CfP: Understanding the political economy of digital technology

A BSA Digital Sociology Study Group event hosted by the Web Science conference at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam May 27th 2018

In more optimistic times we thought of ourselves as masters of digital technology: we told ourselves it was empowering, liberating, and democratising. Today, there is growing concern that we have ceded control of digital technology to digital capitalism’s rapacious market monopolisers whose former insiders, in their epiphanies, tell us have ‘ripped apart the fabric of society’. All corporate algorithms are black-boxedprotected by intellectual property law. Concepts that describe them such as AI and machine learning are problematically slippery and esoteric. So we are told algorithms that we can’t see or understand are to blame for digital capitalism’s social and political effects. This is a particular concern for sociologists because those who suffer material and social inequality are increasingly having their life chances defined by these algorithms (see for example Eubanks (2018)). Perhaps the tech companies aren’t “anymore equipped to self-regulate any more than the fossil fuel industry” (Umoja Noble, 2018): it would seem the best we can hope for is to judge them by their results, attempt to legislate, or petition technology’s plutocrats to stop ‘doing evil’.

All these issues, however, share an overarching theme: technologies are made and deployed within a political economy that incentivises, allows, enables or rewards actions that draw us away from visions of digital technology – particularly the Web – as a transporter for the Enlightenment’s values. Driven by the logic of extracting the maximum amount of the surplus value from our social and economic transactions and our (often very personal) data, these companies have ruthlessly and relentlessly pursued economies of scale to leverage their platform’s network effects: whatever the social cost. Interpreted through the political economy, problems with fake news, the attention economy, surveillance, the power of Silicon Valley etc. all demonstrate that politics, economics and digital technology are now indivisible. Addressing the political economy of digital technology more explicitly will help explain who are the ‘we’ in this instance, how have ‘we’ lost control and what do ‘we’ have to do to get it back?

This event will showcase some of the scholarship that is currently tackling these issues under the banner of Digital Sociology. As this event forms part of the 10th ACM Conference on Web Science speakers and delegates will have the opportunity to share insights with a broad community from a diverse range of academic and professional backgrounds. We also invite contributions from members of all disciplinary fields that provide insights into the relationship between digital technology and the political economy. How does the political economy affect your area of expertise? What needs to change and how can it be changed?

This is only a brief list of suggestions: we welcome contributions on any topic that addresses the day’s theme.

  • Fake news, propaganda and public (dis)information
  • The digital public sphere: reconsidering democracy
  • Digital surveillance, high volume data and governance
  • Changing and emerging industries
  • Digital labour
  • Digital inequalities
  • Digital wellbeing
  • Education

Provisional schedule for the day:

Besides the traditional papers presentations, the event organisers will experiment with other formats, such as the fishbowl, that will allow speakers to engage their audiences in more active ways.

  • 9.30 – 10.30 panel with crowdsourced questions from the Digital Sociology & Web Science communities (panellists TBC)
  • 10.30 – 13.00 paper session 1
  • 13.00 – 14.30 lunch (including networking events)
  • 14.30 – 16.00 paper session 2
  • 16.30 – 18.00 fish bowl – a moderated interactive session where attendees can have the floor to discuss the burning issues (including what a bigger Digital Sociology event should look like and how it could be organised).

To present your paper please submit an extended abstract (up to 750 words) to our easychair page here by midnight GMT on Friday the 2nd of March 2018. This should include an indication of the substantive issues and how they relate to the day’s central theme. Decisions on abstract submissions will be communicated by midnight GMT on the 23rd of March 2018.

Successful submissions will be put forward for journal special issue (details to follow shortly).

A breakdown for the registration fees for the day (and the full conference, which includes keynotes from Prof. José van Dijck, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee) can be found here.

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