Steve Walker

Some less or more well-organised thoughts

Technology and social change: some shifting patterns of technological contention

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Below is the abstract for a presentation I gave at the recent International Summit for Information Studies (IS4IS) conference in Vienna. It was part of a panel organised by Graeme Kirkpatrick (Professor of Media Arts, Aesthetics & Narrative, University of Skövde) inspired by the work of Andrew Feenberg, who opened the panel.

Technology and social change: some shifting patterns of technological contention

Feenberg (2002) analyses technology in terms of managerial autonomy to assert control over and through technological choices, implying the necessity of increased democratisation of technological relations in the workplace in achieving a more participatory and democratic society. I argue that the recent history of the relationship between organised labour and digital technologies has seen a retreat from earlier attempts to assert control over technology, most notably through the Scandinavian traditions of participatory design, to an increasingly tactical and defensive view of these technologies as tools in labour organising and campaigning. This reflects the decreasing power of organised labour in the industrialised West and global North, at least. Simultaneously, the workplace is no longer the only, or even primary, place in which the majority encounter sophisticated digital technologies. The most prominent debates about the use of ICT in social emancipation are largely outside the workplace, concerning for example, debates about surveillance, the technical and economic relations around technological infrastructure (as, for example in the US net neutrality debate), and the role of ICT in social uprisings (see for example, Castells 2012 ).

Information and communications technologies (ICT) have a close relation to social emancipation that long predates the digital era. Moveable type is widely seen as important in the Protestant Christian reformation in Europe [Eisenstein, 2005] . Similarly, the unstamped press, pamphlets and ballads were important in the emergence of an English working class movement in the early 19th century [Thompson, 1963]. More recently, for much of the digital period there has been a strong current of thought that has associated the emergence of computing with democratic ideas in the workplace as well as, more widely, community, civil society and public service settings. This can be seen in the workplace origins of participatory design, and in fields such as community informatics (CI), and information technology for development (IT4D).

As is well documented, the participatory design (PD) movement has its origins in collaborations between researchers and the trade union movement in Scandinavia in the 1970s and 1980s. It was part of a wider concern of Nordic unions to develop a more ‘offensive’ approach to technology and work, attempting to assert a degree of control over new technologies in the workplace. It grew out of co-operation between researchers and trade unions, where values and practices of participation were particularly strong. This took place in a context of increasing workers’ rights to participate in company decision-making, following Sweden’s 1976 Codetermination Act and the establishment in the same year of the Centre for Working Life, to promote democracy in working life, paid for through a tax on employers [Lundin, 2010]. However, as trade union influence in the workplace declined, so did unions’ ability to sustain even these relatively modest attempts to assert some control over the introduction of technology. Attempts to develop alternative workplace visions of technologies faded, exacerbated also by criticisms of early PD projects’ involvement ‘blue-collar’ and craft unions had involved a failure to take account of changing workplaces, including most obviously the changing role of women.
In parallel, as computing technologies became more widespread beyond the workplace, unions began to experiment with the use of ICT in their own organising and campaigning work on more ‘traditional’ unions issues such as wages, job security and occupational health and safety (see e.g. Lee, 1996). As unions became concerned about the growing power of transnational corporations in an increasingly globalised economy, communications technologies in general and the internet in particular offered the ability for unions to try to co-ordinate solidarity at a similarly global level. In some instances, this ‘cyber-campaigning’ involved using the web as a site of conflict itself, for example, in the organisation of email protests to companies involved in disputes. As the internet and mobile communications have increasingly become part of the fabric of everyday personal and organisational life (in the global North, at least), so ICT has almost disappeared into the everyday work of unions. This absorption has seen the playing out of different understandings and interpretations of technologies among political, industrial and organisational groupings within unions (Martinez Lucio & Walker, 2005; Pulignano et al, 2013). A distinctive aspect of the incorporation of digital communication technologies, however, has been its use in extending unions’ response to globalisation (see e.g. ICEM, 1996). The emphasis in these cases was less to challenge the nature of technologies themselves but rather to exploit them in addressing more traditional union concerns.

