Session 1: Future Is Now: Digital Life and Labour.

Organizers: Dr. Debangana Bose (University of Cambridge) and Dr. Katarzyna Cieslik (Durham University)

Convenors: Dr Debangana Bose and Dr Katarzyna Cieslik

Session Description: Digital technologies are revolutionizing everyday life promising a ‘better’ future. The digital revolution produced new temporal, spatial, and governmental orders framed as universally desirable, as lives became faster, smoother, and better-connected. For instance, the digital revolution has normalized societal expectations for instant service provisioning, governmental appropriation of real-time information on individuals and infrastructures, and re-intermediation of labour relationships by digital platform monopolies. In the world of work, digitalization, datafication and platformization have exacerbated existing inequalities and increased precarity linked to digital divides, automation replacing human labour and inescapable information asymmetries between employers and workers. Moreover, the new temporal, spatial, and governmental orders produce a condition of permanent uncertainty as individuals struggle to live in and through contradictions of an imagined ‘good’ life and their lived experiences of precarious life. Drawing on a panel of three speakers intersecting the fields of digital studies, labour studies, urban studies, and development studies, this panel engaged with the pressing question – how are digital platforms producing new temporal, spatial, and governmental orders creating (un)free conditions of human life and labour and what does the future hold for digital lives and labour?

Summary of the Session
Drawing on a panel of three speakers – Dr. Aditya Ray (University of the West of England, Bristol), Dr. Kavita Dattani (Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford), and Dr. Daniel Arubayi (Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford), this session engaged with the pressing question – how are digital platforms producing new temporal, spatial, and governmental orders creating (un)free conditions of human life and labour and what does the future hold for digital lives and labour?
Dr. Katarzyna Cieslik set the session in motion by exhibiting a video art called ‘Jumping Man’ by artist Michael Mönnich questioning what (worker’s) (un)freedom looks like under platform capitalism. Created through the Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, the piece provocatively examined power dynamics and wage inequalities between workers and clients on the platform. Mönnich’s use of the platform, where individuals can log in anytime as workers or clients, unveiled the unequal power relations between workers and platforms. Mönnich paid a worker one dollar to jump for ten minutes, illustrating not only unfair wages on the platform but also raising questions about free choice and what ‘work’ itself means in the age of platform capitalism.
Picking up on contemporary forms of (un)free labour fostered by the digital revolution, the speakers delved deep into the empirical findings from their respective works on call centres, the gig economy, and dating apps. Rejecting the binary accounting of free and unfree labour in the digital age, the speakers emphasized the complexity and granularity of (un)free conditions of work that the platform workers face on the ground. Dr Dattani pointed out several examples of persuasive technologies used by technology firms to govern and control workers that contradict the general understanding of platform/digital work as flexible work.
Commenting on the continuities and changes in the conditions of (un)free labour between the pre-digital and post-digital ages, the speakers underscored how offline contexts and structural injustices are perpetuated through digital platforms in their respective areas of research. Dr Dattani emphasized how gendered socio-spatial relations of the city, Delhi in India, affected the success or failure of an app-based domestic work platform. Dr Arubayi revealed that although the ride-hailing platforms have created fresh opportunities in the context of Lagos, racial and age discrimination gets reproduced in the ride-hailing platforms making these emerging economies rife with inequalities. Dr Ray highlighted novel forms of re-intermediation occurring in the gig economy, challenging the conventional understanding that ride-hailing platforms eliminate intermediaries by directly linking clients with service providers through apps. For instance, he discussed the persistence of unequal patron-client relationships between car owners and Uber drivers who lease vehicles for driving, illustrating the ongoing presence of intermediaries in practice, contrary to the notion that platform work eradicates intermediaries.
The speakers also discussed the challenges and productive possibilities for innovative methodologies in researching platforms and their implications for the world of work and life. Dr Ray focused on the importance of creative methodologies such as storytelling through illustrations to voice the ground experiences of workers, especially to make them visible to wider audiences beyond academics. Dr Dattani shed light on the necessity and possibilities that counter-topographic epistemologies offer to examine not only the impact of algorithm-driven platforms on workers but also how platforms are reconfigured by workers. She mentioned that algorithms and platforms should be seen as co-written socio-spatial-technical entities countering a linear understanding of platforms. Dr Arubayi underscored the crucial role of the Fairwork Foundation’s comparative studies: by evaluating the digital labor platforms from around the globe against measures of fairness, the Fairwork rankings illuminate how the improvements in work productivity and access intersect with precarity and neoliberal casualization of labor.

