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Manoeuvring in a digital dilemmatic space: making sense of a digitised society

Associate professor, Faculty of Education and Business Studies, University of Gävle, Sweden


Although an increasingly digitised society offers a variety of options, it also implies challenges, risks and dilemmas for citizens, organisations and corporations. The purpose of this article is to critically analyse digital society from the perspective of dilemmatic space. The theoretical frame offers new ways of making sense of the digital society, and may provide new perspectives on how to manoeuvre (or not) in it. By taking dilemmas as the starting point, aspects such as uncertainty, plurality, options, challenges and decision making are in focus, as are processes of power, negotiation, identity formation, positioning and manoeuvring.The theoretical framework is applied and exemplified in relation to three digitised society themes: (a) the blogosphere and social networking communities (SNC), (b) file sharing, network control and surveillance, and (c) education. These themes have been chosen in order to illustrate the different aspects of a digital society and to show how the theoretical framework operates when different aspects of these themes are placed in the foreground or background, i.e. emphasised or downplayed. This implies that the unknown and unexpected must be taken into account, and that this involves having to manoeuvre in new, changing and ever present dilemmatic spaces.

Keywords: Digital literacy, dilemmatic space, social networking communities, network control


As society becomes more digitised, the pros and cons of this digitisation become more apparent. In addition to the many positive aspects of digitisation, such as the rationalisation of production and communication and opportunities for teaching, learning, interaction and networking, the challenges, and what Deibert and Rohozinski (2010) call ‘risks through cyberspace’, also become more obvious. Thus, being digitally literate, using web 2.0 technologies, being active on the Internet and involved in social communities also imply challenges. For instance, cybercrimes such as fraud, counterfeiting, defamation, identity theft, cyberbullying, phishing and grooming are examples of activities that people need to be aware of and avoid exposure to (cf. Guarnieri & Przyswa, 2013). ICT users should also be aware that all the information that is expressed digitally in social communities could one day result in a personal backlash. A joke on Twitter can end up in trial (Ziewitz & Pentzold, 2014) and there are numerous examples of comments or ‘party pictures’ published on Facebook or blogs having been lifted out of context and placed into a new frame of sense-making, thereby causing problems. In principle, every ‘digital footprint’ that we leave can be traced as whistleblowers like Edward Snowden have shown when national security agencies collect digital information. As a consequence, who we are friends with on Facebook or follow on Twitter can be investigated and used against us (Huffington Post, 2013). Thus, the full potential of the consequences of the digital traces we leave becomes hard to control and foresee in an increasingly digitised society. In addition to the ‘negative’ challenges and dilemmas described above, other dilemmas include how people can best use the range of available technological options at work, for learning, for communication and in identity formation. Choosing the best option can also be dilemmatic. All this implies we live in a digital society that calls for a digital literacy, which goes beyond the very use of digital tools. Thus, how people understand, relate to, and manoeuvre in the digitised society, with all its pros, cons and pitfalls, become important issues. Making sense of the digital society, relating to it and manoeuvring in it involves different skills. The term ‘digitised society’ refers to a society that is dependent on digital technologies, software, platforms, media and social and digital networks for interaction, connectedness, both at work and in people’s everyday lives. This implies a society characterised by an ongoing and increased digitisation and more advanced technologies. In this article I analytically apply a critical theoretical perspective on how to make sense of, relate to and manoeuvre in a digital society. As described above, many options, challenges and potential problems and dilemmas exist in a digital society. Also, regarding society as a ‘dilemmatic space’ (Honig, 1996) emphasises certain aspects that may help us to conceptualise, relate to and manoeuvre in the digital society. Thus, my intention is to critically analyse a digital society from the perspective of dilemmatic space. By introducing the conceptual frame, the changes, risks, challenges and dilemmas are all taken as starting points. However, the main focus is on the social construction of dilemmas, and especially the interplay that arises when people try to deal with and manoeuvre in a dilemmatic space spanned by structural and social conditions, such as change, conflicting values, norms, expectations, tasks, goals, regulations and obligations, to name but a few of the dilemmas that people can encounter in a digitised society.

