences. He served as Head of Department of Strategy & International Business at the Business School, University of Birmingham, UK between August 2015 and September 2018.

Prof. Tarba is a member of the editorial boards of Journal of International Business Studies, Journal of Management Studies, Journal of Product Innovation Management, and Journal of World Business. He is an Associate Editor of Human Resource Management Review (ABS 3, Impact Factor 7.444). Prof. Tarba served as a guest-editor for special issues at Journal of Organizational Behavior, Human Resource Management (US), Management International Review, Journal of International Management, International Business Review California Management Review, Long Range Planning, R&D Management, Technological Forecasting & Social Change, and others.  His research interests include digitization, resilience, agility, ambidexterity, and mergers and acquisitions.  

Prof. Tarba’s papers are published in premier journals such as Journal of Management (SAGE), Journal of Product Innovation Management, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Human Resource Management (US), Human Relations, Journal of World Business, Academy of Management Perspectives, Journal of Corporate Finance, and others. One of his papers has been selected and published in Best Paper Proceedings of the Academy of Management (USA) in 2006. His consulting experience includes biotechnological and telecom companies, as well as industry associations such as The Israeli Rubber and Plastic Industry Association, and The US – Israel Chamber of Commerce.

Journal of Service Research

The mission of the Journal of Service Research is to be the leading outlet for the most advanced research in service marketing, service operations, service human resources and organizational design, service information systems, customer satisfaction and service quality, electronic commerce, and the economics of service. The journal is constructed to be international in scope, in keeping with the increase globalization of business; multidisciplinary, in keeping with how the best management is done; and relevant to the business world in a majority of its articles.

Professor Ming-Hui Huang is Distinguished Professor of AI (artificial intelligence) and Service at National Taiwan University. She is the first and only Asian-based fellow of European Marketing Academy (EMAC), International Research Fellow of the Centre for Corporate Reputation, University of Oxford, UK, and Distinguished Research Fellow of the Center for Excellence in Service, University of Maryland, USA. She specializes in interdisciplinary research, with publications encompassing both academic and managerial journals in Marketing, Information Systems and Strategy, such as the Journal of Marketing, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science (JAMS), Marketing Science, Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, California Management Review, Journal of Service Research (JSR), International Journal of Research in Marketing (IJRM), Journal of Management Information Systems, Decision Sciences, Journal of Consumer Psychology, Journal of Retailing, and Information & Management. She is incoming Editor-in-Chief of JSR (we are processing new submissions already), the 11th highest-cited business journal, Associate Editor of IJRM, Information & Management, and Communications of the Association for Information Systems, and serves on the editorial boards of JAMS, Int’l J. of E-Commerce, J. of Strategic Information Systems, and Psychology & Marketing.

Gender, Race and Globally Networked White Supremacy

June 29, 2021, 11:00 – 13:00 BST

The event will be held at the Moore Auditorium at Royal Holloway Egham campus, and also on Teams.

Abstract

The 2010s saw a rise in violence inspired by globally networked advocates of white supremacist ideology. These assailants, almost all men, almost always white, find common cause with others through the social media platforms like Facebook or YouTube, as well as on more obscure platforms, such as Gab. Although misogyny and misogynoir are key elements of this ideology, there are white women and some men of colour who champion the cause of white supremacy. How can we make sense of all this? How have tech and media helped fuel this? What can we do about it now? In this engaging talk, Jessie Daniels draws on 25 years of research to explore these questions and point us toward a new understanding of globally networked white supremacy.

Bio

Jessie Daniels, PhD is an internationally recognized expert in Internet manifestations of gender and racism. She is the author of 6 books, including White Lies (Routledge, 1997) and Cyber Racism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), along with dozens of scholarly articles. Her latest book, Nice White Ladies (Oct. 12/Seal Press), has been described as an ‘important book’ for the current moment of racial reckoning. Forbes named her ‘one of 20 inspiring women to follow on twitter’. You can find her there as @Jessie NYC. She is a professor of sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Centre, CUNY in New York City. And she is also affiliated at the Harvard Berkman Klein Centre (Faculty Associate) and the Oxford Internet Institute (Research Associate).

