5 STPDE: The five socio-technical properties of digital environments

De Wiki livre Netizenship


This article examines a possible path to invariant key-indicators for digital trends, facilitating reflective and prospective visions of our digitalized information society. The five (5) key invariant socio-technical indicators are enabling qualitative and quantitative assessments of past, present and future trends in digital environments. Such an approach is overpassing the state of intuitive guess, through complexity management approaches. It aims to include both top-down or bottom-up methodologies for ICT solutions development.

Keywords: Socio-technical properties, digital environments, ICT, digital competences, economic development


How to better understand the underlying technical and social factors that underpin individual and organizational behaviors in the field of digital environments? If all indicators are modular and variable, how scientific-solid grounds could be used to anticipate future of the Internet and other related digital trends?

We propose (five) 5 key invariant socio-technical indicators enabling qualitative and quantitative assessments of past, present and future trends in digital environments. Our challenge is to overpass the state of intuitive guess, through complexity management approaches, no matter if it's top-down (with mixing theoretical experts and grass-root activists) or bottom-up (with application of wisdom of crowds). We propose to assess whether digital environments possess properties, somehow like water do possess properties (freezing at 0 C°, evaporating at 100 C°).


The Internet is a global socio-technological system that is based on a technological structure consisting of networked computer networks that works with the help of the TCP/IP protocol and stores objectified human knowledge, human actors permanently re-create this global knowledge storage mechanism by producing new informational content, communicating in the system, and consuming existing informational content in the system; the technological infrastructure enables and constrains human communication. The Internet consists of both a technological infrastructure and communicating human actors. Together these two parts form a socio-technological system, the technological structure functions as a structural mass medium that produces and reproduces networked communicative actions and is itself produced and reproduced by communicative actions.

This rhizomatic approach of the Internet could be better understood through the analysis of the following key socio-technical digital initiatives: the TCP/IP initiative (since late 60's), the GNU initiative (capitalizing on the 4 fundamental freedoms of digital artifacts since 80's), the World Wide Web initiative (early 90's), the Debian initiative (mid 90's, leader in GNU/Linux Operating Systems for web servers), the Wikipedia initiative (launched on 2001). Let's try to identify their common characteristics that contributed to their large adoption as Internet «standards». All these initiatives are as well projects, products, communities (of users, developers, promoters, economical actors around the product etc.), as well as symbols of fairness in digital environments. Let's call them « winners »: Winner meaning that each of them took a clear and sustainable lead in its domain, while running in wild competition with hundreds of others, sometimes facing competitors with significantly superior financial resources to hire experts and impose their strategies for large deployment. Here is a non-exhaustive list of such winner projects:

  • TCP/IP intent protocol, facing national or private solutions such as Minitel in France, Videotext, private telecom networks.
  • GPL (and related open and free licenses projects), imposing naturally their 4 fundamental freedoms in all major community-based software projects (the Linux kernel, the Apache web server, PHP/Python/Perl as programming languages, the MySQL database) when other licenses could have been proliferating.
  • HTTP (technology running the web), becoming the main channel of the Internet, although lots of other hypertext-alike protocols were implemented on top of TCP/IP.
  • GNU/Linux Debian open source software distribution, becoming the leading OS infrastructure for military uses, spatial missions and many more

Wikipedia as the main world encyclopedia as demonstrated in 2005 at Nature & Science, comparing it with Britannica & Universalis (Giles, 2005)

To understand their evolution we introduce the five (5) fundamental Socio-Technical Properties of Digital Environments (STPDE) that would, also strengthen our understanding of the Internet as a global socio-technological system.

Introducing the five socio-technical properties of digital environments

Why did, the “winners” mentioned above, reach a leading position of “winner” in their respective fields and thus imposed their way of managing work-flow? Because somehow, informally, organically, intuitively, collectively and led by visionaries listening to the wisdom of their contributing crowds, they applied an extension of the Game Theory based on the way of functioning cooperation-reciprocity-forgiveness (Axelrod 1997) to their permanent on-going work-flow management processes.