Session 2: The Highest Stakes: Environmental Uncertainty.

Convenors: Dr Adrian Lerner Patron and Dr Katarzyna Cieslik

Session description: Imagining a future requires a set of assumptions about the rules of the natural world. These assumptions are inevitably co-constitutive with social and political relations, and, in the present day, more and more dependent on socio-technical imaginaries. While technology can help offset rising uncertainty, it also creates new risks and inequities with regards to decision-making about the future. This roundtable puts together interdisciplinary perspectives about the ways in which different societies, past and present, and actors within them, have approached the critical question of environmental change. In this session, we will discuss the different intellectual traditions, forms of data accumulation and organization, and technological innovations meant to deal with the workings of nature and the changing environmental conditions. How have socio-political arrangements moulded our many understandings of nature? We intend to foster a collective discussion that enlightens the enormous diversity of societal approaches to environmental change, while also seeking to draw lessons for our own contemporary global ecological crisis.

Summary of the session

Based on her work on climate change in coastal Bangladesh, Dr. Paprocki discussed the assumptions and uncertainties that constitute the basis for facing environmental change. She argued that these ideas have material developmental effects. Dr. Paprocki also discussed the problems caused by “scalar mismatch” between global ethical normativity and technocracy, and the local experiences and agendas.

Dr. Gurdud Broo focused on “untold stories” in computer science and engineering, her academic disciplines. She emphasized the importance of including users in the design of allegedly “intelligent and autonomous systems,” the need to integrate interconnected systems and long-terms visions of sustainability, and the different scales and speeds at which technological innovation take place within the technology industry and the social responses to it.

Building on his research about climate mitigation policies, Dr. Gardebo spoke about the political economy of decarbonisation in industrialized societies and criticized the role of “black boxed,” unaccountable global data infrastructures. He paid particular attention to the role of trade unions and workers in the face of the global environmental crisis, the “frictions” between national policies and local actors, and their effects over democratic politics.

A specialist in urban infrastructure in the Global South, Dr. Vij critiqued “the fascination of state actors with large infrastructure.” He argued that massive infrastructural projects tend to succumb in the face of environmental uncertainty, but that the impetus for growth seemed to make them self-evident. He advocated “modest infrastructures” such as that used on the ground in informal settlements. He also discussed the “invisibilization of nature” through urban infrastructure and its philosophical implications, and the inequalities between the Global North and South.

The speakers and the audience then discussed the importance of reflexivity in these issues, in particular regarding questions about the relationships between power and the creation of knowledge about risks. The discussion included invocations to interdisciplinary collaboration and work with stakeholders outside of academia, to examine the conditions of possibility to ask certain questions, to question the sociopolitical regimes that shape decision-making processes, and to interrogate the differentiated impacts of these endeavors for different social groups.


Session 3: Counter-Stories of Technologies: Methods and Practices

Chair: Prof Shailaja Fennell

Session Description: What are the relationships between the creation of knowledge about societies and technological change? Grounded on specific research experiences on the field and in the archives, this interdisciplinary roundtable will discuss the methodological challenges and opportunities of social scientific approaches to technologies. We begin with the basic premise that technology, rather than an independent realm, needs to be scrutinised as part of a series of social and material fields. Often deliberately presented as “neutral,” technologies are invariably created by people, embedded in existing infrastructures of inequality and cultural values. Building on examples from our own historical, ethnographic, economic, and geographic research, we show such a lens helps us attend to disrupt essentialist and neutral notions of technology and aids us to visibilise multiple and embodied stories. We also propose to interrogate the potential impact of these critical inquiries on realms outside academia and the blind spots of our methodological approaches.