As technology has come to saturate everyday life, and the power of organised labour has diminished, struggles between contesting views of technology are happening elsewhere. Edward Snowden and Wikileaks have, for example, highlighted the extent of state surveillance of citizens’ communications. Here, technologies such as the internet have enabled radically new modes of struggle in the almost instantaneous global release of confidential information. Importantly the subject of the struggle is itself about competing understandings of the use and abuse of ICTs. More widely, ‘hacker’ cultures (see, for example, the Chaos Computer Club congresses, and the ‘Anonymous’ hacking ‘groups’) are now increasingly the sites of alternative understandings of technology. Such visions often strongly highlight concerns of personal freedom and autonomy. Some, for example, see market relations as important in challenging transnational corporations. For example, community broadband movement often invokes arguments about competition and the structure of markets in attempts to build community approaches to building technological infrastructure.

Feenberg (2002) argues, social conflict may help us to identify possibilities for social change. This paper is not a comprehensive survey of the recent history of contention around ICT. Rather, it is a sketch of the fall and rise of some differing ways in which ICT and information have been used since the 1970s. These cases illustrate some of the shifts in the nature of the struggle between competing visions and interests in the development and use of digital envisaged by Feenberg. Early attempts to assert control in the workplace were, effectively rebuffed and unions rather sought to exploit ICT instrumentally. More recent contention of the nature of technology have taken place outside the workplace, increasingly originating in more self-consciously ‘digital’ political cultures. as been enrolled in social contention.

References and Notes
1. Castells, M Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. 2012
2. Eisenstein, E.L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 2005
3. Feenberg, A. (2002). Transforming Technology: A Critical Theory Revisited. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2002
4. Lee, E. The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New Internationalism. London: Pluto Press. 1997
5. Martinez Lucio, M. and Walker, S. The Networked Union? The Internet as a Challenge to Trade Union Identity and Roles. Critical Perspectives on International Management, 1, pp.137–154. 2005
6. Pulignano, V., Martinez Lucio, M. and Walker, S. Globalization, Restructuring and Unions: Transnational Co-ordination and Varieties of Labour Engagement. Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations, 68, pp.261–289, 2013
7. Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. London, Penguin. 1962
© 2015 by the authors; licensee MDPI and ISIS. This abstract is distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution license.

Written by Steve

June 13, 2015 at 3:04 pm

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Information and social contention: an initial outline

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This is the abstract of a presentation I gave at a workshop ‘Information’ organised by my colleague Chris Bissell at 14th International Conference of the International Society for the Study of European Ideas in Porto earlier this year (see here for more, well, information). The short paper will be available in the OU’s ORO research repository shortly.

Social movements arise where there is some form of social contention, typically when a movement of people with values and aims different from a society’s mainstream arises. Information is important in several ways to these social movements; the establishment of a shared movement identity, the co-ordination of activity, and as a terrain of conflict with a social adversary. While the role of information and communication technologies in recent social movements, such as the ‘Arab spring’ or Occupy movements, has been widely studied, the role of information itself has generally been seen as unproblematic. Recent work in the philosophy of information may provide a basis for thinking about the role of information, as distinct from the technologies used to store, organize and communicate it, may provide a basis for thinking about it. This paper sketches how this might work using examples from the European labour movement, where there has been considerable debate over the last decade or so as to whether or not there is an emerging social movement, or whether it remains a transnational bureaucracy disconnected from ‘grassroots’ trade unionists. It draws on the experiences of a series of transnational projects which aimed to develop cross-border collaboration through the use of e-learning and online networking approaches. The failures and relative successes of this approach may be explained at least partially as informational problems.

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December 14, 2014 at 2:59 pm

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Every worker deserves the right tools

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I’ve just seen sub-heading ‘Every worker deserves the right tools’ on a a flyer for an OU colleague’s (Clara Mancini) work. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment. Clara is doing some important work on helping ‘working animals’ (e.g. dogs that are trained to detect cancer, or care for people with diabetes) to communicate more effectively with people.

