Labor Tech Research Network is an interdisciplinary and transnational group of experts concerned with technology and work. We are scholars, tech workers (broadly conceived), union organizers, policy makers, journalists, non-profit researchers, activists, and more. We started as part of the Center for Social Computing at UC Irvine in 2013, and have recently transitioned to a formal organization with hundreds of members from around the world. The group is committed to sustained reflection on the promise and perils of technological developments, especially as they impact the workplace.
With an ethos of collaboration, Labor Tech Research Network aims to mediate debates about technology. The 21st century is witnessing deep public anxieties about the future of work in the wake of such information technologies as machine learning and artificial intelligence. New developments are challenging traditional notions of work, control, automation, and human agency. In view of rapid global communication, it is likely that heated conversations around these issues will spread across political jurisdictions, and gain more complexity given diverse gender, racial, ethnic, and social dynamics, in a multitude of social and cultural spaces.
At Labor Tech, we aim to use research as a way to engage in these conversations and address matters of public concern. We bring together scholars from around the world to think and talk about social, political, ethical, legal and policy implications of technological innovation and ways to regulate it.
We have two broad sets of goals. The first is to reframe the conversation about technology and labor, to highlight and integrate the following elements:
Labor, instead of work, as a foundational concept. This means directing attention to the role of power in the workplace, and political economies that shape workers’ experiences. It brings into focus the influence of institutions like the state, platforms, tech companies, capital, and profit. It asks how tech becomes a means of control through systems of surveillance, automation, and data privacy. It addresses the way conflict and resistance integral to these dynamics, and what are the potentials for technology-based empowerment.
Interconnections of the digital and non-digital. As technologies of labor and the labor behind technologies become ever more intertwined, we hope to foster a broader conception of what “tech work” is. We focus not only the labor of producing technology (i.e., a software coder), and the labor that is done directly through technology (i.e., an office computer), but also the many forms of labor that are affected by technology (and often, in seemingly “nontech” environments). This includes the janitors who are being surveilled in smart bathrooms, the retail workers in fast fashion who are using digital cash registers, the beauty professionals making videos on social media, etc. We also seek to uncover the hidden labors of technology such as: the virtual assistants who are outsourced abroad and therefore out of our field of vision; the gamified labor we all do as users of platforms but are not informed of; and the ewaste work of cleaning up the internet, like the content moderators who sift through violent texts and videos.
Critical perspectives that emphasize systemic inequalities. We embrace core premises of science and technology studies, that technologies of labor are not neutral but in fact socially constructed and embedded in particular environments, policies, legal systems, ideologies, etc. Taking a note from historians, we ask how new the tech jobs are that we see today, or if they may be manifestations of prior systems which are already known to atomize workers, relegate them to contingent work, and place them in precarious jobs.
Significantly, we consider it essential to focus on dynamics of technology that result in the exclusion of, and disadvantage for, marginalized social groups. We are fundamentally concerned with structural inequities of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. We ask how design and implementation are shaped by these factors, and how our understandings of labor are enriched by centering the experiences of women, nonbinary, queer, undocumented, people of color, and native communities.
Transnationalism. We strive to generate a foundation of truly international scholarship on labor and technology. This involves moving research beyond the U.S., and across global north and south. We particular goal of representing global south viewpoints, and complementing what tends to be a global north-centric conversation with perspectives from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Central/South America. Furthermore, we seek toshine a light on transnational practices – like data colonialism, data extraction, and outsourcing – which involve deploying tech for industrialized nations at the expense of those that are industrializing.
Our second major aim is to foster a space for discussion, collaboration, and empowerment, to be:
Interdisciplinary. Bringing together scholars across a diverse set of scholarly fields, from computer science, information studies, and communications; to history, sociology, anthropology, political science, and geography; to ethnic, gender, queer and disability studies; to labor studies, law, art and design, and many more.