I will first elaborate on the conceptual frame of dilemmatic space. I will then apply the framework when discussing specific aspects of a digitised society, such as social networking communities, file sharing, network control, surveillance and issues in educational settings. These aspects and examples are used as illustrations of how to operationalise the conceptual frame of dilemmatic space. Finally, some conclusions will be drawn.

Dilemmas and dilemmatic space in a digitised society: A theoretical perspective

In this section I introduce the theoretical frame of dilemmatic space in order to conceptualise a digitised society that takes the challenges of being a user of digital technologies as a starting point. Here, the focus is not primarily on the challenges involved in dealing with the technology, but rather on the challenges and dilemmas related to understanding and working out how to behave socially and how to relate and position oneself and others in a digital society. The framework offers ideas about how to relate to a digital society in a way that on the one hand takes its point of departure in the options, risks and dilemmas of a digitised society and the use of the Internet, but that on the other hand also emphasises relational aspects, positions and the dilemmas of dealing with the different values, norms, tasks, options and loyalties that can emerge in a digitised society. Thus, the intention is not to magnify the negative aspects of a digital society (even though dilemmas are mostly challenging), but to focus on the various aspects that people deal with in everyday life.

In their daily lives people regularly encounter challenges or problems that they have to overcome. Sometimes these challenges are not easy to solve, but emerge as dilemmas that, in contrast to a problem, cannot be fully addressed without leaving some kind of reminders, such as bad feelings, dissatisfaction, new tasks or dilemmas, etc. (Denicolo, 1996). Thus, dilemmas emerge in situations where no obvious right or wrong way of acting exists, or when one has to choose between two or more unsatisfactory or conflicting options, values, commitments, obligations, loyalties or positions (Billig et al., 1988; Honig, 1996).

For instance, organisations may choose to introduce new technologies, even though they know that this may result in the exclusion of less digitally savvy citizens. Parents may also grapple with the dilemma of negotiating their own fears of their children’s possible exposure to grooming, inappropriate content on the Internet or gaming as well as concerns about their children not being as digitally skilful as other children if they are not allowed to use digital technology (Hollingsworth et al., 2011). Teachers may also feel pressurised to use digital technology in order to avoid being viewed as ‘resistant’, even though this may be at odds with their emotions, beliefs and knowledge about its potential (Convery, 2009; Liu & Szabo, 2009). Thus, dilemmas involving the use of digital technology are an integrated part of society, where people and organisations deal with unsatisfactory or conflicting values or choices.

In daily life, dilemmas often seem to be conceptualised as things that suddenly arise in a situation. However, Honig (1996) argues that dilemmas should not be regarded as being connected to specific situations or events, but rather as aspects that need to be acknowledged as ever present in people’s living spaces. In other words, people always react in relation to what Honig calls ‘dilemmatic spaces’. According to Fransson and Grannäs (2013), accepting this understanding of dilemmas as ever present in a dilemmatic space calls for a ‘conceptual turn’ in the thinking about dilemmas. They regard this as a major challenge.

By adding the relational category of ‘space’ to dilemmas, different (possible) value positions, commitments, obligations, rules and so on are highlighted. In short, it constructs and constitutes the (possible) positions of dilemmas in a ‘dilemmatic space’ that people have to relate to. For instance, the fact that many countries now put more emphasis on tests, standardisation, controls and regimes of accountability in both policy and practice has extended the space of positions teachers have to account for and has led to changes in teachers’ work and ways of acting. It has for instance been claimed that teachers ‘teach for the test’ (Barrett, 2009; Smith & Kovacs, 2011) and are increasingly expected to attend to organisational and administrative tasks as well as act in the pupils’ best interests (Stone-Johnson, 2014).

