DRE 1020 Theorizing the Digital: Communication, Technology and Ethics

DRE 1020 Theorizing the Digital: Communication, Technology and Ethics

Course code: 
DRE 1020
Communication and Culture
Course coordinator: 
Christoph Lutz
Course name in Norwegian: 
Theorizing the Digital: Communication, Technology and Ethics
Product category: 
PhD Leadership and Organisation Courses
2024 Spring
Active status: 
Level of study: 
Teaching language: 
Course type: 
One semester

In recent decades, we have witnessed a rapid digitalization of society that affects every field, from healthcare, to education, finance, news, and tourism. Technologies such as social media, smartphones, search engines, mobile apps, social robots, cryptocurrencies, and virtual assistants are some of the most prominent examples and show the infrastructural, indispensable role the digital plays in our lives. In the meantime, a rich body of literature that tries to understand digital technologies has emerged in communication, information systems, and science and technology studies. The goal of this course is to leverage these developments and provide the participants with a solid foundation in theories that conceptualize the digital transformation from a communication perspective, thus theorizing the digital. The course follows a multi-level logic and presents theories on the micro-, meso-, and macro-level. On the micro-level, communication theories that see digital technologies as a medium and as an actor will be discussed. On the meso-level, instrumental theories in communication and information systems that approach technology as a tool that social collectives can leverage will be contrasted with constructivist theories that stress the socially constructed nature of technology on the one hand and with theories that highlight the agentic nature of technologies and their design on the other. Finally, on the macro-level, a spotlight will be on theories that engage with ethical and normative questions of digital technologies, especially their design.


Learning outcomes - Knowledge

Knowledge of key theories that are used to understand the roles of digital communication technologies on organizations and their stakeholders

Knowledge of the role of organizations as key agents and sites of the digitalization

Knowledge of strengths and weaknesses of prominent theories that conceptualize the digital

Knowledge of key ethical questions surrounding digital communication technologies

Learning outcomes - Skills

The ability to critically reflect on prominent theories of the digital

The ability to analyze and articulate the strengths and weaknesses of the prominent theories of the digital

The ability to identify research gaps of the prominent theories of the digital for further theory development

The ability to apply or adapt a specific theory discussed to a concrete phenomenon or technology

The ability to write well-informed theory papers that contrast extant theories, apply or expand on them

General Competence

The ability to think holistically about the epistemological fault lines and one’s own positionality.

Develop forward-thinking, creative capabilities, and theory-driven reasoning

Course content

The course takes place over two modules of in total 6 intensive days over 2 consecutive weeks. It includes 12 sessions with a half-day summary session and individual feedback (36 teaching hours). Compulsory readings are listed for each session.

Session 1: Introduction and Fundamentals of Communication
This session introduces the participants to the course by discussing the purpose, the learning goals, the structure, and the assignment. We then go into the fundamentals of communication, defining central concepts for a common understanding. Key theories and models in communication will be touched upon that relate to interpersonal and organizational communications but not to the digital element (yet).

Session 2: Computer-Mediated Communication
The session builds on the introductory session by expanding on micro theories, but now looking at digital technologies. Theories of computer-mediated communication (CMC) will be at the center of attention. Here, the communication happens between people – the dynamics are relational and interpersonal – but technology serves as a medium rather than an actor. Cue-filtered out, self-presentation theories and the hyper-personal model are some of the approaches analyzed.

Session 3 and 4: Human-Machine Communication
In this session, we continue the focus on communication theories of the digital but move from CMC to human-machine communication (HMC), where technologies such as social robots, chatbots, and algorithms tend to be more autonomous and can be an actor in themselves. Foundational HMC texts will be discussed that describe the field as well as theories of social presence and the computer are social actors (CASA) paradigm. We will cover fundamental theories and underpinnings, which serves to understand specific applications to technologies such algorithms, smart speakers and social robots better.

Session 5: Affordances, Sociomateriality, and the Agentic Potential of Technologies
Session 5 will venture increasingly towards the meso perspective. Here we begin with theories that conceptualize technologies themselves. Thus, the literature will be more heavily situated in information systems and organization studies, but still with a communicative focus. We will engage with affordances theory and sociomateriality, two key approaches to understand the role of the technology.

Session 6: Communication as Constitutive of Organization
In session 6, the focus moves from a technology- to a communication-centered view, looking specifically at how communication constitutes (new digital) forms of organizing. In this session we will go beyond the often sender-receiver centric models of communication to place communication front and center in processes of sensemaking and world-construction, thus exploring the constitutive role of communication. We will establish how to analyze new digital forms of organizing through such a communication-centered perspective and address key themes such as performativity, conversation, agency, fluidity, and identity in organizing.

