Decoupling by IT

Information and communication technology is an encompassing innovation bearing extensive consequences for individuals, business and society. We can say with certainty that industrial society was transformed into an information society within the span of several decades. This is particularly true for the wealthy western countries and so-called threshold countries. The developing countries could follow.

In the course of theoretical observation this development could be viewed as liberation from many of the evils in today’s world. Reality, however, presents a very different picture. When information technologies are set in the fore of consideration, it would be better to use the sociological term of decoupling. This refers to a process, in which the bonds between a system and its inner and outer surroundings are loosened, thereby increasing its scope of independence and autonomy. One needs to distinguish between different forms of decoupling (see also W. Heilmann: Telemedien und soziale Prozesse, Thesen zur Informationsgesellschaft, inaugural lecture on 7 December 1999, University of Karlsruhe).

1.1      Through spatial decoupling, made possible in many jobs by information technology, tele-work, for example, has become standard in the meantime. Although it originally referred to a modern form of “work at home”, practically any type of office work now is a tele-process between people and machines. Through myriad combinations and types of functions of machines and processes, people working in neighboring offices mainly communicate by means of information technology and people located far away from one another work together as though they were in the same office. Distance no longer is an organizational obstacle: technology has become ubiquitary.

1.2      The ensuing independence of a certain place is augmented by the chronological decoupling made possible by tele-processes, i.e. periods of time and points of time have gained greater independence. Studies have shown that people can divide their time more freely between work and leisure time. Moreover, the asynchronous functioning of many services and devices allow worldwide communication to be relatively independent of the time zones in which offices working together are located. In other words, one can affirm that information technology has helped modern man gain a certain sovereignty of place and time. In this respect, we have become more free.

1.3      A third dimension of decentralization, which bears considerably more liberation, is attained by the disciplinary decoupling that is connected to tele-processes. Although an employee who works at his computer at home or while traveling most likely is not doing this without some type of monitoring, he is relatively independent of his boss. Thus, the high degree of self-determination which people have achieved in their free time is transferred to working and business life.

This disciplinary decoupling is supported by a series of significant developments on the labor market: part-time work and sabbaticals lessen the need for being present and new contractual relationships, such as free-lance work, are transforming the old employment contracts into agreements between two legally equal parties.

1.4     This statement does not say much about the economic or social status of the contracting partners; however, from a sociological point of view this is a considerably more far-reaching process of decoupling. Social decoupling, which we understand to refer to a loosening of the social ties between people and their social environment, goes far beyond anything that was possible in former times. Together with the spatial, chronological and disciplinary dimensions of decentralization mentioned above, man is gaining a previously unknown degree of independence and freedom through social decoupling.

Does this mean that information technology brings liberation after all?

Reality is nowhere close to that. Hence, Frank Schirrmacher, on the cover of his book “Payback”, actually poses the question: “Why are we forced to do what we don’t want to do in the age of information?”