Activities

// 7-9 July 2022

Sub-Theme: Digital Capitalism: Grappling with Silicon Valley

Projet member Armin Beverungen is co-organizing (with Timon Beyes, Leuphana University and Paula Bialski, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland) a sub-theme at this year’s colloquium of the European Group for Organizational Studies (EGOS) in Vienna. See the call below and the program details at https://www.egos.org/2022_Vienna/Colloquium_PROGRAM.

Rationale for Sub-Theme

Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019) has perhaps, in relation to organization studies, most prominently developed a critique of contemporary technological capitalism and Silicon Valley. In her view, capital is in the business of surveillance and behavioural control, using media technologies of capture to modulate the behaviour of consumers, thereby relinquishing our freedoms and determining our futures. Notwithstanding Zuboff’s critics (e.g. Morozov, 2019; Doctorow, 2020), who challenge Zuboff’s nostalgia (and hope) for a benevolent capitalism before Google, her book has set the stage in organization studies for a reckoning with capitalism today, perhaps as much as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000) did 20 years ago.

Yet outside of organization studies, recent years have seen a plethora of works challenging how digital technologies and media developed by large corporations, often based in Silicon Valley, are shaping our organizational futures. We have been warned of a black box society where power resides in algorithms (Pasquale, 2015), and of a new dark age in which technology upends the notion of an open future (Bridle, 2018) – or, somewhat conversely, of a need to accelerate technology even at the cost of disorder (see Land, 2011: 449). There have also been critiques focused more directly on specific aspects of ‘digital capitalism’, such as the platform as its organizational form (Srnicek, 2017), its belief in a simplistic notion of smartness (Sadowski, 2020), or of the long tradition of libertarian politics beginning with Ayn Rand and currently being espoused by the theorist of Silicon Valley Peter Thiel (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996).

Perhaps even more urgent than this conceptual work is the way in which movements have challenged fundamental aspects of digital capitalism. These concern issues such worker struggles against precarious working conditions at platform companies such as Uber (Rosenblat, 2018) or Amazon (Irani, 2015), the ways in which labour in the tech sector is made invisible (Gray & Suri, 2019), and challenging the racism and sexism involved in technologies such as facial recognition (Benjamin, 2019), a culture of exclusion and (white) male fraternity and privilege mirrored in the working culture of Silicon Valley itself (Wiener, 2020). These struggles over our techno-capitalist futures have led most recently to companies such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft to stop providing facial recognition software to police (Weise & Singer, 2020), and during the Covid-19 crisis it has led to a broad debate around surveillance technologies and their uses and misuses for tracing social distancing and social networks (Rogan, 2020). There are even calls to liberate technology from capitalism and to (metaphorically) abolish Silicon Valley (Liu, 2020).

For organization studies these developments are key since they, one the one hand, put questions around corporate power at centre stage, after the corporation was in many ways deemed to lose relevance in digital capitalism (e.g. Davis, 2016), thus calling for a radicalization of existing critiques in organization studies of corporate power (e.g. Bloom & Rhodes, 2018), and of the Silicon Valley as a corporate, cultural and technological complex. The Silicon Valley is a major site fostering digital capitalism as it has, for years, imagined itself as being a so-called “center of a progressive force for global change” (Darrah, 2001: 4), driven by venture capital. It also holds a completely selective “theorization” of itself into a “world model” (Hasse & Passarge, 2015: 8). On the other hand, these developments equally call for a continued and perhaps also radicalized engagement with postcolonial, feminist and anti-race critiques of capitalist technologies, for example with regards to how technological imaginaries update impoverished notions of collaboration and understanding, how technologies continue to organize forms of surrogate humanity (Atanasoski & Vora, 2019), or how ‘homophily’ as an organizing principle of network sciences reproduces forms of pattern discrimination (Apprich et al., 2018; Chun, 2020).

Taking our cue from ‘Silicon Valley’ as phantasmal, actual and contested site of organization and corporate, cultural and technological power, the purpose of this sub-theme is to take stock, to situate and to reposition the study of digital technology, media and organization in light of these developments. We are particularly looking for contributions which carefully reflect on how organization studies has perhaps so far not taken sufficient account of the more radical critiques of techno-capitalism and its major sites and players, and which engage with these bodies of work and activism to reinvigorate organizational scholarship of digital capitalism.

