Digital Labor Class: Theorizing Technology’s Interaction with Culture

Using insights from the three articles you’ve read for today–Huws, Balabanian, and Latour–find one current news article (from within the past 3 years) that relates in some way to an idea from the readings that you’d like to discuss in class.

Write a short essay (no more than 500 words) explaining the link between your article and one of the articles you read for class this week. Discuss how your news article illustrates or builds on one of the points made by Huws, Latour, or Balabanian. Post your essay in a comment here before the beginning of class on September 16.

Use parenthetical references to cite the articles you are talking about in your essay. For the Huws, Balabanian, and Latour selections, you may use the form: (Author Last Name, “Article or Chapter Title,” page number). For your news article, use the form: (Author Full Name, “Article Title,” Publication Name, Date of Publication). Include a link to your news article at the end of your essay.


  1. Google’s Social Awareness Problem

    Is technology inherently good or bad? Or neither? Is the drive toward forcing skill-less laborers to reinvent themselves in order to survive the technology replacing them worth the economic toll? And how can we, as Americans, still feel our vote counts in a society that allows corporate interests to sway our political culture with unbridled determination and endless capital? These are some of the questions I asked myself while reading “Google’s Next Phase in Driverless Cars: No Steering Wheel or Brake Pedals” by John Markoff (New York Times, May 27, 2014). While attempting to ignore my personal biases toward Google and their self-driving car program, I discovered some interesting connections between this article about an emerging technology and the class readings that discuss technology’s influence on labor, politics, and morality.

    In “Where are the Missing Masses” Bruno Latour states, “when humans are displaced and deskilled, nonhumans have to be upgraded and re-skilled” (p. 232). Although I would replace the word “nonhumans” with “those very humans” in order to emphasize the heavy implication of displaced workers needing to re-adjust to the changing world and its new technologies in order to remain relevant in the workforce. While this necessity rings true in any industry, it is particularly difficult for unskilled workers.

    According to Markoff, Google’s decision to remove the steering wheel and brake pedals is one of safety. A driverless car assumes the driver is not paying attention to the road, so it is improbable that a driver would successfully control the car in an emergency situation. By removing these input devices used for humans to communicate physically with the vehicle, and with no other active way to control the vehicle apart from setting the destination, it can be said that all humans inside are merely passengers along for a ride. In what other capacity does one see such passivity from a passenger? Driverless taxi cabs, according to Markoff. And what does one get when the driver is removed from the taxi? The answer is a large number of unemployed ex-taxi-drivers with few transferable skills.
    Employing driverless cars in a market like New York City or any other metropolitan area as suggested in the article, has the ability to devastate the local economy in ways that few will understand without more study. And while Markoff mentions the savings a driverless taxi would offer the consumer per trip in Manhattan, he fails to mention the thousands of taxi drivers that would be out of work, and need re-skilling in order to have any hope of competing in an already tight job market.

    This short-sightedness on the part of a large corporation like Google is not new. Norman Balabanian makes several points alluding to the amorality of large corporations and their influence on markets and policy. He states that “since technology is intimately tied to matters of political power and social control, changing the technology implies a profound change in the social order” (Balabanian, “On the Presumed Neutrality of Technology,” p. 25). So without delving further into Google’s perceived lack of social awareness, would one consider this new, potentially revolutionary and convenient technology a step in the right or wrong direction? Perhaps only time and hindsight will tell.

  2. The article that I chose to link to the class readings is, “Cognitive technology and the automation of everything,” by Cliff Justice. I decided to link this article to the class reading by Huws because I felt it represents the next step in the evolution of labor markets. Huws article focused on the idea of 2 labor markets (internal or primary/external or secondary), proposed by Doeringer and Piore (Huws,”1. What Will We Do?, p.33″), and how they have developed over decades and the global and digital influences they have faced.

