Call for papers: Tech work and its discontents
The expansion of tech companies in recent decades has changed the role and perception of their workforces. With the growing market power of corporations such as Amazon, Google and Tencent, the figure of the software engineer has received much attention. From industry narratives to pop culture, software engineers and other IT employees are portrayed as (generally male) techno-prodigies enabling futuristic endeavours such as the automation of work or artificial intelligence (Daub, 2020). However, the shiny figure of the tech or software employee has stood in striking contrast to the surging number of warehouse workers, platform gig workers or content moderators – often subsumed under the term ‘digital workers’ – who mostly toil under precarious conditions for these same companies (Irani, 2015; Huws, 2019).
To date there has been no generally agreed definition of what kind of labour the term ‘tech work’ actually refers to, representing something of a lacuna in the literature. While some scholars only label highly qualified workers in the tech sector as ‘tech workers’ (eg Dorschel, 2022, Selling/Strimling 2023), others stress the commonalities of IT workers across sectors (eg Ziegler, 2022). Both perspectives raise the question what role and power tech workers effectively hold within current capitalist economies, and how their ambivalent class position materializes in the workplace (Roy 2021). Research in the traditions of workers’ consciousness studies and class theory has shown that the conception of ‘tech work’ is important for comprehending workers’ self-understanding, subjectivities and culture in relation to their actual class position.
In addition to this more analytical debate, there have also been major shifts in the image and material reality of tech work in the context of the recent economic crisis, the rise of authoritarian politics and struggles over the regulation of platforms and of AI. Even the higher-paid layers of the tech industry have faced a series of conflicts, protests and unionisation campaigns (Tarnoff, 2020; Jaffe, 2021; Tan & Weigel, 2022). More and more employees in the industry now deliberately refer to themselves as tech workers, signalling a shift towards a more class-conscious self-understanding. Large parts of the tech workers’ movement also emphasise how their efforts are tied to the struggles of low-income service workers in the industry (Tarnoff, 2020). Currently tech workers’ organisation has evolved around typical labour issues (working time, fair pay and health or safety issues), but also around feminist, anti-fascist and socialist demands. From feminist organising at the Google walkouts of 2019 to organising against climate change, racism and border regimes, a variety of issues have come up. Furthermore, tech workers have questioned the social effects of digital technology and thereby also their role as technical professionals in reproducing social inequality. All of these issues are raising important questions relating to the debate between traditional trade union issues versus more political issues (social justice and common good) as well as the relationships between white collar workers and unions in tech (Rothstein, 2022).
Such developments have stirred a range of questions. From the dynamics and specificities of tech workers’ organisation, the question whether tech work has become ‘proletarianised’ (Steinhoff, 2022), to the defining characteristics of ‘tech’, its corporations and workers. The current rise of labour conflicts in the industry also raises questions about its labour history (Haeyoung, 2021), about the relation to trade unions and about possible emancipatory horizons for the field and beyond. Another important dimension concerns the ways in which these issues are shaped by mobility patterns and migration regimes (Xiang, 2011; Amrute, 2016).
In this special issue, we want to examine these aspects and address the following questions:
§ How should we understand the field of ‘tech’ and its terminology (tech work, tech company, tech industry)? How is this terminology suitable for understanding current configurations of capitalism and its dynamics, especially in regard to its underpinning workforce?
§ How have the working and employment conditions of tech workers changed in recent years? To what extent are these workers benefiting from workplace privileges or being affected by insecure contracts and poor working conditions?
§ What have been the impacts on tech workers of the crisis in the tech industry and associated layoffs?
§ How have tech workers around the world been organising in recent years? How can the debate between traditional trade union issues versus more political issues (social justice and common good) be understood? What are the relationships between white collar workers and unions in tech?
§ What is the composition of the tech workforce? What are its gendered aspects and what impacts do they have? How does the role of software engineers and other tech workers differ in various parts of the world? How do mobility patterns and migration regimes (visa policies, entry barriers) shape the work, self-understanding and organising of tech workers
§ Which attitudes, orientations and collective forms of consciousness do tech workers develop as wage earners, professionals and political subjects? How are these linked to forms of organisation and interest politics?
§ How have ideologies and the production of subjectivity in the tech industry changed? What are the continuities and ruptures of ‘Californian Ideology’ (Barbrook/Cameron 1996)? Have they changed since the rise of new right-wing movements around the world and their entanglements with tech firms?
§ Which emancipatory perspectives on tech work arise from the current conflicts around labour in the field and beyond?
We welcome articles from a range of disciplinary perspectives including (but not limited to) labour sociology, organisation studies, political economy, social anthropology, economic geography, policy analysis and gender studies. Articles may draw on the authors’ original quantitative, qualitative or theoretical research but must demonstrate a clear contribution to knowledge and go beyond mere literature reviews.
The editors: This special issue will be edited by Felix Gnisa, research assistant at Karlsruhe Institute for Technology, Valentin Niebler, doctoral researcher at Humboldt University of Berlin, Sandra Sieron, research assistant at Humboldt University of Berlin and Helene Thaa, research assistant at University of Basel.
The Journal: Work Organisation, Labour & Globalisation is an independent, international, interdisciplinary peer-reviewed journal, founded in 2006. For more information please see https://wolg.wordpress.com
All submitted articles are subjected to double-blind peer review.
Deadline and Guidelines: The deadline for submissions is November 30th, 2023.
The article should be no longer than 6,000 words (excluding footnotes and bibliography).
Articles should be submitted in two forms: an anonymised version in which all references to the authors’ institution and publications are omitted; and a full version including the authors’ titles and institutional affiliations.
Articles should be sent to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org