Thus, the different possible positions of conflicting options, norms, values, commitments, obligations, rules, ‘oughts’ or positions construct and constitute the dilemmatic space in which the various actors try to manoeuvre. As a consequence, dilemmas and dilemmatic spaces are social constructions that result from the structural conditions and relational aspects of everyday life (Fransson & Grannäs, 2013; Hogget, et al., 2006). This implies that people, organisations and ideas position themselves in relation to others, and are at the same time positioned by others. The categorisations ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrants’ (Prensky, 2001) are examples of this kind of positioning as shown by them being contested. Another example is that teachers are often positioned as being to blame for a (perceived) defective enactment of digital technologies in schools (Convery, 2009). Positioning does not imply people being ‘victims’ of structural conditions, but displaying agency by positioning and manoeuvring. Such positioning also has implications for how individuals construct their individual and professional identities. Honig’s view is that dilemmatic space(s) ‘both constitute us and form the terrain of our existence’ (Honig, 1996, p. 259). Thus, identity becomes connected to dilemmatic space. From this perspective, Honig stresses that dilemmas are not just ‘a symptom of value pluralism but also a sign of the ineradicability of difference from identity’ (Honig, 1996, p. 259). Consequently, the dilemmatic space constructs the subject, and the subject itself also constructs the dilemmatic space (cf. Honig, 1996). For instance, juridical, technical, social and organisational structures, as well as different values, loyalties and positions, construct the dilemmatic space in which, for instance, human rights activists and Internet hacktivists manoeuvre and position their identities (Cammaerts, 2013; Paliwala, 2013). While hacktivists may see themselves as the ‘guardians of freedom on the Internet’ (Murphy, 2011; Milberry 2012), this implies that they position others as ‘non-guardians’ and are at the same time positioned as criminals by other actors. Thus, being and becoming in a digitised society do have ethical implications (Krumsvik, 2009).

Parallels with other societal conceptualisations can also be drawn, such as Beck’s notion of a ‘risk society’ (Beck, 1992). In short, Beck claims that society has moved from an industrial modernity towards a risk modernity with an increasing focus on risks, for instance, in business transactions, production, human relations, social dynamics, etc. (cf. Giddens, 1999). In a ‘risk society’, uncertainty and estimations of risks, risk mitigation and social redistributions of risk are important.

Some of the differences between the conceptual frames of ‘dilemmatic space’ and ‘risk society’ are problematised in brief. First, by definition a dilemma cannot be fully ‘solved’ without leaving some kind of reminder. That is why manoeuvring, positioning, negotiations and so on are related to dilemmas. ‘Risks’ can be fully eliminated even if reminders exist, although risks do not include reminders. Second, dilemmas are bi- or multi-dimensional in that they consist of two or more positions or values that are related to each other, while risks are most often one-dimensional, e.g. we might risk losing money but we do not risk earning money, or we might risk becoming ill but do not risk becoming healthy. Third, while ‘the risk society’ emphasises risks as an entity, the dilemmatic space emphasises the cluster of dilemmas, spatiality and manoeuvring that are part of the dynamics inherent in the theoretical frame. I argue that the conceptual frame of dilemmatic space helps us to elucidate and deepen our understanding of a digitised society as emphasising positions, relations, spatiality, manoeuvring, and potential dilemmas in an ever present dilemmatic space.

The digitised society as a dilemmatic space

In the following I use the conceptual frame of dilemmatic space to analyse and discuss certain aspects of the digital society. The framework is applied to three digitised society themes: (a) the blogosphere and social networking communities (SNC), (b) file sharing, network control and surveillance, and (c) educational context. These themes have been chosen in order to illustrate different aspects of a digital society and to show how the conceptual framework operates when different aspects of the themes are emphasised or downplayed, for example in the interplay between the individual and the social and the macro- and micro levels, and in a specific professional sphere such as an educational context.

In the first theme, the primary focus is on putting the construction of dilemmatic spaces in relation to norms, values, relational work and social positioning at the individual and group level in the foreground. In the examples of virtual social networking communities (SNC) and blogs, the construction of dilemmatic space(s) is related to social communities in which people express themselves by sharing things like texts, photos, films and audio, and by commenting, discussing, interacting and networking in communities that are elaborately multimodal.