    Justice’s article to me, represents the idea that Robotic Process Automation (RPA) will further refine the primary and secondary labor markets in two ways; first by providing the primary labor market with a tighter focus on specialized skills by “eliminating the mundane aspects of jobs” (Cliff Justice, “Cognitive technology and the automation of everything”, CIO, September 15, 2015) they complete, and second by forcing the external labor market to develop a new specialization which is the support of the machines and software in this new role.

    Robotics and software have already created a paradigm shift in the secondary labor market by causing job displacement, but the idea that RPA can utilize cognitive abilities to perform tasks previously delegated to the primary labor force is completely disruptive, it forces us to adapt our definition of specialized work. Observing the diagram exhibited and referred to in the Huws article, I surmise that this type of advancement will cause a rift that puts the various markets A, B, C, and D into entirely new concentrations with a massive shift in population towards C and an even smaller, concentrated population in A and B categories, at least in America’s labor market. Big companies may start to focus on training new employees in the D category to eventually take over the specialized tasks of people in the B category, but this population will be infinitesimal compared to the C group due to a lack of open positions.

    This may cause an even bigger rift from a socioeconomic standpoint because for the first time the primary labor force will lose part of their ability to negotiate wages and benefits with employers and the security of their benefits can come into question. Huws illustrates how a narrow focus is good for businesses when efficiency is needed, but bad for labor markets when the specialization is no longer needed, so I wonder if further specializing the primary labor force is really a good thing.

    Huws, Ursula. “1. What Will We Do?” Labor in the Global Digital Economy: The Cybertariat Comes of Age. New York: Monthly Review, 2014. 27-45. Print.

    Justice, Cliff. “Cognitive Technology and the Automation of Everything.” CIO. CXO Media Inc., 15 Sept. 2015. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

  3. In the article by Balabian he discusses the idea that technology is both shaped by and shapes current social systems. The impact of technology on the world is approached by two current outlooks, Technological Determinism and Social Constructionism. In class we discussed the differences between these two paradigms and how that affects social and political interpretations of many aspects of technology. There are ethical and social considerations that are present in one of the views that aren’t considered in the other.
    The article I chose for this assignment touches on these considerations and the idea of a Harmonious technology that was tested to be beneficial but has potentially dangerous uses. Video games have been a topic of discussion since the 90s when they became more popular and were seen to be present in many households at the time. More recently they are in nearly every home in some way and have been shown to affect many aspects of personality, tolerance of behaviors, ethical considerations, and learning. In the article by BBC, they show that there are certain skills that people who play video games possess that are generally of a higher ability than a person who has not played said video games.

    For example, “In one test, subjects must try to keep track of the position of multiple moving objects. [Professor Daphne Bavelier] has found that individuals who play action video games perform markedly better than those who do not.” This concept has been present in both the aerospace and military through the use of simulators (essentially very realistic video games) that teach pilots and soldiers how to operate machinery or behave during real situations. This advancement and use of technology has shown that simulators/video games do have some of the aspects of a Harmonious technology like pluralism in lifestyle and often the quality of the product but has certain ethical considerations that are not mentioned by Balabian that are potentially dangerous.

    Balabian, “On the Presumed Neutrality of Technology,” p15-25

    BBC, “Horizon: How video games can change your brain,” BBC, 16 September 2015″

  4. For this assignment, I have chosen an NPR article titled “How Close Are we Really To A Robot-Run Society?” which is actually an interview between Terry Gross (host of the program Fresh Air) and New York Times reporter, John Markoff. I chose this article because I feel that John Markoff can serve as a valuable source of information regarding the subjects addressed by the three assigned articles as he has been a science and technology reporter for the New York Times since 1988 (Terry Gross, “How Close Are we Really To A Robot-Run Society?”, National Public Radio, Aug. 20, 2015), he is also the author of the book “What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry” and more recently, “Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots”.