What I find depressing is that the claim for animals is, rightly, uncontroversial but I very much doubt that it would be in most (human) workplaces. Or at least, little effort is made to identify what the right tools might be. Every worker deserves the right tools – even humans.

If you want to find out more about Clara’s work she’s exhibiting at the Natural History Museum Universities Week next week and the Royal Society Summer Exhibition at the end of the month.

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June 4, 2014 at 3:42 pm

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Review: Technology Enhanced Professional Learning: Littlejohn and Margaryan (2014)

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Review: Technology Enhanced Professional Learning: Littlejohn and Margaryan (2014)

Technology-enhanced professional learning: process, practices and tools. London & New York: Routledge (Edited by Alison Littlejohn and Anoush Margaryan, 2014, 208 pages, ISBN 978-0-415-85409-2)

I’ve just reviewed the above book for JIME (Journal of Interactive Media in Education). It was written before the Networked Learning conference in Edinburgh, that I’ve just got back from. I hope, though, that it’s in the spirit of Neil Selwyn’s keynote there which urged us (researchers in networked learning) to be more critical, with good grace.

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April 10, 2014 at 6:28 pm

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Examining hybrid digital/material resources in networked learning: a critical realist approach

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Examining hybrid digital/material resources in networked learning: a critical realist approach

The abstract of the paper that Sarah Davies and I will be presenting next month at Networked Learning 2014 in Edinburgh has been published on the conference web site (the full paper is available from the  OU’s ORO repository). It has ever such a slightly sceptical tone about the value of Actor-network Theory (see here if you’ve not come across it before), which given the other papers being presented could be quite entertaining. It’s part of a project we’re working on with Elaine Thomas looking at current state of play of ‘hybrid’ digital/material resources in networked learning (for example, remote labs or other physical devices which are linked to distributed learning). For me, interest in this was triggered by some of the ideas we looked at in the IBZL project.

Written by Steve

February 16, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Algorithmic flattery and slander

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I have a terrific research record.At the time of writing, my 424 publications have been cited a shade under 5,000 times. I’ve worked with over 700 co-authors, who I know will be pleased to have worked with me in the fields of information retrieval, statistics and sociology.


In case you are surprised, or even suspicious that I’ve been using photoshop in this picture, you can check  at: (viewed 17/1/14).

Of course, this is a nonsense. A small fraction of these publications are mine; I haven’t checked them all, but for example, papers in child protection written by a colleague who used to work at the OU, also called Steve Walker, are attributed to me. He might be a little less impressed with this account of my research than I hope you were. So far, so amusing (for me, at least). But perhaps not: measures and metrics of research impact are becoming increasingly important in the allocation of research funding, academic promotion and so on. Were research funders to automate their trawling of impact, this could have quite a positive impact for me, though not necessarily for other Steve Walkers.Microsoft’s automated aggregation is clearly wildly inaccurate. Of course, at one level this is a simple data problem – researchers’ names and affiliations don’t provide unique keys for databases. There are initiatives (e.g. ORCID) which aim to provide unique, persistent identifiers for researches (to go along with those for our publications) that allow us to be identified, monitored and measured more accurately. I won’t take that line of thought any further here.

Really what I want to do is point out the risks of algorithmic attribution of data to people. The reliability is currently very poor, even in the relatively structured field of academic publishing. When we look at facial recognition in devices like Google glass through various hacked and ‘unauthorised’ apps (see for e.g.

The concern here is usually cited as ‘privacy’. This is a legitimate and serious concern, of course, but it’s usually premised on the assumption that the facial recognition actually works and can attach a face reliably to data about the person. At least as worrying is the concern that in reality we can’t assume that this is the case (for example, look at the reliability of facial recognition in Picasa, if you’ve tried). The possible problems caused by mis-identification are very worrying . The inflation of my publication record is more amusing than annoying, but imagine being publicly mis-idenitified as a serial criminal or Man Utd supporter.

Written by Steve

January 17, 2014 at 12:48 pm