Images of Digitalisation

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A more balanced public debate on digitalisation needs alternatives and additions to the to the widespread images of the digital. Civic education has several opportunities to deconstruct, analyse and also create an appropriate imagery of the digital transformation.

Imagery - a Conscious Decision

The dichotomy between curiosity, thrill, euphoria and unease, that many people feel with regard to artificial intelligence (AI) and is rooted in the uncertainty as to how the relationship the relationship between humans and machines, or between individuals and data-processing data-processing systems, will be in the future.

Will it lead to human control or machine control? What new possibilities are opening up for us as a species? Does human-machine collaboration affect our law?

It is not the machine - i.e. the computer, the robot or the smart device - is the source of concern here, but rather their underlying underlying computational capability. Switched off, a robot is little more than a pile of metal. But when a system works, it's possible that an algorithm could decide, for example decide whether to hire or fire someone, whether someone can perform certain tasks or is prevented from doing them.

How does an Algorithm Look Like?

Unfortunately, algorithms don't look as spectacular as the machines that make them smart, so it's hard for us to form a picture of them. That's also a product design decision. Eric Schmidt (Google) used the term "creepy line" to explain how Big Data platforms and IT companies are responding to the danger, that people might view them as too broad: "Google's policy on a lot of these things is to get right up to the creepy line but not to cross it. Implanting things into your brain is beyond the creepy line. At least for now, until the technology gets better" (Schmidt, 2010).


Antropomorphism means in our context the attribution of human characteristics to technology. It is a deliberate strategy by manufacturers that smart home devices should in their shape not be associated with humanoids or robots. However, Amazon's Assistant Alexa and Apple's Siri, for example, were deliberately designed too feminine. Loidean and Adams pointed out the problematic decisions made by the designers of the digital assistants in relation to the representation of the female.

Gender Stereotype

Female voices are often perceived as peaceful (rather than threatening) and helping (rather than directing). "These communications are delivered by witty and flirtatious characters who reveal themselves through programmed responses to the most perverse questions" (Loidean & Adams, 2019, p. 2). But what would change if we were instead talking to Sirius, Alex, or D. Vice?

This is just one example that shows us how, via the creation of images and attributes complex processes and devices become familiar. In art history, the method of becoming familiar with the visual language of a work and thus its meaning and message, by interpreting and determining the motifs used in it, is called iconography. Let us take a look at robots with such an with such an iconographic view of robots.

Robots between RoboCop and R2D2

Our perception of robots also reflects our expectation of digital transformation. Consequently, we have developed a rich imagery of robots over the past decades. Some are critical and dystopian, some are also fun, funny and creative. Robots are a world heritage.

Already in the Arabic Islamic Renaissance, people enjoyed humanoid machines. The Greek goddesses slipped into human bodies (Capurro, 2019). Karel Čapek is the inventor of the term “robot”. His creatures from the 1923 published theatre play, “R.U.R. – Rossum’s Universal Robots”, have more in common with a Roman army of removal men. “In the prelude the robots are dressed like humans. They are scarce in movements and speech, expressionless faces, staring glare. In the actual drama they are wearing blue linen blouses, belt around the tail, and a brass number on the breast”. Later the cyber-creatures became more funny, intellectual, cruel and technically advanced. Between Robocop and R2D2 we might not see a lot of technical progress but we do notice diametrically different ethical attitudes of their designers (and screenplay authors). The cyborg added a new model already expressing the vision of machines physically connected to our bodies.

Learning about robots

Because of robots’ and cyborgs’ huge popularity, opportunities for education are opening up for coming into conversation with learners and the broader society on the aims, forms and ethical implications of machine ethics or (wo)men-machine ethics.

  • Learning about and with robots as cultural and technical concepts could tackle the social visions regarding the digital transformation, and also help to enter into specific topics related to AI or automatisation.
  • Also, the way in which robots are embedded in a cultural and social context could be explored – are they part of a dystopian or utopian society?
  • Creatively, one way to approach digitalisation would be to consider alternatives to existing narratives and constructions. and prototype them. What kind of robot would be worth be developed?

Digitalisation = blue

Images and imagination are siblings. Our cultural artifacts represent our beliefs and values. In this sense they invite us to reflect on our hopes and fears, expectations and desires. In particular, this can help us, to make things visible that have not yet found a cognitive expression. Anyone searching for digitalisation on Google usually finds cool blue: A Google image search for the keyword "digitalisation" was analyzed as a screenshot by a tool that extracts the dominant colors of the graphics shown as a color palette.


Color palette: Search term „digitalisation“ (made with Image


Also in terms of their symbolism, the most frequently found illustrations show science fiction novel-like motifs. Sandro Botticelli's finger touches a robotic hand. People stand in front of glass screens, technoid projections reveal new things to them in new things to them in tables, numbers or database extracts. Devices and/or people are interwoven. Data galaxies oscillate between blue and violet.


F: Gerd Altmann on Pixabay

Design and Iconisation

Today, industry in particular shapes the visual world of the digital. The imagery of the platform economy and everyday datafication strives for cool elegance and technical perfection.

