“We discuss Big Tech’s power but lack systematic monitoring”, emphasise Sofie Flensburg and Signe Sophus Lai. With their new book, the authors hope to see a growing interest in infrastructure analysis within Nordic countries and more actors building upon their results and research methodologies.
In their book Gateways: Comparing Digital Communication Systems in Nordic Welfare States, Sofie Flensburg and Signe Sophus Lai from the University of Copenhagen explore the intersection between traditional welfare state structures and the evolving landscape of digital communication systems in the largest Nordic countries. Mia Jonsson Lindell, communications officer at Nordicom, talks with them about their new book, the challenges of collaborative academic work, and the future impact of digital communication systems in the Nordic welfare states.
Mia Jonsson Lindell (MJL): Can you start by telling me a little bit about the book? Why is it an interesting topic? And why now?
Signe Sophus Lai (SSL): For some time before beginning to write the book, we had talked about wanting to write a book about stuff that we all think we know. We felt like there was a lot of assumptions going around that we really wanted to explore in depth. We are both very empirically inclined researchers, so when ideas circulate that we’re not sure are empirically substantiated, then it sort of bugs us.
Sofie Flensburg (SF): The actual motivation was that we had for some years done a lot of work on this topic in Denmark, and at some point, we began to wonder: Would this be the same if we were to look at our neighbouring countries? We thought it would be interesting to compare the development and the market structures and political ways of approaching digitalisation across the Nordic region.
SSL: And why now, you ask? It’s because we’re at a point in the history of the Internet where a lot of stuff is growing old. Infrastructures don’t get as old as humans, so right now a lot of stuff has to be exchanged for something new. We wanted to write this book because it’s great to be “in it” when it actually happens – when all these material parts of the Internet are being substituted for new ones.
SF: Our goal was to establish some sort of empirical baseline to compare with in the future. We didn’t have that when we studied the historical development of Denmark, so it took a lot of hard work and methodological challenges to create a foundation for comparing different time periods – and what we hope here is also to have created a foundation for future comparative studies.
Challenges of collaborative academic work
MJL: The two of you have published several articles together, and you’ve talked about how even your doctoral theses were collaborative. Did these successes prepare you for the challenges and demanding schedule of publishing a book? Did you encounter anything new or unexpected in the process?
SF: In many ways, it was kind of a relief! When you are working collaboratively, you run into a lot of problems in the academic system. For instance, we have done our PhD dissertations together, and since that’s not officially allowed in the system, we had to publish them individually and make the argument that these were our own individual achievements. We have talked about this book as a love child: It was really nice for us to finally be able to say things as they actually were and do them fully collaboratively instead of having to constantly defend our individual contributions.
SSL: Yes! I can only second that!
The power of tech giants
MJL: That’s very nice to hear. You make a point of emphasising that the book is about what we think we know about the Internet and its impact on both our everyday lives and larger society. Can you expand on this, and tell us why it’s important to think about the Internet and digital communication systems in this way?
SSL: I think that what we see right now, in the Danish context, is that the Internet is becoming what we could call a meta infrastructure – an infrastructure that undergoes other societal infrastructures – and, in that way, it becomes more and more critical. We used to talk about critical infrastructures such as water supply, food chain supplies, and electricity. But now, with many of these systems being run over by the Internet, or the Internet having switches into these systems, the Internet becomes so foundational that the fact that we know very little about how it’s owned, how it’s governed, and how it’s controlled becomes a critical gap not just in research, but also in policymaking.
SF: We want to show that the power of tech giants such as Google and Amazon go very deep and that their popular services have allowed them to generate money and get a strong position in the digital communication system. There is a contradiction in the fact that we continue to talk about the power of Big Tech – in public debate and in the political system – but there’s almost a complete lack of systematic monitoring of this power. It’s really difficult to find reliable data that tells us something substantial about where this power lies, and that is, of course, something that also hinders regulatory interventions and attempts to challenge this power.