The blogosphere and social networking communities as dilemmatic spaces

Blogs and virtual social networking communities (SNC) seem to attract great interest in the globalised digitised society. Sites such as LinkedIn, Instagram, Videofyme and Facebook are all well-known SNC, where people can interact, communicate and express themselves by creating virtual identities. Managing a blog or entering a SNC by creating an account and a personal profile implies the creation of a virtual identity that can either be limited or extended depending on what kind of information is shared and how active the person is in the community (Buitelaar, 2014). Professional identities and positions can also be taken in the blogging (Kvåle & Rambø, 2015). Sharing texts, pictures and videos and giving and expecting “likes”, responses and acknowledgments constructs virtual identities in the positions taken, the relations made and the norms, values and loyalties that are intentionally or unintentionally expressed. These kinds of positions are the core aspects spanning a dilemmatic space. Depending on what is exposed and what the reactions may be, this implies possibilities as well as vulnerability. In this respect, the type and number of comments exchanged in SNC can be seen as a social assessment (Jordán-Conde et al., 2014) that is not possible to predict. For instance, what was intended as a positive response could be interpreted differently. Comments and photographs may also have been used for deliberative positioning and to create dilemmas for others. For instance, media websites with open comment fields that are intended to stimulate debate and involvement can also expect the appearance of inappropriate comments (Hughey & Daniels, 2013), which means having to find a balance between freedom of expression, moderation and ‘censorship’.

We also find many examples of people encountering dilemmas in the areas of cyberbullying, harassment and grooming on the Internet, where people are actively positioned and exposed to power and anxiety to an extent that the only possibility they see is to take their own life (Barkacs & Barkacs, 2010; Guitton, 2014).

The key point in the above argumentation is that individuals do not have control over the material, other people’s interpretations of it, or their reactions to or comments on it – in life or in death (Bollmer, 2013). The extent and magnitude of this is different from prior SNCs appearance, because comments on SNCs can quickly be spread to a number of people, be taken out of context and are virtually impossible to erase due to the digital storage possibilities. Thus, a person has to consider the potential risks, challenges, dilemmas or possibilities that he or she might be exposed to. Conceptualising social network communities and the blogosphere as dilemmatic spaces implies a recognition of past, present and potential challenges, dilemmas and possibilities. It also acknowledges the different positions and relational work connected with processes of power, positioning and negotiation. A stance expressed in a blog or SNC may be commented on and countered by other positions. Thus, a person has to consider what kind of information, positions, values and expressions he or she prefers. The dilemma is that people never know if, when, how, with what intensity, from what position and from whom their digital footprints will come back and be turned against them.

All in all, this uncertainty calls for an ever-present awareness of the possibilities and benefits of being digitally active and of future challenges and dilemmas. In other words, one has to expect the unexpected. Uncertainty is also a key component in the construction of dilemmas and the dilemmatic space. Uncertainty opens up a manifold of possible options, such as how to conceptualise phenomena or react in situations, which in turn opens up for processes of positioning, negotiation and decision making (Bammer & Smithson, 2008). This is why Honig (1996) maintains that dilemmas are ‘ever-present’ in people’s living spaces and that people always react in relation to a dilemmatic space.

File sharing, network control, surveillance and dilemmatic space

In the second theme, the primary focus is on how dilemmatic spaces are constructed by foregrounding the interplay between the micro- and macro-level. Here I consider how the social processes of individuals and groups interact with overall structural aspects such as legal regulations, policies, activism, corporations and governmental agencies. The specific focus is on how dilemmatic spaces are affected by issues such as copyright, surveillance, integrity and the relations between citizens, hacktivists, government security agencies and corporations.

File sharing

The design of the Internet as a global system of connected networks implies ideas about communication and access to and sharing of information. However, the extent to which freedom of expression should be lived out on the Internet and what kind of information should be shared has caused controversies between ‘ordinary people’, internet activists, ‘pirates’, corporations and juridical systems in many countries. New technologies and the innovative construction of new services and entrepreneurial business strategies have challenged traditional laws of copyright and media and business logic. The challenge for corporations to shut down ‘new illegal forms of distribution’ can be illustrated by the proceedings against The Pirate Bay website in Sweden. Although the founders of the site were charged of facilitating the illegal downloading of copyrighted material, the website has remained open. According to Larsson (2013), in this particular case the court maintained that: ‘it is clear that more of an intermediary role is required than provision of Internet access for liability for contributory copyright violations’ (p. 374). The case and its outcomes ‘clearly illuminate the dilemmas’ of using a juridical system made for the copyright of traditional media and its distribution in a digitised environment in which technologies change flows, borders, positions and enactments for reproduction and distribution (Larsson, 2013).