    The interview focuses on the idea of the “driverless car”: vehicles designed to operate mostly automatically, with little involved from the driver, to which Markoff states: “The Bar for autonomous vehicles is incredibly low. Human drivers are terrible. We do an absolute miserable job.” (Gross, 2015) This expands upon Bruno Latour’s rant about seatbelt technology in newer cars and how “it has become logically – no, it has become sociologically impossible to drive without wearing a belt” (Latour, “Where Are The Missing Masses”, 225). Both articles touch upon the idea that technology may eventually remove the choice of putting one’s seat belt one before driving, or stopping before hitting a pedestrian or bicyclist – both suggest that humans can’t be trusted to do this infallibly as a robot possibly could. This is where the neutrality of technology comes into question as Norman Balabanian puts it “Technology is not a neutral, passive tool devoid of values; it takes the shape of and, in turn, helps to shape, the embedding social system.” (Balabanian, “On the Presumed Neutrality of Technology”, 24).

    The interview is concluded by talking about Amazon and how the company is pushing to shift to a completely automated system and eliminate human workers. They joke about workers complaining about working conditions and how the upside of bringing robots in at least forced the company to finally put in air conditioners because robots need air conditioning to operate (Gross, 2015). This brings to mind some of the problems presented in Ursula Huws article, “Labor in the Global Digital Economy”.

    Link to the article:

    In case you can’t access the audio clip of the interview, here is a link to the transcript:

    PS: Another article written by Markoff in 2012 that coincides with Huws’ “Labor in the Global Digital Economy”:

  5. Some large technical companies such as Google and Apple are funneling more funds into artificial intelligence research and development. Some basic forms of artificial intelligence have already been introduced in the products made by these corporations, but these tech firms want even more advancement to an extent in which ‘robots’ can become something like a consumer’s personal assistant (Matthew Barnes, “Artificial Intelligence Technology A Big Desire For Tech Firms”, TechMalak, September 16, 2015).

    Advancement in artificial intelligence is not something made necessary or called upon by societal needs. Humans don’t need advanced forms of artificial intelligence and so the corporations involved in artificial intelligent research are not doing so in response to calls from its consumers, but rather as a way to increase company production and rake in more money. Corporations rarely produce goods and services solely for the benefit of its consumers or because consumers need them, but rather, they make products that may negatively affect the way society runs. To sell these products, the companies engage consumers but bombarding them with advertisements that illustrate why a consumer needs the product they are selling.

    Norman Balabanian discusses in “On the Presumed Neutrality of Technology” how technological advancements are not necessarily always good for the society. He argues that new technology is not made to fit into the social context, but rather the society conforms around the new technological advancements and that this is partly because of the nature of corporations. Corporations strive only for their own success. He explains that corporations have three goals, “a) Survival, b) Increase in market share, c) Growth in profits.” (Balabanian, “On the Presumed Neutrality of Technology”, page 20)

    Technological advancements, Balabanian argues, can be harmful to a society. Stephen Hawking comments on the development of artificial intelligence in the article; he says that artificial intelligence, at this level of development, is useful, but if continued growth in the matter persists, artificial intelligence may put an end to the human race as the products surpass the intelligence of human beings as well as depress the frequency and efficiency on normal human interactions. The rise of social media has already contributed to fewer face-to-face human interactions. The idea of robots replacing humans bring up the possibility of eliminating human interaction in the near future (Matthew Barnes, “Artificial Intelligence Technology A Big Desire For Tech Firms”, TechMalak, September 16, 2015).

  6. According to U. Huws, “Labor in the Global Digital Economy,” people are essentially disposable. Since medieval times, a person was born into a family, which in turn, they were born into a profession, whether they wanted to or not. This system is similar to the caste system, which according to Meriam Webster dictionary is “a division of society based on differences of wealth, inherited rank or privilege, profession, occupation, or race.” (n.a., caste, Merriam-Webster, nd.) Huws book explains that a person is born into a basically skill-less profession. If the person did not want to be in the certain profession they were given, then they would not have any profession at all. That is so, because there will just be another person that comes along that will take the job. Any other skills that were more than the minimum required were just a waste, because in a skill-less job, people are basically just robots.