Video of the talk

Labour in China’s Digital Economy

June 22, 2021, 11:00 – 13:00

We invite you to join us in this live webinar on ‘Labour in China’s Digital Economy’. The programme includes presentations and discussions on the following topics:

11.00 – 11.05 INTRODUCTION

11.05 – 11.45 PART I: DISABLED WORKERS IN CHINA’S DATA LABELLING INDUSTRY

  • Enabled Technology and Disabled Workers (15m)
    HUANG Dan, PhD student, Department of Sociology, The University of Hong Kong
    Chris Smith, School of Business Management, RHUL

  • Disposable or Disabled Workers? (15m)
    XIA Bingqing, School of Communication, East China Normal University
    WU Tongyu, Department of Sociology, Zhejiang University

  • Commentaries and Discussion (10m)

11.45-12.25 PART II: COMMODIFICATION OF FREEDOM AND DEATH IN THE DIGITAL ECONOMY

  • How Do Gig workers Perceive Freedom? (15m)
    ZHOU Yang, Postdoctoral Fellow, Dept of Sociology, The University of Hong Kong
    WANG Ziyan, PhD graduate, Dept of Media and Communications, LSE

  • The Dead Labour of Post Life (15m)
    ZHANG Gehao, Faculty of Humanities and Art, Macau University of Science and Technology

  • Commentaries and Discussion (10m)

12.25 – 13.00 PART III: Open Discussion

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Panel Discussion: Artificial Intelligence and Ethics

May 25, 2021, 14:00 – 16:00

Joint event between DOS (Royal Holloway UoL) and IRC (Henley Business School)

KEYNOTE SPEAKER: Prof Bernd Carsten Stahl, De Montfort University.

Intelligence for a Better Future – An Ecosystem Perspective on the Ethics of AI and Emerging Digital Technologies.

Smart information systems (SIS), those systems that incorporate artificial intelligence techniques, in particular machine learning and big data analytics, are widely expected to have a significant impact on our world. They raise significant hopes, as well as many ethical and social concerns, ranging from worries about biases and resulting discrimination to the distribution of socio-economic and political power and their impact on democracy. The presentation will suggest the metaphor of an ecosystem to understand these concerns, and discuss the implications of this metaphor for the evaluation of ethical issues of smart information systems and how these can inform recommendations for policymakers and other stakeholders.

The presentation is based on the material developed in a book with the same title, which is freely available from: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-030-69978-9

Panellists

Dr Mona Ashok (Henley Business School, Reading University): Ethical Framework for Artificial Intelligence and Digital Technologies

Dr Robert Carolina (Information Security Group, RHUL): Responsibilities for AI actions

Dr Anabel Gutierrez (School of Business and Management, RHUL): The ethical narrative for AI adoption: An example from the food industry

Bios

Prof Susan Scott
Prof Bernd Carsten Stahl

Prof Bernd Carsten Stahl is Professor of Critical Research in Technology and Director of the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK (www.dmu.ac.uk/ccsr). His interests cover philosophical issues arising from the intersections of business, technology, and information. This includes ethical questions of current and emerging of ICTs, critical approaches to information systems and issues related to responsible research and innovation. He serves as Ethics Director of the EU Flagship Human Brain Project (www.humanbrainproject.eu), Coordinator of the EU project Shaping the ethical dimensions of information technologies – a European perspective (SHERPA; http://www.project-sherpa.eu) and is Co-PI (with Marina Jirotka, Oxford) and Director of the Observatory for Responsible Research and Innovation in ICT (www.orbit-rri.org).

Dr Mona Ashok

Dr Mona Ashok is a Lecturer in Operations Management at Henley Business School, UK. She has extensive industry experience, having worked at senior management level in global IT and BPO organisations, and Accounting firm. She has worked with customers in Asia, Australia, Europe and Northern America. Mona’s experience in Higher Education includes working with doctoral, post-experienced postgraduate and undergraduate programme members. Her professional and academic projects cover topics such as: process improvement, programme management, knowledge management, financial management, organisational transformation, and management consulting. She is a Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy (FHEA), member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, and a Certified Software Quality Analyst. She has successfully secured research funding, including for Knowledge Transfer Partnership projects, funded by InnovateUK.

