Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dynamics of Virtual Work - European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST)

April 8-10, Darmstadt, Germany, first COST Action. Invited as a non-EU COST member, funded by the Australian Academy of Science.

23 years after Arjun Appadurai's essay Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy appeared this COST Action offers a concerted way forward for the discussion of work and labour. Article link While Appadurai's five dimensions of global cultural flows are still relevant -  ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes, ideoscapes - the context has changed. The European Union and the US are counterbalanced by the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Multipolar economies operate at a ridiculously rapid speed, offering less rather than more space for comprehending how the systems fit together. That has produced rather less comfort for regulators and the public interest, as private interests sometimes with the active support of national governments have aggressively encouraged wage / labour arbitrage. Massive profits have become typical of this new context, while government oversight has been minimal.

One thing we know for certain is that labour is under stress and in desperate need of new theory, better insights and public policies that address the challenges of the connected world.

This meeting in Darmstadt marked the start of four years of deliberations. About 50 people attended the discussion. Ursula Huws, Professor of Labour and Globalisation from University of Hertforshire Business School and Christian Fuchs from Communication and Media at The University of Westminster are the chair and deputy chair of the Action.

Below are some of the key issues from the EU agreed Memorandum of Understanding.


ICTs have had a major impact on the content and location of work. Digitisation of information has

transformed labour processes whilst telecommunications have enabled jobs to be relocated globally.

But ICTs have also enabled the creation of entirely new types of 'digital' or 'virtual' labour, both

paid and unpaid, shifting the borderline between 'play' and 'work' and creating new types of unpaid

labour connected with consumption and co-creation of services. This affects private life as well as

transforming the nature of work. Because of the gender division of labour, this affects women and

men differently.

The changing geography of virtual work and the emergence of new value-generating virtual

activities have major implications for economic development, skills and innovation policies.

However these are poorly understood because they have been studied in a highly fragmentary way

by isolated researchers.

This Action will distil knowledge to enable policymakers to separate facts from hype and develop

effective strategies to generate new employment and economic development in Europe. It will bring

together experts in the fields of communications, innovation, management, digital media, creative

industries, technology, employment, economics, sociology, geography, gender studies and cultural

studies to consolidate theory, map this emerging field, support early stage researchers and develop

new research agendas.

Here are some comments I made before the meeting that were included in a Press Release from Bond University.

"A Bond University expert on the impact of the internet on society has been invited to take part in a newly established European Union policy group looking at how the virtual workplace will impact the labour market and in the future.

Marcus Breen, Professor of Communication and Creative Media in Bond's Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, will travel to Darmstadt, Germany next month to participate in a high level European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) Concerted Research Action, looking at the emerging field of the virtual workplace.

The invitation is a significant accomplishment for Bond University, not only involving one of its academics in a major international collaborative discussion on an important global issue, but also establishing a formal connection between Bond and the European Union. Professor Breen’s participation is funded by the Australian Academy of Science under a special non-member agreement with the COST Secretariat in Brussels.

Professor Breen said the first meeting of the action group would be defining how it planned to operate and which areas of the international workplace it would cover.

"It will be trying to recommend effective strategies to harness the power of technology and communication businesses to generate new employment and economic development in Europe," he said.

"But we may also be looking at aspects related to the cost of labour and questions which arise about where low cost centres are located.

"It will be making a contribution to the development of policies for the European Union on what governments can and should be doing to regulate the virtual movement of labour from one country to another or one economy to another.

"It will look at how struggling economies are affected by the virtual movement of labour internationally and across borders."

The EU COST group has been formed to consider the impact technology has had on the content and location of the workplace, with digital information transforming labour processes and telecommunications enabling jobs to be relocated globally.

Professor Breen said the deliberations of the action group would have a major impact on government policies in Europe and the rest of the world within the next decade.

He said it had particular implications for the future of the workplace, the future of education, and for economic development, skills and innovation policies.

"These issues have not been studied in a cohesive way, and this group will distil knowledge to enable policymakers to establish facts and develop effective strategies to generate new employment and economic activity," said Pro Breen..

"The public debate has already started on questions about taxation that should be paid by major transnational technology firms and service providers such as Google and Yahoo and the impact of the virtual players on the real, material economies.

"Regional and national governments are already trying to work out how to regulate and manage labour and employment opportunities for working people.

"The objective of this project is to begin the process of delivering recommendations and ideas to the governments of Europe and other parts of the world about the best way to manage the impacts of virtual work."

Professor Breen is about to embark on his own virtual workplace, having been invited to be the editor of the International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society, a US based publication which examines innovative theories and practices relating technology to society.

The journal provides a meeting point for technology researchers with a concern for social issues. Professor Breen's involvement as editor will complement his participation in the EU research group."