    Today, education plays an important role in life. If you want more than just a mindless job, education is a key factor. These days sadly, there are still many professions that see their employees as disposable entities. This system has a name: the disposable employee model. According to Popular Resistance News, the disposable employee model, D.E.M for short, “is a strategic combination of policies that guarantees short-term employment among the bottom 80-90% of a company. Many companies use this model, in particular: fast food companies, grocery stores, big box retailers, chain restaurants, and fast coffee.” (n.a., More Companies Using Disposable Employee Model, Popular Resistance, February 16th, 2014)

    While D.E.M. model still exists, Huws points out that this system may become outdated due to the amount of high-tech jobs currently in this day and age. In these jobs skilled workers are a necessity, they are one of the vertebrae that keeps the backbone of the company together. Instead of these jobs, that just anyone can apply to and qualify for, we need nondisposable workers who have “specific skills in a highly complex-and increasingly global-technical division of labor.” (Hews, Labor in the Global Digital Economy, 32) This is a factor in the process of dissolving the disposable employee model.
    Careers have truly come a long way from, doing a job that you were born with, to doing a job that you enjoy, if the proper education is achieved. With that, wages can negotiated, and instead of the medieval/caste system way of threating to replace an employee with another non-skilled worker, the employers will seek to motivate their workers with benefits and incentives that make the worker strive to be more productive and valuable employee.

    “Caste.” Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 16 Sept. 2015. .


  7. In the article by Norman Balabanian is the idea that autonomy of individual choice is restricted by technology today. Our institutionalized lifestyles result in us leaning on technology to thrive in society, both socially and economically. Balabanian gives the example of refrigerators, explaining that we convince ourselves that we must purchase such an appliance in order to store our food. But it doesn’t stop at storage purposes; imagine going over to a friend’s home, entering their kitchen/dining area and not seeing a fridge. What an odd thing to see – or not see! Would you think differently of your friend? In this way, technology controls us, our self-perceptions and our social relationships. Technology is a result of the societal demands we encounter, and our actions in accordance with technology only further shape a society in which technology is expectedly integrated into our daily lives. Where, then, lies our human privilege of freedom of choice? Where is the freedom to integrate technology into our lives in the way that breathing is already integrated?

    When I was thinking of how this idea was applicable to my own life, or at least the lives of individuals like me (young adults, students, etc.), I thought about how often technology is put under our noses. We’re told, “This is the way of the future. Surrender or fall behind.” We are then handed free, latest version iPads our freshman year of college with the suggestion to integrate the device into our daily educational practices. Even despite the recent research degrading devices in the classroom, some institutions continue to push digital educational advancements over the “old fashioned”, organized way of pen-and-paper note taking. And it’s occurring at an earlier level now. Several Rhode Island public high schools have issued policies which allow school systems to give Chromebooks, Macbooks, and similar devices to each of its students on a one-for-one distribution (Borg, More R.I. Districts Place Laptops in Hands of Students, Providence Journal, 1). Although aware of the various challenges digital device incorporation presents (including distraction factors), school administrators wish to ensure their students are ultimately prepared for the 21st century, to become valuable contributors to society, and they are willing to provide students with the relevant tools.

    As technology is becoming more automatically integrated into the classroom at various educational levels across the country, I wonder if we are truly losing our freedom of choice as Balabanian proclaims. These technological influences by administrators encourage students to further pursue technological methods to approaching society’s challenges and will eventually likely become as instinctive as the need for food, water, and air.

    Works Cited

    Balabanian, Norman. “On the Presumed Neutrality of Technology.” IEEE Technol. Soc. Mag.
    IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 25.4 (2006): 15-25. Web.

    Borg, Linda. “More R.I. Districts Place Laptops in Hands of Students.”
    Providence Journal, 1 Sept. 2015. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

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