Labour, digitalisation and their multiple facets

On January 25th, researchers involved in the Panoptiwork project gathered for the first time at the Harmonie Building at the University of Groningen to introduce themselves to one another. Exploring digitalization at work from such a variety of perspectives challenges the disciplines involved in the project (Law, Political Science, Philosophy, Computer Science, Labor Economics, Sociology) in various ways. The aim of Panoptiwork is to break down the barriers between the respective research fields, achieve a common language and outcomes, and eventually gain a deep understanding of the impact of digitalization across all disciplines involved.

What follows is a summary of the meeting. The topics covered by each researcher are very diverse, but they provide an interesting overview of how the various disciplines present at the University of Groningen approach the digital revolution at work. In the coming months, these discussions will lead up to a public event, about which more information will be posted.

Michele Molè (Faculty of Law)

Algorithmic management and surveillance: a new balance of labour and economic rights needed

The most all-encompassing topic in labor law is certainly surveillance and algorithmic management of the workforce. The implications reach into privacy rights, equal treatment, trade union freedoms, and labor exploitation. The rapid digitalization is causing a shift towards the economic sphere of fundamental rights: courts are not always receptive to technological advancements and tend to expand employer rights to encompass more surveillance possibilities. Research in labor law has a pressing need to get closer to other sciences: courts today evaluate the distribution of power in a workplace context, but fail to recognize that the technological (and therefore social) context is changing and favoring employer prerogatives. Lawyers need closer contact with the other social sciences and computer science.

Tatiana Llaguno Nieves and Lisa Herzorg (Faculty of Philosophy)

Political philosophy and digitalisation of work

Conceptualizing just labor, exploitation, alienation, dispossession, and the difference between productive and unproductive labor in digitalization: these are all topics where Tatiana and Lisa’s research project seeks to expand the canon of historical thinkers, with a particular focus on exploring non-European traditions (Confucianism, Latin American Feminism, Decolonial Theory). Broadening the scope of the discussion during times of digitalization can be achieved by examining historical thinkers on labor (beyond the mainstream) such as Hegel, Durkheim, or R.H. Tawney. They address the concepts of freedom and dependence at work, as well as democracy at work and its implementation.

Femke Cnossen, Sierdjan Koster, Richard Rijnks, (Faculty of Spatial Sciences / Economic Geography)

Economic and spatial components of labour and technology

Economic components: technology (automation and digitization) is replacing tasks that were once performed by humans. They observe consequences for employment and wages in certain tasks, mostly in the middle part of the wage distribution.

Spatial components: which tasks are performed where? What can be automated where? There is a growing urban-rural divide resulting from the automation and digitization of labor. Furthermore, the pandemic has heightened a new phenomenon: working from home, which is also reflected in commuting patterns.

George Azzopardi (Faculty of Science and Engineering)

AI, algorithms and their ethical development

As a computer scientist, George hopes to bring a different perspective to Panoptiwork. In the context of this project, he is interested in how AI-driven systems impact work. How can their usefulness be maximized and risks minimized? Technology is bound to evolve, but can we keep up with it? There is growing research in “responsible AI” being conducted. How can we ensure that AI is not biased? Or is there room to acknowledge that AI may be less biased than humans? For example, in HR recruitment, there are cases where the selection process proved to be less discriminatory compared to human recruiters who may miss certain things due to biases. It is interesting to see how technology can also reduce discrimination. These are all intriguing concerns that are not typically part of a computer scientist’s research, which focuses on maximizing the efficiency of technology in meeting specific needs.

Suvi Alt (Faculty of Arts / International Relations)

Labour, Digitalization, and Surveillance in Global Seed Politics 

Suvi deals with the governance of life and populations in international development through the study of rationalities and the constitution of subjectivities. She is interested in the concepts of choice and capabilities. Her currently starting research project focuses on the political struggle around seeds and the political visions of the actors involved in these movements. There is a connection between global seed politics and the digitalization of work: the surveillance of workers in agriculture as a biopolitical aspect of creating (liberal) subjects. “Surveillance agriculture” and the autonomy of peasants are emerging fields of study in her area. Are new “digital rationalities” being developed?

Wike Been and Zoltán Lippényi (Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences / Sociology)

Sociology, labour and digitalization

In sociology, the digitalization of labor is raising a number of important issues: digitalization and jobs, platform work, telework/work-life balance, and new workplace governance such as algorithmic employers. There are some major questions surrounding these topics: Why are we not moving towards a leisure society? Labor is rather moving towards monetized “microtasks.” What will be the implications for working conditions? This is also bound to a global labor market: digitalization makes workers compete for jobs on a worldwide scale. The overall consequences of digitalization they observe range from new power relations and structures, inequalities, and implications for the quality of work.

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