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Digital\\\Human\\\Labour  **Call for papers at the 2017 AAG meeting**

Call for Papers: Association of American Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting. April 5-9, 2017, Boston, MA

The proposed Digital Geographies Working Group of the RGS/IBG and the proposed Digital Geographies Specialty Group of the AAG would like to invite submissions to a series of paper sessions and panels for the 2017 meeting of the American Association of Geographers in Boston, MA. Reflecting the shared interests of these groups, and their mutual desire to facilitate conversations between a wide range of geographical scholarship, this call is for papers exploring specifically the various intersections of ‘digital’ and ‘labour’ in diverse meanings of both.

We will convene a concluding panel session, and encourage interested participants to submit abstracts for any of these three paper sessions:

The human labour of digital work

Discussant: Mark Graham

The spread of the internet to three and a half billion people around the world has significant implications for the human labour. It is now relatively straightforward to outsource business processes to anyone, anywhere, that has a digital connection. This session aims to bring together scholarship that explores the human labour of this digital work. Who carries it out? How does it effect the livelihoods of workers? What sorts of political and organisational governance regimes bring it into being? And what are the ethical, spatial, social, and economic implications of a world in which human labour is increasing disembedded into digital networks?

The digital labour of being human

Discussant: Gillian Rose

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Digital technologies are now embedded in many aspects of everyday life in many places, mediating everyday experiences of embodiment, mobility, and communication.  It is clear that many of these mediations are reproducing existing ways and forms of ‘being human’, but it is also clear that new forms of (post)humanities are emerging, co-produced with, for example, VR headsets, big data, and social media platforms.  This session aims to bring together scholarship that addresses these monadic emergences.  What new forms of distributed agency, performative gestures and navigational orientations could and should be mapped?  What are their temporalities and spatialities, and what hierarchies of power and difference do they enact?

The algorithmic labour of being

Discussant: Jim Thatcher

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Alongside the rise in access to internet technologies and the quotidian uses of said technologies, has come an entwined rise in the analysis and manipulation of digital information through algorithms. Just as new technologies introduce interfaces, mediations, and affordances to (re)produce representations of self, so too do the algorithms which sort, select, and present information constrain what can be done and known through the use of said devices. Similarly, even as the very real geography of the labor of digital work shifts and extends across the globe, algorithms increasingly insert themselves betwixt and between laborers, customers, and corporate interests, altering traditional employment relations through the mediation of technology. Building from the themes of the previous two sessions, this session aims to bring together research on the many ways in which algorithms and quantification function in the world. Questions of interest include, but are not limited to: What sorts of new spatial relations are possible through the algorithmic mediation of labor relations? Where is the work of algorithms done? What are the historical roots of this process? What new forms of knowledge and power have been enabled (and constrained) by these systems?

If you have any additional questions, please contact Jim Thatcher (jethatch@uw.edu), Mark Graham (mark.graham@oii.ox.ac.uk) or Gillian Rose (gillian.rose@open.ac.uk).

For consideration of inclusion, please submit abstract to jethatch@uw.edu by October 15th, 2016.  Please format your abstract in a text file of no more than 250 words, including a title, your name, institutional affiliation and email address in the document.

Digital work marketplaces impose a new balance of power

Factories can’t run, farms can’t produce, mines can’t be mined, supermarkets can’t be stocked, and call centres can’t accept calls if workers don’t go to work. Even though the decks are often stacked against workers, the basic fact that workers can withdraw their labour with strikes, and encourage others to do so with picket lines, has done much to improve working conditions in a range of industries around the world.

But in a world of globalized, digitized, and atomized work, we now have a fundamentally different balance of power.

Traditionally, a core weakness of capital in its struggle with labour was its need to be spatially fixed. Employers needed geographical sites in which workers did their work. This is not to say that capital wasn’t inherently much more mobile than labour. But, although jobs could be outsourced and offshored, those new sites of production were often vulnerable to a withdrawal of labour power.

Recognizing that as a group they could wield significant bargaining power, many workers formed trade unions. Unions could engage in collective bargaining with employers to demand a greater share of returns generated by the work done by workers. Collective bargaining also enabled workers to regulate how they were treated in the workplace. For example, grievance and disciplinary procedures were developed to protect workers from managerial despotism. Because of the ever-present threat of a withdrawal of labour power, this collective bargaining tended to be far more effective for workers than individualized bargaining done by atomized workers. Unions have been shown to significantly increase the wages and conditions for workers.

This is now all changing due to the advent of digital work marketplaces. Platforms like Upwork.com, Freelancer.com and Fiverr.com mediate the auctioning of work. Clients post tasks and workers bid on them. With some colleagues, I have spent the last few years studying this phenomenon: interviewing about 120 digital workers in Africa and Asia who do jobs as varied as programming, content creation, transcriptions and clickwork. We asked each one of them how comfortable they felt asking for a raise or for better working conditions, and whether they had considered joining a union.