Dr Robert Carolina

Dr Robert Carolina (B.A. Political Science, University of Dayton; Juris Doctor, Georgetown University; LL.M International Business Law, London School of Economics) is a Senior Fellow with the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University of London. He has taught legal and regulatory aspects of cyber security for more than two decades. He is the author of the “Law and regulation knowledge area” in CyBOK: the Cybersecurity Body of Knowledge (www.cybok.org) a project sponsored by the UK government to draw together a baseline description of subjects for study by cybersecurity practitioners.

Robert is a lawyer (Solicitor, Senior Courts of England & Wales; Bar of the US Supreme Court) with long practice experience. Throughout his career he has focussed entirely on the application of law and regulation to emerging information and communications technologies. Robert currently acts as General Counsel to Internet Systems Consortium (operator of the Internet’s F-Root) and maintains a private practice with Origin Ltd in London.

Dr Anabel Gutierrez

Dr Anabel Gutierrez is a Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Royal Holloway University of London. Her research focuses on innovation and adoption of emerging technologies for the digital economy with a particular interest in data privacy concerns, use of data to understand consumer behaviour and how to improve data-driven decision-making. She is researching ethical considerations for digital collaboration and the use of cutting-edge technologies in the food sector as part of a working group at The Internet of Food Things Network Plus (https://www.foodchain.ac.uk). Anabel’s has collaborated in various initiatives with the industry to bring together research, teaching and practice. Currently, she is a member of the SAS UK & Ireland Academic Advisory Board, Co-Chair of the Digital Marketing and Analytics SIG at the Academy of Marketing and member of the International Editorial Review Board (IERB) of International Journal of Information Management (IJIM).

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Narratives of IT project failure in Government

Christopher Hall | PhD Student | School of Business Management, Royal Holloway, University of London.

One thing most readers will know about large Government IT projects is that many end up being labelled ‘failures’, leading to delays in the implementation of policy and write-offs of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Much previous academic work has suggested that such failures are the result of weak management or poor application of technology (e.g.Nawi et al, 2011). Yet significant efforts have been made to rectify problems like these, especially within the UK Government. I was intrigued by this apparent paradox and wanted to understand the detail of how such projects played out and how we could account for this paradoxical situation. I interviewed project managers, project reviewers and auditors with responsibility for delivering and evaluating these projects and for compiling recommendations when projects were seen to fail. I also analysed audit reports (published by the National Audit Office) and project review reports (normally confidential but a few have been put in the public domain following Freedom-of-Information requests). By analyzing this material from a narrative perspective (Czarniawska, 2007), I was able to identify how and why project narratives were dynamically and interactively constructed in context to produce the label ‘success’ or ‘failure’ (Fincham, 2002) and how this label then became accepted ‘fact’. In this blog I provide an example of how this kind of analysis can account for the continuing failure of some Governmental IT projects.

“Digital by Default” and “Digital by Design”

The UK Government had the ambition to take the majority of interactions between the general public and Government on-line. In a world where you could bank, shop and even get therapy over the internet, why would you want to telephone a Government Department, or even worse, fill in a paper form? The proponents of ‘Digital by Default’ in the Government Digital Service (GDS) wanted to radically change the way that Government ran IT projects. Mostly recruited from outside Government, these ‘digital evangelists’ (Kanter, 2011) dressed differently, spoke differently and importantly behaved differently to ‘conventional’ civil servants. Their network of power relations included a senior Government Minister who acted as gatekeeper for project go-ahead.
Some new IT projects were designated ‘Digital exemplars’ and received special support. These included a project called Common Agricultural Payments-Delivery (CAP-D), which implemented a new regime of farm payments. Concerns were raised by users and policy owners that the new system would not work in practice. Farmers were not the most digitally literate constituency, and the poor connectivity offered by rural broadband was not conducive to the transmission and manipulation of digital maps. More prosaically, the new system would crash with a high workload. As the hard deadline (set by the EU) for deployment approached, the development was abandoned and a backup system was implemented by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) using paper maps, which were posted to farmers, hand annotated and posted back. These were then interpreted by eye before subsidies were paid out.