As far as the hardware is concerned, principles such as clarity, intuitiveness and user-centered technology suggest a simplicity of these devices that make us forget the complex processes behind the surface.

A milestone of iconisation was the Iphone 1 presentation in 2007. A monumental Apple apple on a dark empty stage. The light from behind, which shone on the large screen past its contours, makes it seem to float sacredly.

Steve Jobs led through the presentation in his characteristic mixture of charismatic entertainer and preacher, dressed in jeans and iconic turtleneck sweater. The highlight was the presentation of a rectangular device without buttons, which can be used with "revolutionary simplicity," but equipped with revolutionary modern technology under the large screen.

This narrative was developed further and further. The metaphors and and images that find their way into the discourse on digitalisation are catchy on the one hand, but on the other hand they do little to explain what is happening technically. What do we mean by a "platform" or a "cloud"? What do we mean by "smart" or "work 4.0" in comparison to work 5.0?

Simplicity from the user's point of view meets too much complexity for users to understand what is on in the machine room, where decisions about the design and control of algorithms and platforms are made.


The visual language of wasn't always this way. Earlier images of networking showed us the cable tangle and circuit board chaos that was familiar to anyone who has ever had the embarrassment of changing their hard drive or installing a modem card in their PCs.

We saw overtired and mostly friendly people surrounded by all kinds of equipment and cables in reports of "hacker gatherings." In this different visual language, the Internet does not appear as a clean and tidy place, because computer networks are chaotic, anarchic are chaotic, anarchic, and tend to be unfinished.

How we think of "hacking" today is seemingly contradictory. On the one hand, the term increasingly expresses an, beyond the computer context proactive and solution-oriented attitude towards hierarchies, structures and attitude towards hierarchies, structures and social problems. So-called "lifehacks" have nothing to do with cables and dark nights in front of the computer. They have positive connotations.

On the other hand, the images we have of hacking not only haven't changed, they seem to be even more than before reduced to anonymity, illegality, and coding. A criminalizing iconography as an alternative to the blue world?

Although we keep emphasizing the importance of digital competence understood as going beyond the computing context (problem solcing, innovation, coping with a transformation) and leaving a pure user perspective, we find it difficult to find appropriate images for self-determined and exploratory technology?


F: Gerd Altmann on Pixabay

(De)constructing Images

In this sense, working with and on images can stimulate reflection, which narratives of digitalization we are exposed to and and which narratives we actively perpetuate as users, citizens or actively perpetuate.

Moreover, civic education can invite critical thinking, by deconstructing dominant image worlds and thereby helping to understand them better: hacking the narratives.

Perhaps these efforts will lead to new models and images, that replace the aforementioned terms cloud, platform, cyberspace, smart by something more amenable to critical learning: re-engineering the images of the digital.

Responding to the diversity in the Internet ecosystem

This can also contribute to a better general understanding of digitalisation. Because the Internet is not so binary that there are many blue protagonists and a few dark ones. It is more like an aquarium in which different approaches to networking, living and earning money find their way, of living and making money have their place. Decentralized, non-hierarchical approaches to the digital economy and digital collaboration are required by powerful and centralizing platforms. Open source exists confidently in neighborhood to proprietary models, and the profit motive stands side by side with voluntary commitment. You see big fish, but also swarms of smaller fishes.

The Next Generation Internet initiative of the European Commission developed a vision for the European path of , based on the concepts of democracy, resilience, sustainability, trust and inclusion. "The idea is that all actors that have a stake in the future direction of the global network (governments private sector companies, civil society and the open source community, engineers and hackers, legal experts) should have a say" (Bego, 2020, p. 23).

If digitalisation is not seen as primarily technical, but as social, cultural, political, and economic process, which is how Europe's Internet thought leaders seem to see it, then what could be more obvious than to use these terms, which are very familiar to civic education and to aplly these to learning about the digital?

Ideally, as a result of this participatory exploration, we will arrive to other models and images? So that one day "digitalisation will no longer be just blue, smart assistance will no longer be female or robots are not primarily thought of as we know them from the movies.


  • Bego, K. (2020). A Vision for the Future Internet. Working paper, NGI forward. With contributions by Markus Droeman. Next Generation Internet initiative, Brussels, September 2020. Access 2021/08/01
  • Čapek, K. (1922). W U R Werstands Universal Roboter. Utopisches Kollektivdrama in drei Aufzügen. Orbis Prag/Leipzig.
  • Capurro, R. (2019). Ethical Issues of Humanoid-Human Interaction. Contribution to Guido Hermann and Ute Leonards (eds.). Humanoid-Human Interaction. In: Amarish Goswami and Prahlad Vadakkepat (eds.). Humanoid Robotics: A Reference. Springer: Dordrecht 2019, 2421-243
  • Loideain, N; Adams, R (2020). From Alexa to Siri and the GDPR: The gendering of Virtual Personal Assistants and the role of Data Protection Impact Assessments; Computer Law & Security Review, Volume 36.


This text was published in German language at under a Creative Commons CC-BY_SA 4.0 license: Nils-Eyk Zimmermann: Im Zweifel gegen die Demokratie.

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. He writes and works on the topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Coordinator of European projects, in example DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship, DARE network.

Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience.




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