What we heard back from many of them was that they felt extremely replaceable. The nature of much digital work means that workers from all over the world are thrust into the same marketplace and are forced to compete against each other on very short-term contracts: some lasting only a few hours. Digital workers in Kenya know that if they withdraw their labour, then workers in the Philippines can easily take their jobs. And Filipino workers likewise know that Indian workers can do their jobs if they were to refuse to work. Every worker on these digital platforms knows that there are many more out there to take his or her place.

Does this mean that digital work represents a move to a fundamentally post-union world? A world in which work is fundamentally characterized by competition rather than solidarity between workers? If we want to avoid a world in which competition between workers leads to a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions, then I would argue that there are three key strategies that we should be thinking about to redress the current structural imbalance of power.

Networks instead of hierarchies

First, we need to strengthen efforts to build collective identities amongst digital workers. Many workers do not see the utility of unions, and many workers do not even see themselves as workers! Here there is a space for more groups like the so-called ‘Freelancers Union’.

It is important to point out that while that organization actually promotes precarious freelancing (their website features articles like ‘Top 10 signs you were destined to be a freelancer’), its efforts could nonetheless be useful in generating a collective identity amongst digital workers. Many workers also digitally assemble on Facebook groups, sub-Reddits, and other digital points of assembly to chat, complain, share opportunities, and exchange knowledge. As my colleague Alex Wood has demonstrated, these networks can be the launchpad for successful activism to counter workplace injustice. Thus, in areas where hierarchical unions or collectives make little sense, we can instead look to networks.

Digital-era strategies

However, although these efforts could be useful in generating a collective identity amongst digital workers, they might not alone tip the balance of power in their favour. A second strategy could therefore be to focus on effective trade union strategies that are properly brought into the digital age.

Some might argue that in a world of precarious short-term contracts, with workers all over the world competing against each other, it is impossible to emulate traditional strategies that made trade unions effective. But even though digital markets are not really fixed to a single geographic space, it might be strategically useful for digital workers to think of them that way.

In the same way that a physical picket line disrupts business as usual, a digital picket line might be used to similar effect. This is usually most effective when targeting the most consumer-facing firms in any value chains, which in turn involves understanding the virtual production networks of digital work. We hold Apple responsible for poor working conditions in Chinese Foxconn factories and we hold Nike responsible if any of their shoes are sourced in sweatshops, so let’s use investigative journalism and radical transparency approaches to equally hold the Googles and Facebooks of the world to account for poor conditions in the ways that they source work.

In practice, that would entail using a tactical media approach to take control of the visibility of corporate controlled narratives. This means making sure that problematic workplace practices are outlined on Twitter and Instagram hashtags; on comments on Facebook pages; and on search-engine results pages by using ‘Google-bombing’.

Consumer-led activism

But while these sorts of strategies remove the ability of companies to escape responsibility for any problematic production practices, they can do little to stop workers undercutting each other in digital work marketplaces. So, in tandem with digital picket lines, we need more consumer-led activism to support workers.

Consumer boycotts of companies engaging in the worst sorts of abuses often persuade companies to rethink how they source products and services. But what we probably also need are organizations committed to measuring and certifying fairness in production networks.

In much the same way that the Fairtrade Foundation inspects and audits sites of production of products like coffee and chocolate, couldn’t we envision a Fairwork Foundation that ensures that employers of digital workers adhere to certain social and economic standards? Doing so would allow end-users of services to express unity with workers by choosing services, platforms, apps and websites that have been certified.

Many have proclaimed that unions make little sense in our era of hyper-globalized digital work. And online work platforms are certainly designed to foster a sense of competition rather than solidarity between workers. Although this presents a somewhat bleak outlook for digital workers, there remain some strategies that can be employed to further the interests of worker collectives.

As ever more of the world’s population connects to the internet and looks for jobs, there is the potential for ever more downward pressure on wages and working conditions. Yet it is rarely in workers’ interests to compete against each other, so let’s find ways of collaborating, joining forces and building alliances.

We can do that by recognizing that employers and firms, despite being geographically separated from workers, still have digital ‘locations’ that can be challenged and disrupted. And we can do that by recognizing that even though we are now in an entangled, hyper-mobile digital age, the basic fact remains that everything around us - the apps, the data, the algorithms, the content - is ultimately produced by workers: workers who will receive support from users and consumers if only we could better understand how our actions reverberate through global production networks of digital work. There remains much we can do as we seek to bring a fairer world of work into being.