Narratives of IT project failure in Government

The perceived failure of the digital project was the subject of a Public Accounts Committee inquiry. The senior GDS official involved was criticized for having “digital dreams” (PAC, 2015 Q 62). Analysis of competing narratives around this project reveal a long battle for its control. While GDS was developing the software, the RPA had complete control of communications with the users; farmers and rural landowners. In these communications the RPA made it clear that the new software was ‘owned’ by GDS and soon the farming press labelled “Digital by Default” as ‘Dogma. By promoting a counter-narrative “Digital by Design”, the RPA relabelled the CAP-D project as a success, as the backup system had saved the policy and farmers had been paid.

Conclusions

I interpret these narratives and counternarratives as tools in a system of power relations (Dawson and Buchanan, 2005) and indicative of a struggle for control of the project. Different parties used ‘success’ and ‘failure’ as rhetorical terms (Fincham, 2002) in order to justify different courses of action. The term ’project failure’ is frequently deployed when a struggle reaches a conclusion, and is used to justify a change in approach, a reduction in scope or a decrease in funding. In 2012 GDS used the ‘failure’ of previous Government IT projects as part of the rationale to introduce “Digital by Default”. In 2015 other actors used the ‘failure’ of CAP-D to discredit “Digital by Default” and regain control of the project, and later label their intervention as a ‘success’. The labelling of a project as ‘failed’ is an indicator of the intensity of the conflicts surrounding them. Yet formal reviews and audits of Government IT projects omit all mention of political activity. Projects are discussed as rational, objective engineering activities and the struggles for control over scope, funding and approach are glossed over. Until such a perspective can be overtly acknowledged, it is not possible to fully understand ‘failing’ Government IT projects or learn from them.

References

Dawson, P. and Buchanan, D., 2005. The way it really happened: Competing narratives in the political process of technological change. Human Relations, 58(7), pp.845-865.

Fincham, R. (2002) Narratives of Success and Failure in Systems Development. British Journal of Management, 13, 1–14. Available online at: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/1467-8551.00219.

Kanter, R. M. (2011) Kanter Evolve ( Again ). Harvard Business Review, 89(7–8), 36. Available online at: hbr.org.

Digital Displacement: How Digitalization Affects Industry Standards

18 March 2021 DOS Distinguished Speaker Lecture

Speaker: Prof Susan Scott, London School of Economics and Political Science

Prof. Susan Scott from LSE presents her recent work on how digitization affects the industry standards of the book publishing industry.

The development and deployment of digital initiatives is generating significant change within industries. Yet, we know little about what ongoing digitalization means for the primary (ISO) industry standards regulating core products. This motivates our field study which examines a well-established and much-used standard in the book publishing industry. We find that regular maintenance and systematic revisions to the standard do not suffice when the product that a standard regulates is digitized, generating challenges and tensions that significantly threaten its continued global robustness. This produces what we theorize as digital displacement, a process undermining the material capacity of a standard to effectively coordinate and regulate industry operations in the digital era.

About

Prof Susan Scott
Prof Susan Scott

Susan Scott is a Professor of Information Systems and Innovation in the Department of Management at The London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research on the digital transformation of work has three core themes: developing theoretical approaches that make a critical difference to our understanding of digital work; valuation practices and evaluative apparatus; information infrastructures, standards and the nature of data flows. Susan is currently Group Lead for the Information Systems and Innovation Faculty at the LSE. Her Masters teaching focuses on digital infrastructures and digital business strategy. On the PhD programme, she teaches core traditions and paradigms in information systems and organization studies. She has served on editorial boards including MISQ and ISR. Her background includes a BA in History and Politics (SOAS), an MSc in Analysis, Design and Management of Information Systems (LSE), and a PhD in Management Studies (University of Cambridge).

Professor Scott’s LSE web profile: https://www.lse.ac.uk/management/people/academic-staff/sscott

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What the online hate-sphere in India can teach us

25 February 2021 DOS Distinguished Speaker Lecture

Speaker: Prof Shakuntala Banaji, London School of Economics and Political Science

Is ‘social media hate’ something technology or tech policy can fix? Prof Banaji discusses violent misinformation and those who forward it.

