Digital Labor

Laura Forlano


Laura Forlano is a writer and design researcher with a focus on relationship between cities, technology and culture. She is a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Design at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology where she is the founder of the Critical Futures Lab. She is co-editor with Marcus Foth, Christine Satchell and Martin Gibbs of From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen (MIT Press, 2011). Forlano received her Ph.D. in Communications from Columbia University in 2008.

Reimagining Work: Intersections and Entanglements between Labor and Technology Activism
This article discusses the entanglements between labor advocacy organizations and technology activists around narratives related to the future of work and, in particular, the frictions (Tsing, 2005), dissensus (Mouffe, 2003), conflicts (Hillgren, Seravalli, & Emilson, 2011) and agonism (DiSalvo, 2012) between utopian and dystopian accounts; and, the more nuanced mess (Law, 2004) in the middle, which is complicated, counterintuitive and surprising at the same time. We are constantly told that the robots are coming for our jobs, and while it is expected that the implications of the “second machine age” (Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2014; Tufekci, 2014) will likely disrupt and reconfigure what has been known as jobs, work and employment for everyone, it is likely these reconfigurations and displacements will be felt more severely in some sectors, jobs and populations than in others. The article, which draws on literature from science and technology studies (Latour, 1992), design and media studies, is based on 10 in-depth interviews with labor advocates working on behalf of youth, women, African Americans, Latinos and formerly incarcerated populations in Chicago as well as participant observation in a half-day workshop about emerging technology and the future of work, which were conducted in Summer 2014. Specifically, while technologies such as crowdsourcing platforms, “just in time” scheduling software, big data tracking and robots are at the forefront of discussions around the future of work, labor advocacy organizations and technology activists are still operating in relative isolation from one another. For example, unions and other labor advocacy groups often support their large corporate employers rather than identifying links with progressive technology and telecommunication activists. While labor advocacy groups are canvasing and campaigning to restore and improve the rights of workers, progressive technology activists are advocating for openness, cooperation and transparency around issues such as network neutrality, intellectual property and the digital divide. There is great potential to leverage the productive frictions and tensions between these two groups in order engage in the hacking of existing technologies (Forlano, 2008) and creation of technologies designed around alternative value systems (Nissenbaum, 2001). This article is a first step towards disentangling the disparate narratives and practices of labor advocates and technology activists through hands-on engagement with narratives around the future of work.

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