New laws have not triggered any sudden changes of social norms regarding illegal downloading, but tendencies of an immediate decrease of, but no end to, downloading were observed with a new law (Svensson & Larsson, 2012). Thus, ‘file shares’, lawyers, corporations, the media and policymakers – to name but a few – are manoeuvring in a dilemmatic space constructed in a complex interplay of juridical, economic, political and relational structures, with new technologies, norms, values, actions, positions, relations and powers of different stakeholders. For instance, the dilemmatic space in which lawyers and corporations are manoeuvring in cases like this is spanned by dilemmas about how to deal with multiple choices and ‘acting for the best’ (Honig, 1996) when balancing copyright claims, the complexities of the juridical landscape, juridical costs, damages fees that will probably never be paid, and the rendering of ‘bad will’ (Larsson, 2013) among the younger generation of file sharers.

Network control and surveillance

The issues discussed above concerning file sharing, downloading and copyright claims can be understood within the framework of ‘internet governance’ (Ziewitz & Pentzold, 2014) and ‘network control’. Zajácz (2013, p. 491) defines ‘network control’ as a ‘decision-making ability over territory, capital and technology through which one part secures an uninterrupted flow of information while denying that ability to its opponent.’ In the cases discussed earlier, downloaders want to be able to download materials for free, while corporations would like to control and restrict these options.

Some people and organisations regard the Internet as a free space in which ‘information wants to be free’ (Cammaerts, 2013), whereas others emphasise ‘a need’ for the control or censorship of the Internet. The flow of information that is accessible via the Internet represents a plurality of value systems when it comes to, for instance, social, economic, juridical, political, philosophical, moral, sexual and religious positions and preferences. This creates a multitude of options for learning and exchange, although the possibility of value conflicts is also evident and explains much of the ‘moral panic’ concerning the Internet. For instance, the accessibility of sexual content may cause moral panic and calls for censorship and filters to block specific websites. However, such ‘blocking’ may result in other challenges and new dilemmas. In schools, these kinds of activities can lead to ‘over-blocking’, which limits the learning facility of the Internet (Hope, 2008).

When the former CIA employee and NSA contractor Edward Snowden started to release secret documents from NSA to the press in 2013, citizens in western countries began to realise that mass surveillance of the Internet and telecommunication systems was not only undertaken by undemocratic and authoritarian regimes. It became widely known that mobile phones had become tracking devices and social networking communities were sources of data profiling. Every digital trace that citizens leave is potentially stored and analysed by security agencies.

It can be argued that ordinary people who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. However, as most people do not know what kind of information about them is being shared, gathered or stored, they have very little idea about what such information could be used for. For instance, knowledge about why and how people communicate in social networking communities could be used to categorise users into different personality- or diagnostic segments (cf. Carpenter, 2012; Moore & McElroy, 2012), or even as risk categories for terrorism. Similarly, it is claimed that mass surveillance treats every citizen as a potential suspect, and that this is at odds with the idea that everyone is innocent until proved guilty (Writers Against Mass Surveillance, 2013).

The extent to which mass surveillance could cause problems or dilemmas for individuals is difficult to predict. Knowledge about the existence of surveillance systems creates new dimensions in the use of the Internet and social networking communities and leads to other aspects of digital communication being regarded as a dilemmatic space. Internet users who are aware of such surveillance, or at least suspect that it exists, can ask themselves whether or not he/she ought to browse a specific webpage, add a person to a contact list, join a social networking community, write what he/she actually thinks in a wiki or a blog, or click ‘like’ on Facebook. This in turn may limit their sense of freedom of action. On the other hand, knowledge about security agencies’ surveillance may help those concerned about terrorism etc. Reactions, calculations and hesitations over what the potential outcome could be and which future challenges and dilemmas may arise can be understood in relation to a theoretical framework of dilemmatic space. Thus, different potential outcomes are considered, negotiated and manoeuvred in relation to the different options, loyalties, norms, values, positions, actors and relations that span the dilemmatic space.