SSL: The Nordic countries are such an interesting case for examining this. In the language of our field, we would call it an extreme case, or a critical case: If it happens here, it can happen anywhere.
MJL: This ties together with my next question about this political momentum you mention in the book. Policymakers want to challenge Big Tech’s power but lack the tools to do so. What do you think is the next step in getting our legislators the tools they need?
SF: It is of course a very difficult question, frequently asked by journalists and researchers, but also by regulators and policymakers. Our reply tends to be “well we are the researchers; we can tell you about what we know, and we can create knowledge as a backdrop – but it’s not our job to make the political decisions”. But we can say this, if we want to be able to do anything, we need more monitoring, we need reliable data, and we need to know what we’re talking about if we want to challenge the monopolies of the tech giants. At the moment, we don’t have reliable datasets that can be used for that.
SSL: We are also sometimes asked why it is then a problem that Alphabet owns infrastructures across the bord in Denmark or any other country, and well, maybe that’s not a problem. But there is a problem in saying that we live in a democratic country that doesn’t have democratic control, or that we live in a country with competition regulation that doesn’t regulate competition.
MJL: You also write about the struggle between Big Tech and welfare states. And, in fact, you also have a chapter in another upcoming book to be published by Nordicom about the future of the Nordic media model. You pose some open questions towards the end of the book, but can you give us some ideas for examples of, for instance, what impact the evolutions of power and control in the Nordic digital communication systems have on the future of Nordic welfare states? What adaptations will have to be made to preserve our strong welfare traditions?
SF: I think that’s very much a political question. But returning to what we said before, the main task is to create solid tools for monitoring and creating knowledge. If we don’t have solid knowledge on the operations and the power of, for instance, Big Tech, we can’t control them. Then any kind of political intervention or regulation will be useless.
SSL: One way of answering that question would be to look at what’s already happening, for instance, in the EU. What we see now is a strong stance to ally between European companies: to build stuff with European companies and to make European supply chains. That’s one way of how the political initiatives are trying to tackle this for the future.
MJL: Was there anything in the results or in your conclusions that surprised you?
SF: I think if I were to point to one surprise, it was that we found more variation between the Nordic countries than we had anticipated. Norway, for example, stood out as a way more intact media welfare state than the other Nordic countries, so the Norwegian state plays a much more active role in organising the digital communication system than the Danish state does, for example. So, even though we found a lot of similarities between the countries, we also found some degree of variation in the approach of state authorities.
The next steps
MJL: Let’s move on to my last question. You conclude the book by saying that the book begs for a sequel. Do you think you’re up for that task, or do you leave it for others to tackle?
SF: My hope is that we’ll see a growing interest in the Nordic countries for infrastructure and infrastructure analysis, and I really hope that other people will build on the book, challenge our results, and improve the methodologies. The next step for us is to move beyond the Nordic context and look at a larger sample of countries. Both to locate the Nordic countries in the world, but also to be able to contribute to a broader discussion about whether the Internet is turning into multiple different Internets or geopolitical Internets, as we see signs of.
SSL: When we talk about a sequel, it also has to do with the methods and the methodologies that take up a big part of the book. We have a specific methods chapter in the book that we hope other people want to apply, test, and develop as well. We also hope, when we talk about a sequel, that the book can function as a backdrop for in-depth qualitative studies of decision-making processes, infrastructure build-out processes, and so forth. When you do qualitative research it’s nice to have a context that is laid out, and that’s also what we mean when we say a sequel, because we’re very aware of the top-levelness of the analysis in the book.
MJL: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me and best of luck in the future!
Read the book
Gateways: Comparing Digital Communication Systems in Nordic Welfare States
Symposium about the public value of communication infrastructures in the Nordics
At the symposium, Sofie Flensburg and Signe Sophus Lai will be presenting the book in their keynote.
The symposium will be live streamed on Nordicoms website.
Photo: Scandinav Bildbyrå