Historically, mainstream media has been used to embed propaganda and ideological contentions that have led to pogroms, genocide and even the holocaust. As the spread of visual and verbal hate propaganda around Muslims and migrants and the domestication of new technologies is implicated in events such as discriminatory misinformation, lynching, mobs, the acquittal of guilty police murderers, mass shootings and movements against democracy, questions abound about the ways in which social media imaginaries of hate for the “other” form, circulate and proliferate. Is ‘social media hate’ something that technology alone can fix? Is it something that tech policies on acceptable speech can fix? Some scholars are content to assume that a few malign non-state actors are shaping a generally pro-democratic media and social media sphere. Others go further and accuse less digitally literate rural users and profit-oriented platforms of doing most damage. In examining assumptions about the role of platform technologies and media literacy in discrimination and violence targeted at minoritized groups, I will attempt to present a typology of contextually based social media misinformation circulating in India, and use examples from my recent research on cultures of Hindutva fascism to examine the kinds of conclusions that can be drawn about the psychosocial profile and milieu of those who make up, receive and forward violent and hateful misinformation and disinformation on and offline. The talk will close with policy and political suggestions aimed at intervention and prevention.

About

Shakuntala Banaji

Shakuntala Banaji is Professor of Media Culture and Social Change in the department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her current research addresses the intersection between socio-political contexts, media, identities and participation. She has led several large multi-country projects on young people, media, new technologies, schooling and democratic participation. She received one of the WhatsApp Misinformation and Social Science Research Awards for investigating the spread of mediated misinformation amongst publics in India (2018-2020). Her co-edited book Youth Active Citizenship Across Europe: Ethnographies of Participation was out with Palgrave in 2020, and she is co-authoring a new book on Social Media and Hate which is under contract with Routledge for publication in 2022.

Professor Banaji’s LSE web profile: https://www.lse.ac.uk/media-and-communications/people/academic-staff/shakuntala-banaji

Inequality of What?: Digital Inequality under Covid-19

Dr Yingqin Zheng | Senior Lecturer | School of Business Management, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Prof Geoff Walsham | Emeritus Professor | Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

*This blog is based on our short paper to be published in the journal Information and Organization.

The covid-19 pandemic has thrown a spotlight on deep seated inequalities across different societies. Under the pandemic, existing socio-technical discrepancies are magnified, and diverse forms of exclusion, marginalisation and vulnerabilities emerge. The prevalent notions of ‘digital divide’ or ‘digital inclusion’ tend to focus on the division between the ‘haves and have-nots’, and less attention is paid to the structural positioning of actors within the intersectionality of multiple “systems of power”. Extending on our previous discussion on social exclusion – “inequality of what”, we ask again: what do we talk about when we talk about digital inequality? In this blog we review the emerging evidence from Covid-19 observations and explore how digital technology is entangled in multiple fracture lines of social division, including but not limited to gender, race, education level, and geographical boundaries.

Digital inequality is rooted in deep-seated, existing structural inequalities. For example, while digital education has leapfrogged in response to school closures in most countries, vulnerable students on the wrong side of the digital divide are further disadvantaged, especially those living in poverty and with disabilities. Furthermore, schools often serve as a source of health, nutrition and social support for those from under privileged socio-economic classes. Even when some countries have provided free laptops for disadvantaged students, these students are still negatively impacted in terms of well-being and mental health. Similarly, cashless payment and the health-tracking apps implemented under Covid-19 could have excluding effects on the elderly and some low-income groups who may not own or have the knowhow to use a smart phone, and may be rejected to board public transport or enter a venue. In other words, digital inequality has roots in social disparities, digital connectivity is not automatically a remedy and could even exacerbate social exclusion.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that almost 1.6 billion informal economy workers have been significantly impacted by lockdown measures and/or working in the hardest-hit sectors. Among digital workers, platform gig workers were among the worst hit by the pandemic, with almost 70% losing their income, over half losing their jobs and more than a quarter seeing their hours cut. While gig work offers flexibility, the lack of unemployment benefits and sick pay entails significant vulnerabilities for workers. However, only 5 out of 120 platform companies have introduced some form of coronavirus financial assistance. In the Global South, gig workers have received hardly any financial support from either governments or platform companies.

