Digital Capitalism

In an era of online shopping, clickworkers, and care robots, there is often talk of a new wave of technological development that is generating a profound and ambivalent change in work and business. The digitalization of the economy is seen as transcending traditional sector boundaries and expected to unleash unforeseen stimulation in productivity and prepare the way for new forms of organizing work. New generations of robots, for example, are able to orient themselves and act in changing environments. They are expected to revolutionize industrial production but also to be used in an increasing number of service occupations. These "smart" machines promise to stimulate unprecedented levels of economic growth, but they also stand for the risk of massive job loss. At the same time, technical experts and entrepreneurs who work for the giants of the digital industry and the start-ups orbiting around them propagate the idea of "disruptive" change. Their aspiration is to revolutionize traditional markets by creating new business models and dissolving established constellations. Moreover, digital job placement portals link job seekers and employers around the world, but at the same time they project a future world of work in which an employee’s bond to a company and associated social benefits could become mere shadows of the past. In the "old economy", the social integration of a jobholder—in the form of representative participation, labor law, and access to the social security system—is still dependent on an employee being an active member of an enterprise. In the leading companies of the digital economy, in contrast, work models are developing in which "algocratic" recruiting platforms enable companies to have access to labor without incurring the ancillary costs that otherwise come with integrating workers into their operations.

Transformations in the sources of added value, markets, configurations of domination, and work organizations, typically observed in digital economy companies such as Google and Amazon, cannot be identified precisely with traditional theorems of economic sociology. For instance, processes of monopolization are emerging where such theories predict that the free market forces of many players should reign. In the "sharing economy", added value is created outside the clear framework of ownership transfer which usually characterizes business transactions. The boundaries between employees and employers gradually dissolve through collaborative production and consumption processes.

Are we then witnessing radical socio-economic transformation processes, or will merely incremental changes ultimately dominate the digitalization of the economy? Will a new spirit of capitalism triumph in a digital economy that is fundamentally changing the way we do business, or are many of these models merely the fantasies of resourceful idea entrepreneurs and consultants? Do the new technologies offer a fresh source of economic prosperity, as many analysts hope, or do they actually generate massive social disruption? The project will address these questions with an eye to developing a theory of digital capitalism.