Summary of the Session

Commenting on the importance of seeing technology as a non-neutral, embodied, and socio-spatial entity in the context of platform economy in India, Debangana shed light on three methodological tools to ‘see’ the platform-worker relations – (a) seeing beyond the blackbox of algorithms to examine the platform-worker relations, (b) seeing through small-scale and inter-scalar geographies, and c) seeing through like a platform worker. Following a general methodology of decentering the geographies of platform work, she explained that her current Philomathia-funded research project on the future of work in small towns in India documents the spatiotemporal labouring practices of gig workers and their lives beyond work in three overlooked cities in India – Dehradun (fieldwork completed), Darjeeling (fieldwork completed), and Shillong (where she will conduct research in the future) and in three sectors – ride-hailing, food delivery, and beauty work. Documenting these life and work stories of gig workers will produce a repertoire of counter-stories that disrupt the existing conceptualisation of platform power from above as hegemonic and illuminates workers’ agency and role in reconfiguring, maintaining, reworking, and often resisting platform power.


Session 4: Unruly consequences: The affects and effects of technological uncertainties.

Convenors: Dr Juan Manuel del Nido and Dr Ignacia Arteaga

Session description: Hybrid roundtable session to discuss how technologies produce different kinds of (un)certainties in the fields of clinical research, computing and surveillance and the consequences these bring to social life.

Summary of the session

In many research and industry fields, technologies are used to produce certain kinds of certainties or epistemic categories. Often, they seek to disambiguate, simplify, render something knowable or render uncertainty actionable. And yet, there are many cases in which technologies produce more uncertainties than the truth claims they sought to advance in the first place. Philomathia fellows, Dr Juan Manuel del Nido and Dr Ignacia Arteaga, convened the hybrid roundtable “Unruly consequences: The affects and effects of technological uncertainties” to explore these issues within the broader frame of the Symposium. Together with guest speakers Dr Talia Dan-Cohen (Washington University, St Louis), Professor Louise Amoore (Durham University) and Dr Kriti Kapila (King’s College London), this roundtable discussed how technologies produce different kinds of (un)certainties in the fields of clinical research, computing and surveillance and the consequences these bring to social life.

Starting off with the premise that the way we think and act upon the world – making the world knowledgeable – is through averages/metrics. This quantification process brings to the fore notions of what is good and normal. Through metrics, then, we render the world actionable. Thus, uncertainty becomes generative of new technologies and entities. Prof. Amoore explained ‘Uncertainty works as a political technology – it invites a particular form of calculation and profiling’. Even more, Dr Kapila, remarked, ‘the generation of uncertainty has become a mode of state-making / sovereignty-making’.

This contemporary effect, that uncertainty is generative, is due to the logics of surveillance capitalism. The latter relies on anticipatory thinking fuelled by data-mining efforts used to harness volatility rather than to produce certainties. As a profit-making infrastructure, surveillance capitalism has made other spaces available as spaces for data-mining. Dr Dan-Cohen, adds, ‘Uncertainty has become a rationality to turn things into technical problems’. One example offered was about the medical research complex, which is increasingly converting uncertainty into risk. A clear example can be found in genomic medicine, where the drive to generate biomarkers to apprehend human diversity and the propensity to disease is coupled with the development of costly targeted therapies.

Ethical concerns surfaced at this point of the discussion. We realise that uncertainty can be used to obscure responsibility as an epistemic virtue. Dr del Nido mentioned that, for instance, in her book Algorithms of Oppression, internet studies scholar Safiyah Noble argues that very often the people involved in developing technologies, in particular algorithms, stopped ethical and civic education at around the age of 12, therefore questioning whether we should even expect these people to understand the ethical complexities of the systems they develop. On this, discussants were clear that it is no longer possible to distinguish ‘producers’ and ‘‘consumers’ in new efforts. In tech, for example, we are all feeding into the systems that surveillance capitalism reproduces; we are simultaneously producers and consumers of data. Since the process is relational, so the invitation to take responsibility includes everyone.

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