Data Work. The Development of the IT Service Industry in Germany.

Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam


With the advent of digital technologies in the second half of the 20th century, our working worlds have fundamentally changed – with far-reaching social and cultural consequences. However, we know astonishingly little about the history of the IT service industry and its influence on work regimes and work relations. While digital services have been commonly described as a hallmark of a new “digital economy”, they existed way before the internet age.

In the Federal Republic of Germany, these services have been controversially debated since the 1950s, especially with regard to the rising social inequalities in the “service society”. Thus, “data work” – using computers to collect, process and analyze data – emblematically mirrored the “digital transformation” of the working worlds.

Research question

The project investigates the development of the IT service industry in Germany between the 1950s and the 1990s by analyzing the systems, actors and modes of knowledge circulation in the dawning digital age. It explores how “infrastructures”, “human resources” and “know-how” were set up, programmed and shared, while business processes became synchronized and “digital availability” advanced to be an epitome of the new service society. Thus, it poses the question how digital technologies dynamized the service business, questioned organizational structures and corporate hierarchies and caused new social and gender inequalities in the booming IT industry. Three case studies on IT service companies in Germany will exemplarily address these questions. Consequentially, the analytical focus will be on the meso level, while links to micro- and macro levels are illuminated, too. Here, emblematic socio-technical ensembles where men and machines worked together – such as data centers – will gain particular attention.

In this context, it is assumed that the rise and persistence of digital services has been substantially based on neo-tayloristic work regimes. At the same time, as early as the 1950s, the spread of “data work” created new markets for digital services, which opened up career opportunities for programmers, software- and systems engineers in corporate IT divisions and IT consultancy services. In these companies, computer experts, consultants and systems men rapidly gained ground, transformed management concepts and hence created new cleavages among the employees as well as between service providers and clients.


Based on a variety of printed, edited and archival sources from state, economic and private corporate archives – comprising newspaper clippings, advertising brochures and house magazines, memoirs and correspondences, board minutes and work council memoranda, training materials and working instructions – the project analyzes the structural changes, continuities and discontinuities in discourse and social practice in a longue durée perspective and thus aims to enrich a social and cultural history of the working worlds in the digital age.

Dr. Michael Homberg
Project lead

ZZF Potsdam

+49 331 - 74510-122

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