Similarly, when it comes to the surveillance of the Internet, governments and national security agencies have to find legitimate and acceptable methods of protecting an open and democratic society in a way that does not restrict freedom of expression or jeopardise confidence in the Internet, technology, governmental bodies and corporations. In this, they manoeuvre in a dilemmatic space with a complex interplay of juridical, economic, political, technical and relational structures and in relation to the opinions of stakeholders, citizens and others (cf. Deibert & Rohozinski, 2010).

Dilemmatic space(s) in digitised educational contexts

In the third theme the primary focus is on educational contexts and how digital technology constructs dilemmatic spaces. The intention here is to give illustrative examples of how technology and the theoretical frame of dilemmatic space operate within a specific professional field, and how micro- and macro levels interplay with social dimensions and technology-driven processes.

We first have to recognise that educational settings cannot be analysed or discussed separately from wider societal contexts. The norms, values, loyalties, positions, laws, policies, relations, identities, conflicts and dilemmas that exist in society influence educational contexts – and vice versa. Thus, dilemmatic spaces in educational contexts are largely created in the tensions between societal expectations and the historical, cultural, institutional, organisational, political and economic prerequisites that form the educational context of school and the ongoing social, relational and communicative processes that are negotiated and lived out in schools on a daily basis.

Teaching has been emphasised as a complex activity (Biesta, 2006) that is characterised in a variety of ways, e.g. as moral endeavour (Bullough, 2011) that involves teachers in everyday micro-political manoeuvring (Kelchtermans, 2006; Saito & Atencio, 2013).This mainly relates to manoeuvrings with pupils, colleagues and parents, but also in relation to wider societal expectations and teachers’ own beliefs and understandings of tasks and ‘oughts’. In this, digital technologies construct new dimensions of everyday practice, the dilemmas that teachers are dealing with and the (digital) dilemmatic space they manoeuvre in. This is discussed by Fransson and Grannäs (2013), who claim that ordinary possibilities, challenges and dilemmas in schools and society are more easily transferred and magnified via the social media and make the dilemmatic space ‘go virtual’ (p. 7).

In a worldwide context, there are high expectations on educational systems to deliver quality learning in a cost effective way (OECD, 2012). Policymakers also expect that digital technologies will change educational contexts, and in many countries major investments have been made in this direction. This puts schools and teachers under pressure to enact digital technologies and integrate them in their teaching and learning activities, even though this may be at odds with their own knowledge, beliefs, emotions and doubts about their potential (Convery, 2009; Howard, 2013; Ryan, Scott & Walsh, 2010).

Schools and teachers also need to consider aspects such as cost, the danger of time-consuming technical challenges and the advantages and disadvantages of using digital technologies in education. All these dilemmas need to be taken into consideration when prioritising needs and tasks. Research indicates that teachers who are more positively inclined towards digital technologies are much more confident about the benefits and are therefore more likely to use digital technologies in the educational setting (Howard, 2013; cf. Player-Koro, 2012). Thus, the dilemmatic space is constructed differently depending on a teacher’s level of confidence in the different options and their values, knowledge and skills regarding the use of digital technologies. Although one teacher may welcome the use of digital technology and see no conflict of values, interests, tasks or options, another may perceive many challenges, conflicts and dilemmas. Enacting digital technology and integrating it into the processes of teaching and learning means manoeuvring in a dilemmatic space with options, challenges and dilemmas. Research also indicates that some teachers seem to employ digital tools in accordance with their core beliefs about teaching and learning and, for instance, downplay ‘policy documents not related to their core approaches to teaching’ (Orlando, 2013, p. 239). A dilemmatic space is also constructed differently depending on which positions, values, implications, tasks, ‘oughts’ or competences are emphasised. It also depends on whether policymakers, principals or teachers see some (potential) added value of using digital technologies.

