Tag Archives: employment

Frameworks for Understanding the Future of Work

Technology is changing work. It’s changing labor. Some imagine radical transformations, both positive and negatives. Words like robots and drones conjure up all sorts of science fiction imagination. But many of the transformations that are underway are far more mundane and, yet, phenomenally disruptive, especially for those who are struggling to figure out their place in this new ecosystem. Disruption, a term of endearment in the tech industry, sends shutters down the spine of many, from those whose privilege exists because of the status quo to those who are struggling to put bread on the table.

A group of us at Data & Society decided to examine various different emergent disruptions that affect the future of work. Thanks to tremendous support from the Open Society Foundations, we’ve produced five working papers that help frame various issues at play. We’re happy to share them with you today.

  • Understanding Intelligent Systems unpacks the science fiction stories of robots to look at the various ways in which intelligent systems are being integrated into the workforce in both protective and problematic ways. Much of what’s at stake in this domain stems from people’s conflicting values regarding robots, drones, and other intelligent systems.
  • Technologically Mediated Artisanal Production considers the disruptions introduced by 3D printing and “maker culture,” as the very act of physical production begins to shift from large-scale manufacturing to localized creation. The implications for the workforce are profound, but there are other huge potential shifts here, ranging from positive possibilities like democratizing design to more disconcerting concerns like increased environmental costs.
  • Networked Employment Discrimination examines the automation of hiring and the implications this has on those seeking jobs. The issues addressed here range from the ways in which algorithms automatically exclude applicants based on keywords to the ways in which people are dismissed for not having the right networks.
  • Workplace Surveillance traces the history of efforts to using tracking technologies to increase efficiency and measure productivity while decreasing risks for employers. As new technologies come into the workplace to enable new forms of surveillance, a whole host of ethical and economic questions emerge.
  • Understanding Fair Labor Practices in a Networked Age dives into the question of what collective bargaining and labor protections look like when work is no longer cleanly delineated, bounded, or structured within an organization, such as those engaged in peer economy work. Far from being an easy issue, we seek to show the complexity of trying to get at fair labor in today’s economy.

Each of these documents provides a framework for understanding the issues at play while also highlighting the variety of questions that go unanswered. We hope that these will provide a foundation for those trying to better understand these issues and we see this as just the beginning of much needed work in these areas. As we were working on these papers, we were delighted to see a wide variety of investigative journalism into these issues and we hope that much more work is done to better understand the social and cultural dimensions of these technological shifts. We look forward to doing more work in this area and would love to hear feedback from others, including references to other work and efforts to address these issues. Feel free to contact us at feedback@datasociety.net

(All five papers were authored by a combination of Alex Rosenblat, Tamara Kneese, and danah boyd; author order varies by document. This work was supported by the Open Society Foundations and is part of ongoing efforts at Data & Society to better understand the Future of Labor.)

(Photo by David Blaine.)

Regulating the Use of Social Media Data

If you were to walk into my office, I’d have a pretty decent sense of your gender, your age, your race, and other identity markers. My knowledge wouldn’t be perfect, but it would give me plenty of information that I could use to discriminate against you if I felt like it. The law doesn’t prohibit me for “collecting” this information in a job interview nor does it say that discrimination is acceptable if you “shared” this information with me. That’s good news given that faking what’s written on your body is bloody hard. What the law does is regulate how this information can be used by me, the theoretical employer. This doesn’t put an end to all discrimination – plenty of people are discriminated against based on what’s written on their bodies – but it does provide you with legal rights if you think you were discriminated against and it forces the employer to think twice about hiring practices.

The Internet has made it possible for you to create digital bodies that reflect a whole lot more than your demographics. Your online profiles convey a lot about you, but that content is produced in a context. And, more often than not, that context has nothing to do with employment. This creates an interesting conundrum. Should employers have the right to discriminate against you because of your Facebook profile? One might argue that they should because such a profile reflects your “character” or your priorities or your public presence. Personally, I think that’s just code for discriminating against you because you’re not like me, the theoretical employer.

Of course, it’s a tough call. Hiring is hard. We’re always looking for better ways to judge someone and goddess knows that an interview plus resume is rarely the best way to assess whether or not there’s a “good fit.” It’s far too tempting to jump on the Internet and try to figure out who someone is based on what we can drudge up online. This might be reasonable if only we were reasonable judges of people’s signaling or remotely good at assessing them in context. Cuz it’s a whole lot harder to assess someone’s professional sensibilities by their social activities if they come from a world different than our own.

Given this, I was fascinated to learn that the German government is proposing legislation that would put restrictions on what Internet content employers could use when recruiting.

A decade ago, all of our legal approaches to the Internet focused on what data online companies could collect. This makes sense if you think of the Internet as a broadcast medium. But then along came the mainstreamification of social media and user-generated content. People are sharing content left right and center as part of their daily sociable practices. They’re sharing as if the Internet is a social place, not a professional place. More accurately, they’re sharing in a setting where there’s no clear delineation of social and professional spheres. Since social media became popular, folks have continuously talked about how we need to teach people to not share what might cause them professional consternation. Those warnings haven’t worked. And for good reason. What’s professionally questionable to one may be perfectly appropriate to another. Or the social gain one sees might outweigh the professional risks. Or, more simply, people may just be naive.

I’m sick of hearing about how the onus should be entirely on the person doing the sharing. There are darn good reasons in which people share information and just because you can dig it up doesn’t mean that it’s ethical to use it. So I’m delighted by the German move, if for no other reason than to highlight that we need to rethink our regulatory approaches. I strongly believe that we need to spend more time talking about how information is being used and less time talking about how stupid people are for sharing it in the first place.