Technological change and regulatory discourse from a digital-historical perspective (working title)

Ongoing postdoctoral project

Digitalisation has advanced automation in several industries, stoking fears that human workers will become redundant. A widely discussed Oxford study predicts that nearly half of the currently existing jobs risk becoming redundant. Although other researchers question this finding, a broader public discourse has emerged on whether digital platforms, goods, and services represent disruptive innovations that create significant value or constitute exploitative and surveillance technologies which reduce societal welfare. To illuminate the prospects for humans in the digital age, historians and social scientists have turned to historical examples of technological change for guidance, for instance, by constructing the first historical index of good jobs and measuring work-related well-being in the transportation and spinning industries or by analysing the long-term trends in information and communications technology and skill-biased technical change. While the impact of the Industrial Revolution is one of the most studied topics in economic history, the essential motivation behind this more recent literature is to use lessons from the past to contextualise contemporary debates surrounding digital technologies.

By placing the discursive transformation associated with digitalisation in a broader historical perspective focused on the relationship between technological change and public opinion, my habilitation project hopes to enrich this literature with a new perspective. In other words, I am less interested in the political economy of technological change than in the accompanying discursive patterns (diskursive Aushandlung in the sense of Habermas), in the hopes and fears associated with innovation, and in their regulatory consequences. To approach this research question, I will rely on large sets of digitised primary sources, like historical newspapers, parliamentary speeches, and legal cases, and draw upon different Text Mining methods, such as sentiment analysis. As such, the project is situated between science and technology studies as well as economic and legal history in terms of disciplinary orientation and between conceptual history, discourse analysis, and new techniques of Natural Language Processing from the Digital Humanities in terms of methodology. The empirical evidence gathered in this research might contribute to the scholarly debate on the ‘Great Divergence’ while at the same time advancing theoretical discussions about sentiment analysis by comparing its usability in transnational case studies involving different languages and contexts.

For current information, visit the project website.

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