Community-focused. Crossing the conventional boundaries between academia and the public sphere. Gathering people who are affected by tech in the workplace, as well as users, practitioners, and community members, in order to foster a richer conversation about labor and technology.
Supportive, collaborative, and inclusive. Creating an environment of respect. Even more, prioritizing the maintenance of solidarity among our members, and being conscious of practices that may divide them. Paying attention to issues of ability, and ensuring supports like hiring sign-language interpreters for public lectures.
Advising and mentoring. Creating an inviting and learning space for the next generation of scholars interested in labor and technology. Raising up and embracing of emerging researchers – undergraduate, graduate, and recent PhDs – to show that they have a home. We seek to provide a platform for them to engage with new and urgent issues in this field, and intellectual resources so they can critically assess the ethical, political, and societal implications of new technologies in service of the public good.
Independent, ethical, sustainable. Striving to maintain an environment that is independent of traditional institutions. Being aware of our service providers, and if are practicing fair labor standards with their own employees. Reducing our climate impact by organizing events that reduce air travel. Organizing locally for in-person gatherings, while complementing this with online resources for global gatherings.
We have concentrated on several core activities both in our past and upcoming plans in order to carry out our aims:
Building a Network. We nurture an environment where people can link up around common agendas, and work on specific projects concerning labor and technology. We do this by organizing events that are both offline (like meetups at relevant conferences such as the Society for Social Studies of Science, where we have organized tracks), and online (like our bi-weekly Speaker Series, which we’ve held for nearly a decade). Over the years, this has resulted in many collaborative projects and publications coming out of our group. We see building a network as an act of caring alongside scholarship, and have sponsored a Peer Support Working Group for our members.
Forming an Area of Inquiry. We strive to build labor and technology as an area of inquiry by promoting scholarship. We generate resources for research, publication, curriculum development, and teaching. An example is inaugurating a book series with the MIT Press. In progress, our Working Groups are developing a book award, graduate student paper award, and hopefully a journal.
Activating Transnational Ties and Seeding Regional Hubs. We decenter the conversation and the activities regarding labor and technology, so that they extend to locations around the world. On one hand, we embrace and integrate scholars from around the world, and make our events accessible to global south members by holding them online. On the other hand, we turn to people in those locations to lead these events. Ultimately, our aim is to set up member-led Labor Tech sites in Asia, Africa, Latin America, etc.
Empowering Precarious and Marginalized Workers. We give a platform for workers who are not typically represented in the scholarship and public sphere, and showcase their stories within our discussions, events and scholarship. In our Speaker Series, for instance, we hold “virtual ability” events on Second Life, so that the disabled community be can participate more easily through the assistance of transcription, audio, and avatar bodies. But even more, we do this to highlight the labor experiences of disabled people who are working as techno-entrepreneurs on these sites. We also feature unions and workers associations (like the Tech Workers Coalition), and scholar-activists who are generating worker-empowered technologies (like Turkopticon, Fairwork.org, and Protective Optimization Technologies). (Want to know what these are? Ask us! In the Contact Us). Ahead, we hope to provide funding that supports precarious workers, activists, and students.
Social Justice and Advocacy. We promote scholar-activists, offer resources for social justice activities, and create a home for critical scholarship. Externally, our Social Justice Working Group writes public letters of solidarity with Black women scholars in AI. Globally, we aim to advocate for researchers of labor and technology who are living under repressive regimes and are unable to speak out on particular topics, so we can amplify their voices.
Engaging with the Community. We take part in public education and information dissemination of developments in the field. Our aim is to translate the practical implications of research being done in our group, and enhance the ability for academic publications to have public impact. Furthermore, we hope to inform policy that will ensure more inclusive tech workplaces, and more just models for tech design.Aside from making our Speaker Series open to the public, we are in the process of creating an online archive of our research output and projects, and collecting bibliographies and other resources to post on our website. In the future, we hope to hold events in public places so they are accessible to a wider audience, and foster direct dialogues with policy-makers.