For stakeholders such as industry or policymakers there is also an interest in highlighting the potential benefits of digital technologies in education, even though such benefits may be exaggerated or simply do not exist (Convery, 2009; Olofsson, et. al, 2015). Convery (2009) shows that some research results are ‘re-packed’ into information folders, where a specific rhetoric and layout is used in order to emphasise the benefits rather than the disadvantages. This illustrates how the dilemmatic space can be constructed and re-constructed and how the processes of power, negotiation and positioning operate. The use of digital technologies also changes the processes of learning and the roles, positions, powers and values in educational settings. Dourneen and Matthewman (2009) show how the use of digital technology makes teaching and learning more complex, and that what might intuitively be recognised as a good lesson could be found to be less successful when scrutinised more carefully – and vice versa. Their conclusion that digital technology ‘creates an additional layer of complexity within teaching while also allowing the process and problems of learning to be more visually evident’ (Dourneen & Matthewman, 2009, p. 73) implies more dilemmas, challenges and options. Similarly, Fransson and Holmberg (2012) show how the process of evaluating and assessing students’ learning becomes more complex and dilemmatic, but also more accurate and precise, when the integration of content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge and technological knowledge is taken into account. It can also be added that in classrooms teachers may not be the only ones who are able to master the technology used or the opportunities for interaction, sharing and learning that emerge. They might not have sole access to information, content or learning technologies either. Digital technologies give pupils extended opportunities to be consumers and producers of information and to control its use. Thus, digital technologies do not only support teaching and learning, but also transform how we learn, and, according to Säljö (2010), how we ‘interpret learning’. From such a position, the enactment of digital technologies in education has ontological and epistemological implications for the educational system that schools, teachers and pupils need to relate to. For teachers, both the challenges and the opportunities need to be considered if teaching and learning are to be successful. This calls for digitally competent teachers who are able to integrate, for instance, content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge and technological knowledge into a technological pedagogical content knowledge, TPACK (Fransson & Holmberg, 2012; Mishra & Koehler, 2006). Thus, depending on teachers’ skills and situated opportunities to facilitate the activities of teaching and learning, the possibilities, challenges or dilemmas may emerge differently. For some teachers the dilemmas may dominate, while for others the positive aspects may be more apparent.

In short, teaching in the 21st century is about manoeuvring in an intertwined physical and digital context, where teachers are expected to implement digital technologies, deal with their own expectations, concerns and skills, work with the multiple loyalties and conflicting tasks that arise and work out how digital technologies (could) reshape the processes of teaching and learning. This involves negotiating, positioning and manoeuvring in the constructed dilemmatic spaces.


In this article I have analysed the digitised society from the perspective of dilemmatic space. The article could also be seen as an argument that the conceptual frame helps us to make sense of, relate to and manoeuvre in a digitised society. In this final section I discuss some of the results as well as the theoretical perspective and its beneficial aspects, together with some of the challenges.

First, my contribution in this article is an analysis of digitised society using the conceptual frame of dilemmatic space. As an analytical tool, the conceptual framework offers a specific way of conceptualising a digitised society. By taking dilemmas as the starting point and connecting it to the relational and spatial category of ‘space’, aspects such as uncertainty, plurality, options, challenges and decision making are in focus, as are processes of power, negotiation, identity formation, positioning and manoeuvring. Such aspects and processes characterise what people and organisations have to deal with – irrespective of the level of digitisation.

In this analysis I provide examples of how aspects of a digital society construct a specific dilemmatic space, and how processes of power, negotiation, identity formation and positioning could operate. In the illustrative examples used in the article different dilemmas emerge, such as knowing how to manoeuvre in order to minimise the risk of cybercrime, knowing how to deal with the multiple choices and options that digital tools and social networking communities offer and being aware of the potential conflicts or dilemmas that may emerge due to our digital activity and the digital footprints that we leave. I have not only given examples of the possibilities of social networking communities (SNC), but also shown how they can easily give rise to unforeseen reactions. Digital footprints and the techniques for storing, tracing and analysing these mean that digital users never know whether, when, in what shape or position and with what intensity a reaction may come. This means that people have to expect the unexpected. For some people this may prove awkward and dilemmatic, whereas for others it may not be at all problematic. In this the constructing dimensions of dilemmatic space emerges, in which different positions, relations and manoeuvrings are possible. I have also given examples of how different actors – such as file sharers, companies, lawyers or governmental bodies and internet activists – try to manoeuvre to maintain network controls and politically, economically, military and culturally benefit from digitisation.

