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Digital is immaterial and therefore cannot be a material?

At first glance, the idea of ‘digital as material’ may come as a surprise, because digital is characterised precisely by the fact that it is immaterial. In essence, there are simply zeros and ones that flow through computers or a network and lead to perceptible effects in end devices. Usually these are screens or sounds, but they can also be very technical effects, such as a traffic light that changes from red to green.

Even if this image is completely correct from an information technology point of view, for me it massively restricts the freedom to think, because it only looks at the technical side of digitalisation and the flow of data in technical systems.

In my view, digital as material offers a view of digitalisation that particularly supports the design of digitalisation. The starting point for this view is systems theory. In terms of systems theory, digitalisation is nothing more than the creation of systems in which people and machines communicate with each other in digital and analogue ways. Admittedly, this is a very abstract thought. Let us therefore look at a simple example.

Ordering pizza via a smartphone app

I (element 1) pick up my smartphone (element 2) and open my pizza app (element 3). Opening the app is a form of communication (albeit primitive) between me and my smartphone. The app (element 3) asks for my current position from the GPS network (element 4) via my smartphone in order to request details of the nearest pizzerias from the pizza app server (element 5). Again there are two communications: GPS data request and querying of pizzerias. My app might show me three pizzerias, for example. This is also a form of communication.

I choose a pizzeria in the app by tapping the logo I want, which is yet another communication. The app now asks the server for the pizzeria’s menu and displays the menu to me. I tap to select the pizza I want and then tap Complete Order. The app now directs me to an online payment service provider (element 6). The latter asks for my access data in order to confirm the payment. The online payment service provider requests and receives a payment confirmation from the server of my credit card provider (element 7). The server of my credit card provider authorises a payment to the account of my pizza maker and therefore to the server of their bank (element 8). The online payment service provider confirms the payment to the pizza app server, which then confirms the order.

The order now goes to the delivery app of the pizzeria I selected (element 9). A ringtone on my pizza maker’s smartphone (element 10) draws their attention (element 11) to the new order that has come in. The pizza maker checks the order and gets straight to work.

As soon as the pizza is ready and the driver drives off, the pizza maker confirms on their app that the delivery is on its way. The pizza maker’s app passes this information to the pizza app server, which in turn tells my app that the pizza is out for delivery. My smartphone then makes a sound again to let me know that my pizza is on its way. Shortly after, I have my pizza in my hands.

Even though this example involves a fairly trivial task, the system under consideration actually consists of eleven elements that communicate with each other in a variety of ways:

  • Two people: me and my pizza maker
  • Two smartphones: my smartphone and my pizza maker’s smartphone
  • Two apps: the ordering app and the order receiving app
  • Four servers: pizza app server, payment service provider’s server, my credit card provider’s server and server of the pizza maker’s bank
  • GPS network for positioning

On the other hand, this image of ordering a pizza has, of course, also been greatly simplified and ignores many further activities. For example, I have to register as a user with the pizza app. I also need to have a user account with the payment service provider and the pizza maker must also register with the pizza app and so on.

The technical counter-argument

From a technical perspective, you could answer that the example very much focuses on the technical elements and is not so far removed from a purely technical point of view, as only two people are involved, that is, me and the pizza maker. Technical elements and technical communication make up everything else.

However, this observation is only true at first glance, because technical communication is not the purpose of the system under consideration; the purpose is to sell pizza, which is a very human form of communication. If you take the people out of the system and do not consider them as part of the design project, the perspective is reduced only to the technical issues and the human beings recede into the background.

Playing with the opportunities offered by material

Another advantage of the way of thinking presented here is that we can very easily play with and talk about digitalisation ideas.

Here is some food for thought to consider and check out:

  • We are in a smart home. The smart water meter in the flat detects water damage and shuts off the water inflow to prevent greater damage. At the same time, the smart home calls the respective emergency service to assess and repair the damage. As no one is in the flat at the moment, the workman can be granted access via the smartphone. Luckily, it was only a leaky tap and nothing bad happened. The workman is able to repair the damage before the residents get home.
  • A long-distance runner with many years of experience receives a warning message out of the blue from the artificial intelligence of her fitness app: ‘The sensors on your sports shoes and fitness watch are reporting an irregular step pattern. This could be caused by incipient joint damage. Please get yourself checked by a specialist.’ The runner is very surprised, as she completed the last marathon without any complaints. Nevertheless, she goes to a doctor and the diagnosis is indeed incipient damage to the joints.
  • Returning to the pizza example: A customer wants to order a salami pizza again, but the artificial intelligence of the customer’s ordering app suggests that he would be better off ordering a salad. The app justifies this recommendation with the fact that he has already ordered three pizzas in the last three weeks and his movement profile indicates that he does not really move much. He understands and so orders a salad instead this time.

Some readers will probably take exception to each of these ideas. I don’t let strangers into my home. Or, I won’t let AI tell me when I should go to the doctor or what I should eat. These thoughts are perfectly valid, however, a lot of USERS may actually be delighted by these kinds of functions – you cannot be sure, as we always just tend to see things from our own point of view.

Understanding digital as a spectrum of technical possibilities

The idea of digital as material also offers a second perspective in addition to the system perspective (in the sense of communication systems): the actual material perspective in terms of the technical possibilities, availability and the acceptance of these possibilities.

The technical possibilities offered by digitalisation have literally exploded in the last 20 years. To name just a few examples: Smartphones with mobile Internet are a mass-produced item nowadays. Likewise, it is perfectly normal for people to be able to access the Internet at home. Artificial intelligence can now be used in many different areas of life thanks to the increased computing power of common household devices. Furthermore, the miniaturisation of digital hardware has progressed to such an extent that many people can now replace their smartphone with a wrist watch.


The triad of technical possibilities, availability and acceptance is important in this context. From an information technology point of view, today’s possibilities are not much different than they were 20 years ago. Even 20 years ago, there was mobile Internet and portable devices that were comparable to today’s smartphones.

However, they were not as readily available and so not accepted to the extent they are today. Digital as material can only begin to demonstrate its strengths and become a real material with which we can shape our society once there is widespread availability and broad acceptance of these technical possibilities.

However, to really be able to exploit these new possibilities, we need to get an idea of their potential, limits, strengths and weaknesses so that we can take them into account early on in the design process and, in particular, play with the possibilities. This is the only way to find out what they can offer us and whether there is a potential market for these ideas.

Would you like to learn more about exciting topics from the world of adesso? Then check out our latest blog posts.

This blog post is an abridged version of the text ‘Holistic design of digitalisation requires a common language’ from the Bitkom Digital Design Yearbook 2021

Picture Kim Lauenroth

Author Dr. Kim Lauenroth

Dr Kim Lauenroth is one of the authors of the Bitkom Digital Design Manifesto and Chairman of the Steering Committee for Bitkom’s Software Competence area. At adesso, Kim heads the Competence Centre Requirements Engineering and is involved in training and further training in the areas of requirements engineering and digital design at the International Requirements Engineering Board (IREB e.V.).

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