Digital inequality is often gendered. For example 300 million fewer women than men use mobile internet across the globe. This digital gap has further undermined women’s capability to adapt to adversity under the pandemic, both in terms of work and household labour. Based on data from 104 countries, 67% of health workers are women. In addition, women bear greater responsibility than men in taking care of the family and household during the pandemic (e.g. extra housework, home schooling, caring for the elderly and the ill) thus further undermining women’s earnings.

However, the experiences of women under covid-19 are divergent depending on their different socio-economic status and their surrounding social and cultural norms. Women in disadvantaged groups carry the double burden of wage-earning and caring for family members, yet they are also more likely to have lower digital capacity to find relevant information about the pandemic, to support home schooling for their
children, or even to fill in online application forms for economic relief.

Further ‘invisible’ gender inequality is reflected in the ‘male gaze’ from digital surveillance, as Yu (2020) discusses in the context of China’s track and trace system. During a cluster outbreak in northern China, the identity of a young woman was revealed in media reports and her private information further exposed by netizens, because a speculative affair between her and a neighbour was suspected to have triggered the cluster outbreak. In this imaginary ‘love story’, she was described as ‘pretty’, ‘unemployed’, but ‘rich’, and accused of cheating on her boyfriend with the neighbour; later the neighbour was revealed to be a woman as well – at which point the plot turned into a lesbian relationship. In fact, the two did not even know each other and the transmission of the virus was likely to have occurred in an elevator. Thus, even with an assumption that the technology was not designed to discriminate, gendered discourses, social norms and power systems that value monitoring and control over individual integrity and wellbeing are inevitably entangled in the enactment of surveillance systems, and in this case, interact with intersectional identities to produce oppressive social consequences.

So what do we talk about when we talk about digital inequality? The pandemic may bring out new instantiations and shed light on what was less visible before, but the roots of inequalities are deeply entrenched in systems of power and social orders. The examples above reveal the complexity and intersectionality of digital inequality which occurs not along one singular axis of power but along multiple fracture lines and differences. As digital researchers, we need to examine digital technology not only as ‘solutions’ and ‘innovations’, but also how it is intertwined and implicated in producing and reproducing social orders and stratifications.

Dr. Yingqin Zheng is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Business and Management, RHUL

Prof. Geoff Walsham is Emeritus Professor at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

Virtual Spiritual Agency in Times of Covid

Dr Chloe Preece | Senior Lecturer | School of Business Management, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Dr Victoria Rodner | Lecturer | University of Edinburgh Business School, University of Edinburgh

Zoom made my life much easier,” explains Mãe (mother) Fernanda, an Afro-Brazilian priestess from the coastal city of Santos (Brazil). 

Like many of us, facing an indefinite lockdown, Mãe Fernanda was forced to move her work online. Zoom, along with other video-conferencing platforms that mushroomed in the wake of Covid-19, may have made Mãe Fernanda’s life ‘easier,’ but the service she is providing is no typical consultation.

As an Afro-Brazilian priestess – or mãe de santo – Mãe Fernanda works as a medium, meaning that her faith centres on the practice of spirit possession and the channelling of spirit forces for the good of humanity. As a form of mediumship, we understand spirit possession to be the displacement of our conscious self by a ‘powerful, immaterial being’ be it a spirit, ancestor, or god, that temporarily takes control of our bodies and our minds (Seligman, 2014: 5). During these incorporations, the medium – who acts as a physical vessel for the spiritual entity – channels energies and offers counselling from the spiritual plane to our material world, sharing important oracular messages with official members of the temple (i.e. the ‘spiritual children’ who are initiated into the faith) and regular congregants alike.

Being momentarily stripped of her sacred space and in person contact with the congregation due to new, unforgiving social distancing measures, how does Mãe Fernanda – and other religious leaders – carry out her work as a medium and spiritual consultant? What does this new digitised faith look like and how does spiritual healing work in our ‘new normal’? Thanks to a small seedcorn grant from DOS, we set out to examine how spiritual leaders in Brazil – through their use of digital platforms – recreate the sacred space of their temple over the internet; how followers of the faith materialise healing rituals in their home environments; and how the embodied ritual of spirit possession is distributed across multiple planes, from the spiritual, to the physical to the digital. To do so we undertook 14 interviews with spiritual leaders and followers of Afro-Brazilian temples.