Session 7: Mutual shaping, Science and Technology Studies
In Session 7, the interest will be placed on how social and economic realities shape the design and implementation of technologies (rather than how technologies constrain or enable action). Prominent frameworks and theories are discussed, ranging from more constructivist perspectives rooted in science and technology studies, to more functional perspectives present in information systems such as the widely used technology-organization-environment framework.

Session 8: Reputation and Legitimation in the Digital Society
In session 8, the course continues with a predominantly meso-level perspective to understand how new digital technologies play into the reputation building and legitimation efforts of communities and organizations. We will thus review processes of legitimation and reputation management in light of new digital platforms and novel communication dynamics that fundamentally change the ways in which content is produced, disseminated, and consumed.

Session 9: Responsible digital innovation and the Prospects and Perils of Public Deliberation
In session 9, we will begin bridging the meso-macro link by looking at ethical challenges posed by new digital technologies - algorithms and artificial intelligence specifically. In particular, we will discuss (communicative) approaches for how these can be designed and developed responsibly by organizations, specifically analyzing the role that communication plays in the responsible development and governance of technology.

Session 10: Stakeholder Theory, Fairness and Digital Work
We will start by taking a macro perspective on the question ‘what are the consequences of digitalized workplaces and human-machine communication for different stakeholders’? We will cover stakeholder theory, systems theory, organizational fairness, and ethical decision-making perspectives. In addition, we will discuss digital work and its perceived fairness for crowd workers, as well as possible issues for inclusion of minority groups.

Session 11: Ethical Decision-Making, Design and Digital Policies
We will delve deeper into ethical decision making in the digital context, both in terms of ethical awareness and blindness of individual decision makers, and in terms of ethical considerations that are relevant when managing organizations digital policies. We will discuss how decision makers can be biased, and how those biases can translate to biased programming of algorithms. In addition, we will explore the ethical allowances and implications of human-machine interactions, and the priorities management teams need to set when creating digital policy.

Session 12: Synthesis, Conclusion and Outlook
The final session of the course will take an integrative view at the previous sessions and end with a future-looking program and conclusion. First, we will address synthesizing overviews that highlight important developments in theorizing the digital and carve out areas for further theorizing and research. This session also serves as a synthesizing element, where the participants and instructors will discuss the key learnings and impressions from the previous sessions. We will then engage with “the end of theory” discourse that became prominent with a controversial article by Chris Anderson in 2008. We will take stock of this debate and deliberate the need for theory around digital topics in an increasingly data-driven world. This then leads to a connection of the digital transformation to grand challenges discussion, where we place a particular focus on climate change and the environmental impacts of digital technologies such as large language models and cryptocurrencies. This last session of the course will thus incentivize the participants to engage with forward-looking and bold topics in relation to the digital transformation and communication.

Teaching and learning activities

The course requires high level of investment from all participants. The design necessitates a certain openness to different theories with diverging assumptions and underlying philosophies, presentations of a selected article, active participation in class, and reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of the theories discussed and their application. There will be introductory lectures to all main topics, but the main part of the course will be the participants’ uses and reflection on the digital theories.

The compulsory readings will be made available online. An additional reading list for each session with optional but recommended readings will be shared. These readings are easily available online as well.

Software tools
No specified computer-based tools are required.

Admission to a PhD Programme is a general requirement for participation in PhD courses at BI Norwegian Business School.

External candidates are kindly asked to attach confirmation of admission to a PhD programme when signing up for a course with the doctoral administration. Other candidates may be allowed to sit in on courses by approval of the course leader. Sitting in on courses does not permit registration for courses, handing in exams or gaining credits for the course. Course certificates or confirmation letters will not be issued for sitting in on courses

Exam category: 
Form of assessment: 
Written submission
3 Month(s)
Term paper
Exam code: 
DRE 10201
Grading scale: 
Examination when next scheduled course
Type of Assessment: 
Ordinary examination
Total weight: 
Student workload
36 Hour(s)
Student's own work with learning resources
40 Hour(s)
Prepare for teaching
20 Hour(s)
64 Hour(s)
Sum workload: 

A course of 1 ECTS credit corresponds to a workload of 26-30 hours. Therefore a course of 6 ECTS credits corresponds to a workload of at least 160 hours.