Work and Politics in the Digital Era


What does it mean for our economy—and society at large—that workplaces are increasingly becoming “virtual”? What are the implications for the labor market when computer-driven algorithms are in charge of hiring decisions, or when service employees are at risk of losing their jobs if their customer rating falls too low?

In Fall 2015, Social Science Matrix will sponsor a prospecting seminar on “Work and Politics in the Digital Era” to address these and other topics. Led by Marion Fourcade, Professor of Sociology, this seminar will connect UC Berkeley faculty and professionals from across the Bay Area to explore broadly how digital technologies are transforming modern work and politics. Through readings and discussion, this seminar will consider such topics as:

  • The New Employment Relations: From start-up entrepreneurs to workers in the “gig economy,” the high-tech industry is at the center of a transformation of employment relations. The seminar will consider the impacts of the shift toward greater flexibility and atomization.
  • The New Work Spaces: At the same time that more people are working “virtually,” the digital age has given rise to new models for collaboration, including makers' faires, hackathons, incubators, accelerators, meet-ups, hacker hotels, and even new neighborhoods. There are also new virtual spaces, such as blogs and freelancer interest groups. The seminar will explore how these new new models of the workplace have evolved, and how they have precedents in proletarian history.
  • Algorithms and the Workplace: Today’s job recruitment increasingly depends on measures of the self, as collected and distributed by data aggregators, and job performance is being tracked in ways not previously available. The seminar will consider what it means that, for example, employers routinely use credit scores to assess the trustworthiness of job applicants.
  • The New Labor Politics: What are the possibilities for collective action and political mobilization in this new work regime? The seminar will consider the question of property rights over personal data; the issue of "data justice," i.e. the possibility of discrimination and disparate impact connected to the predictive and evaluative work of algorithms; and the question of collective action and unionization among dispersed constituencies.
  • Implications for the Regulatory State: Politics may be shifting in the digital age, from legislative processes to a greater role of regulatory agencies and the courts. The seminar will explore the reconceptualization of the role of the state as a regulator and enforcer as the new regime of work unfolds.

The organizers hope to engage scholars in political science, human ecology, law, sociology and other disciplines, and aspire to recruit a distinguished line-up of participants, including Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired; Robert Reich, a renowned economist and professor at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley; and Frank Pasquale, author of The Black Box Society. Through presentations, readings, and seminars, the group will explore the ripples that the new digital age is having upon our traditional “analog” understanding of work and society—and what it could mean for policy-makers and institutional leaders today and in the future.