Although Afro-Brazilian services (or giras) may differ in format to other, more ‘traditional’ church services, this move toward a digitisation of faith is shared among many places of worship, including Christian denominations in the UK, as ongoing pandemic measures push religious leaders across the globe to go virtual. In her use of digital platforms, we see how Mãe Fernanda – like other Afro-Brazilian spiritual leaders – aims to recreate the rich, auspicious atmosphere and healing qualities of her terreiro (temple) sharing through our screens the highly adorned altars, the colour-coordinated candles, the smoky ambience of burning incense and sage, the luscious offerings to the entities, and – when there is live-streaming available – the rhythmic drumming, singing, and dancing that make up the spirit possession ritual.

Figure 1. Afro-Brazilian priests and priestesses use social media to connect with the faithful: Instagram posts of elaborate altars (left) and Facebook live-streaming (right) of a gira (weekly service)

As well as inviting followers virtually into their now-empty temples, spiritual leaders also show the faithful how they can recreate shrines and spiritual offerings (or firmezas) in the safety of their own homes.

Not unlike influencers, priests and priestesses of Brazil’s Afro-denominations use different digital platforms for different spiritual purposes: live-streaming through invitation-only Zoom sessions, private YouTube channels, or closed FB groups are geared specifically to the ‘spiritual children’ and mediums-in-training. During these private services, live spirit possession is common as spiritual leaders and their ‘children’ incorporate synchronously the various entities that are called upon during the ritual. Pai Fausto – of a downtown São Paulo temple – explains how simultaneous possession is possible – even via the web – because of the ‘spiritual (umbilical) chord that ties us together.’

It is during spirit possession that messages from the spiritual world are shared with the faithful. These spiritual messages can be of hope, patience, healing, love or even sense-making, especially significant in such uncertain times. A recent message from Mãe Fernanda’s guiding spirit – the Gypsy temptress Pomba Gira – explains how energy has “limitless” and “atemporal qualities” meaning that it can be accumulated and transferred when needed. Very much on trend with post-human theorising, Pomba Gira’s message encourages Mãe Fernanda to record her services so as to allow her ‘spiritual children’ to ‘play them back’ at their convenience and seamlessly tap into the spiritual agency captured online.

Figure 2. Live-streaming tarot reading on FB with a Pai de Santo (Afro-Brazilian priest).

Beyond these private sessions, other live-streaming sessions via FB, Instagram, or Telegram, in which spiritual leaders recreate the temple’s ambience but refrain from spirit possession, are more public and accessible, encouraging anyone to ‘like’, share and take part in the lively commentary online. Oracular consultations, including the popular tarot card-reading, can either be very public via FB live-streaming, or closed through individual Skype or Zoom calls. Online mediumship courses are run via Zoom or other video conferencing platforms and people are asked to sign up in advance. But it is WhatsApp that becomes instrumental for direct contact between the faithful and their spiritual leader. Like a real-time Agony Aunt, WhatsApp enables the faithful to share their troubles with the priest or priestess and receive instantaneous feedback via the ever-popular feature of voice messages. Noting how her WhatsApp became ‘very heavy’ since lockdown, Mãe Fernanda explains how it is ‘through this platform that people were able to overcome the lack of physical touch, the lack of hugs, the lack of face to face contact’.

Although mediatised religious services are nothing new, our interests lie not only in a new wave of mediatised faith (through the digital) but how consumers engage with their faith not merely through ‘likes’, shares or live commentary, but in an active co-construction of the healing on offer, from the recreation of shrines to the possession of spirits, all from the safety of their homes. It is through the digital, that spiritual leaders (temporarily) overcome the physical obstacles of life with Covid, distributing through the web the spiritual agency made available to them through the phenomenon of spirit possession, forming a hybrid constellation of a heterogenous network of activities, subjects and objects shaped by different forms of interagency. In a global pandemic where consumers find their agency constrained, they can use these digitised services to re-embed themselves in their faith through this distributed agency. 

Dr Chloe Preece is Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research focuses on marketing within the arts and creative industries and how this translates into social, cultural and economic value.

Dr Victoria Rodner is Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Edinburgh Business School (UEBS) and her research main interests are in value creation in the arts, religious and spiritual consumption, brand narratives and institutional theory.