Thus, one key point in my argumentation has been that digital users, such as individuals, communities, companies, government bodies and so on, may not be familiar with all the potential options, benefits, challenges, dilemmas or risks they might be exposed to or expose others to. This uncertainty implies that the unknown and unexpected ought to be taken into account, and that this involves having to manoeuvre in new, changing and ever present dilemmatic spaces (Honig, 1996).

Second, I argue that an understanding of the conceptual frame of dilemmatic space may help us to manoeuvre in a digitised society in a more analytical and (perhaps) safer way. Analytically, the framework offers concepts for analysing positions, relations and dilemmas and the processes of power, negotiation, identity formation and positioning. This offers opportunities to conduct relational analyses or to understand how structural aspects, social dynamics and individuals’ experiences, positions and agency interact. For instance, how do structural aspects of social networking communities operate, and what kind of dilemma does this imply for individuals with regard to social expectations and processes? Will unconsidered comments in a blog lead to goodwill, or bad will? In the educational field it may not be realistic to expect that pupils in schools will have a greater need to fully understand the conceptual frame of dilemmatic space and its implications for analysing social manoeuvring and positioning in a digitised society. It might be more realistic to say that teachers, teacher educators and educational researchers should have a more elaborate theoretical understanding of dilemmatic space as a (possible) framework for analysing, understanding and dealing with dilemmas and the processes of negotiation, positioning and manoeuvring. Teachers have a key position when it comes to discussing the pros and cons of a digitised society with pupils and the opportunities, challenges and dilemmas that this may imply for them – now and in the future. For this, the teachers themselves must have a more elaborate understanding that goes beyond the actual use of digital technologies and instead focuses on how to make sense of a digital society and the pros and cons, challenges, options and dilemmas that exist now and might exist in the future. Conceptualising a digital society as manoeuvring in a dilemmatic space may help them – and us – to understand society in a new way and help us to manoeuvre in it in a much more conscious way.

Third, the analyses of the digital society conducted in this study also make theoretical contributions to the understanding of the conceptual frame of dilemmatic space. In the framework, space has a key position as a relational and spatial category of the framework. This also applies to processes such as power, negotiation, positioning, manoeuvring, etc. These kinds of processes have time dimensions, in that they are processes over time. The analyses described in this article indicate that digital technology contributes to a time-space contraction as well as a time-space extraction of the dilemmatic space. Digital technologies make it easier to rapidly reorganise, distribute and extend a dilemmatic space, for instance, involving actors or positions in different parts of the world, without warning and in magnitudes that could have extensive consequences. The technology also contributes to a time-based extension of the dilemmatic space, in that ‘dilemmatic situations’ can be stored digitally for long time, be distributed and exposed to (new) other dilemmatic spaces or be components in processes of positioning, power seeking, manoeuvring etc. Thus, digital technologies contribute to an emphasis on time, space, speed and intensity, as well as to the relationships of past-present-future, distance-closeness, position-spatialness and private-public in the construction, reorganisation, manufacturing and manoeuvring of dilemmatic space(s). Taking dilemmas and the conceptual frame of dilemmatic space as a starting point may also lead to an over-emphasis of the challenges and a downplaying of all the positive aspects of an increasingly digitised society. This risk must be acknowledged when applying this conceptual frame.

Fourth, the conceptual frame of dilemmatic space as elaborated on in this article and other works would benefit from a comparison with other ways of conceptualising a digitised society. Such a theoretical analysis could, for instance, include Ulrich Beck’s notion of risk society as developed by, for instance, Beck and Giddens.

Finally, how in a digital society people, communities, companies, government bodies and so on end up constructing and manoeuvring dilemmatic space(s) and how processes of powers, positioning and identity formation play out need to be researched further and examined in much more detail.


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