These winners got their leading position through merit-oriented culture, not being funded with massive investments, although succeeding to gather, organically, the necessary resources at each level of their development, by identifying, gathering, exploiting and assessing, the appropriate participants, methodologies and contents, thus generating the most appropriate technologies. Each of these winners applied and empowered the policies and cultural codes of their peers to refine the socio-technical community management processes, can can also be called open governance. They did not invent anything, they just respected the properties of the environment they were flowing in. The fact is that, by analysing the ecosystemic socio-economical behavior of these winners, it is possible to identify invariant properties, the 5 Socio-Technical Properties of Digital Environments:

1. Decentralization: no central instance, distributed socio-technical environment

2. Asynchronicity: choice of communicating at any time, synchronism becoming an option

3. Persistence : equal opportunity in our digital information society is a key for the management of any resource

4. Multilateralism: workflow goes possibly from many to many, no theoretical limitation

5. Instantaneity: workflow is shared at the speed of light and radiowaves, no significant physical restriction.

These 5 STPDE are the key invariant indicators, showing the common governance of any of these winners. Some of these governance are well known, although rarely considered:

  • Hardware: Interoperable hardware system, such as IBM-compatible Personal Computers (PC) of USB connectors
  • Networks: net neutrality, where digital workflow is not reducible without putting this neutrality in jeopardy, thus becoming the prerequisite for a fair information society
  • Free licensing standards, with the four fundamental freedoms of free and open source software, consisting in freedom of accessing, using, modifying and redistributing the code, then applied to non-software such as users’ guides with Creative Commons licenses. With the large and growing public success we know today, using free licenses is a prerequisite for a sustainable information system initiatives. Software : “open source” consists of the avatar of the free licensing and net neutrality initiative
  • Cybernetics: peer to peer systems, management by mutually-recognized peers to insure an equal opportunity where anybody can propose a modification or an extension.Cybernetics: refers to the existence of social contracts within the communities adopting these tools, based on merit such as GNU social contract, Debian social contract and Wikipedia governance.

In all these examples of digital governance, no one owns exclusivity on the product and thus social and business models are based on services provided around the product, labeling, accompanying their adoption by newcomers.

Application of the five socio-technical properties of digital environments

Applications of this theory are huge, that can be understood in the context of Lamarck’s vision of “functions generate organizational models” and demonstrated by Jablonka (2006) in her work on the evolution in Four Dimensions. The 5 STPDE allow possible complex but manageable invariant indicators. Recognizing their fundamental characteristics generates a different perception of the emergence of Net Neutrality, Free software products or Wikipedia results. In this sense 5 STPDE are a prerequisite, not an option, to also understand and use digital tools for ICT in human, environmental and economic development problems.

Furthermore, monitoring these trends for any largely deployed or deployable digital services, such as a new applications, assessing if adoption by a large audience is in process of growth or de-growth, can be based on the invariant key indicators of workflows at any step for any digitally-driven resource. One of the main application being monitoring emergence or decline of leading digital tools and products, both web based (such as Google, Facebook, but also Uber, AirBnB) and not web-based (such as MS-Office versus LibreOffice, OS comparisons on smartphone and tablets), as well as financial technology tools, eLearning tools, egovernment services, CRM strategies in companies or in networks of micro-entrepreneurs.

Following our Socio-Technical Properties of Digital Environments analysis, we offer the following conclusions for ICT solutions designed to solve human, environmental and economic development challenges:

  • Building on well-established and open technologies, know-how and resources, rather than creating new software or require existing communities to change software.
  • Evolution of open and state-of-the-art technologies with near-market readiness to appropriate solutions. All project products need to be licensed under free open source licenses, in accordance with the previously used ones.
  • Integration of open technologies into meaningful platform based on community collaboration, utilising principles of collaborative design and situated evaluation throughout the project, in order to ensure sociotechnical innovation.

The socio-technical properties of digital environments as a defined measurable and verifiable goal

Success metrics

Measuring the goal

State of the art

Technological barriers

Submitter's role: coordination

Funding the grand challenge work

Additional background material


1. Giles, J: Internet encyclopaedias go head to head, Nature 438, 900-901 (15 December 2005), accessed 01 March 2016 at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html

2. Axelrod, Robert (1997), The Complexity of Cooperation: Agent-Based Models of Competition and Collaboration, Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-01567-8

3. Jablonka, Eva (2006). Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-60069-9