Contributions can include but are not limited to:

  • Analyses of the corporate power of GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft) and changing corporate forms;
  • Historical studies and genealogies of the development of discourses, imaginaries and organizational contexts (e.g. the cold war, cybernetics; see Martin, 2003), as well as organizational prehistories of ‘digital capitalism’;
  • Studies of the capitalist and postcapitalist presents and futures imagined and built in and around Silicon Valley;
  • Feminist, postcolonial and anti-race critiques of contemporary organizational technologies, from robo-recruiters to facial recognition to affective computing;
  • Analyses of contemporary struggles around gender, race and class in the technology sector;
  • Studies of ‘digital Taylorism’ and the under-explored underbelly of digital labour, and/or investigations of the affective and emotional labour in the tech industries;
  • Spatial studies of de/territorialising politics, intensities and affects, spatial multiplicities (Beyes & Holt, 2020); studies of how a valley as a geographic setting becomes the everywhere of modern thinking about business and organization.

 

References

Apprich, C., Chun, W.H.K., Cramer, F., et al. (2018): Pattern Discrimination. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

Atanasoski, N., & Vora K. (2019): Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures. Durham: Duke University Press.

Barbrook, R., & Cameron, A. (1996): “The Californian ideology.” Science as Culture, 6 (1), 44–72.

Benjamin, R. (2019): Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Medford: Polity.

Beyes, T., & Holt, R. (2020): “The Topographical Imagination: Space and organization theory.” Organization Theory, 1 (2), 1–26.

Bloom, P., & Rhodes, C. (2018): CEO Society: The Corporate Takeover of Everyday Life. London: Zed Books Ltd.

Bridle, J. (2018): New Dark Age: Technology, Knowledge and the End of the Future. London: Verso.

Chun, W.H.K. (2020): “Filter System as a mediating technology of organization.” In: T. Beyes, R. Holt & C. Pias (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Media, Technology, and Organization Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 237–245.

Darrah, C.N. (2001): “Techno-missionaries doing good at the center.” Anthropology of Work Review, 22 (1), 4–7.

Davis, G. (2016): “What Might Replace the Modern Corporation? Uberization and the Web Page Enterprise.” Seattle University Law Review, 39 (2), 501–515.

Doctorow, C. (2020): “How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism.” OneZero, August 26, 2020; available at: https://onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59.

Gray, M.L., & Suri, S. (2019): Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2000): Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hasse, R., & Passarge, E. (2015): “Silicon Valley and Nothing New Anywhere Else? Biotechnology in Switzerland as an Example of New Organizational Forms and Their Legitimation.” Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 44 (1), 6–21.

Irani, L. (2015): “The cultural work of microwork.” New Media & Society, 17 (5), 720–739.

Land, N. (2011): Fanged Noumena. London: Urbanomic.

Liu, W. (2020): Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism. London: Repeater Books.

Martin, R. (2003): The Organizational Complex. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Morozov, E. (2019): “Capitalism’s New Clothes.” The Baffler, February 4, 2019; available at: https://thebaffler.com/latest/capitalisms-new-clothes-morozov.

Pasquale, F. (2015): The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rogan, K. (2020): “Digital Contact Tracing is The New ‘Smart’ Frontier of Urban Surveillance.” Failed Architecture, June 24, 2020; available at: https://failedarchitecture.com/digital-contact-tracing-is-the-new-smart-frontier-of-urban-surveillance/.

Rosenblat, A. (2018): Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work. Oakland: University of California Press.

Sadowski, J. (2020): Too Smart: How Digital Capitalism Is Extracting Data, Controlling Our Lives, and Taking over the World. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Srnicek, N. (2017): Platform Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity.

Weise, K., & Singer, N. (2020): “Amazon Pauses Police Use of Its Facial Recognition Software.” The New York Times, June 10, 2020; available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/10/technology/amazon-facial-recognition-backlash.html.

Wiener, A. (2020): Uncanny Valley: A Memoir. New York: MCD.

Zuboff, S. (2019): The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: PublicAffairs.

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