About Fitter, Happier, More Productive: Algorithmic Regimes & the Future of Work

Fitter, Happier, More Productive: Algorithmic Regimes & the Future of Work

This two-day symposium brings together researchers across multiple institutions to investigate the relationship between work and automation.

  • When: Wednesday 19th & Thursday 20th April 2023, 9am to 4pm each day
  • Where: The Pavilion, Building 53C, Sir William MacGregor Drive, UQ, St Lucia

This is a catered event. Please register your attendance so we can adhere to room capacity and meet any dietary requirements. In the event that you are no longer able to attend after you have registered, please cancel your tickets.

About this event

Clickwork. Quiet quitting. Bossware. Gigging. Automated Management. Precarity. In the face of advanced technologies, post-pandemic conditions, and intersecting economic and ecological crises, labour is undergoing a series of substantial upheavals. Old paradigms are being rethought; new modes of production are being unlocked. Work is being reworked. In some ways, these shifts are unprecedented; in others, they continue long standing inequalities predicated on race, class, and gender. How do we make sense of these digitally-driven shifts and their social, cultural, and political consequences?

This two-day event brings together scholars from media and communication, migrant studies, business and management studies, and other disciplines to develop a rich portrait of our changing work conditions. Day 1 will present a series of interdisciplinary papers and provocations from the listed speakers; Day 2 will workshop projects-in-progress through informal presentations and discussions.

Sessions will run from 9:00AM - 4:00PM each day with breaks for morning tea, lunch, and afternoon tea.


Assistant Professor Sun Ha-Hong (Simon Fraser University) – Predictions Without Futures: Labour Automation and the Extraction of Discretion

Sun Ha-Hong argues that data-driven prediction is not primarily a technological means for knowing future outcomes, but a social model for extracting and concentrating discretionary power: the everyday ability to define one’s situation. In the workplace, efforts to render human behaviour more predictable for the client of prediction (the manager, the corporation) often means making life and work more unpredictable for the target of prediction (the employee, the applicant).

This extractive dynamic extends a long historical pattern in which new methods of producing knowledge are consistently wielded to further extract workers’ decision-making power. Throughout is a crucial doubling: predictions about future technologies serve to re-enact and re-legitimise forms of technological predictions of labour for a new generation of struggle for extraction. Predictions of automated workplaces have regularly recurred since at least Charles Babbage, for whom computational efficiency was already a question of extracting discretion from labour to achieve profitable arbitrage. From the floor (Amazon warehouse) to the office (remote work surveillance tech), Sun Ha-Hong explores the recycling of technofutures that produces contemporary regimes of prediction as extraction of discretion.

Dr. Lutfun Nahar Lata (University of Melbourne) – Good gig, bad gig: Gig economy, algorithmic control and migrant labour

Digital platforms are the newest technological wave that is reshaping and reconfiguring the economic and labour landscape. Digital platforms often known as the gig economy are increasingly adopting app-based models to connect consumers with workers to complete their on-demand tasks. However, on-demand platforms continue to rely on the unequal division of labour and the precarious nature of the work to create labour markets that can respond accordingly to the increase in service provision. This review highlights two main themes that have emerged within the on-demand gig economy in the current literature—mythical autonomy and algorithmic control and misclassification of labour and the complexity of migrant workers in navigating this space. Finally, this review calls for further research into the inside/outside dichotomy of migrant labour within the gig economy and their experiences of labour exploitation through app-based digital platforms.

Senior Lecturer Dr. Penny Williams (QUT) – The Rise of the Algorithmic Supervisor

Labour process theorists have long studied automation and surveillance technologies as tools of managerial control used to extract surplus value from human labour. Beyond simply automating a task or monitoring productivity, sophisticated algorithms, machine learning and natural language processing (AI) are fundamentally changing labour-capital relations. Exemplified by the gig economy, algorithmic management has removed the “human” from human resource management, automating decisions that were once made by human supervisors. Explaining how algorithmic management has facilitated new, efficient business models and contributed to insecure work, this presentation maps the rise of algorithmic management in the gig economy and its emergence in more traditional work contexts. As employers grapple with competitive pressures and the challenges of managing dispersed, flexible workforces, the use of technologies that automatically take screenshots from employees’ remote computers, track keystrokes and bathroom breaks, analyse emails and facial expressions, and even monitor the heart rates and sleep habits of workers is rapidly rising. As the algorithmic supervisor becomes commonplace, what are the implications for work and workers?

Dr. Thao Phan and Dr. Jathan Sadowski (Monash) – Amazon Exceptionalism as a Theme in Techno-Political Thought

Few companies are as strongly and immediately associated with algorithmic management as Amazon. The rapid clip at which this corporate empire continues to grow and diversify—developing new and refining old techniques of capital extraction and labour exploitation—has in turn given rise to a burgeoning field of interdisciplinary inquiry we label “Amazon Studies.” In this paper, we offer a critical intervention into this field based on a meta-analysis of tendencies and themes in this work. Specifically, we examine the role of scholarship in producing and maintaining certain assumptions about the seemingly exceptional characteristics, capabilities, and consequences of Amazon. We pair this analysis with empirical findings from recent interviews with e-commerce warehouse workers, arguing that Amazon exceptionalism recapitulates narratives of innovation and disruption that undermine efforts of worker organisation and resistance. Our goal is not to downplay Amazon’s role in practices like algorithmic management of commodities—both objects and labour—but rather to provide stronger footing and broader context for further critical research into the booming e-commerce logistics sector.

Dr. Andrea Alarcón (UQ) – Always Already Precarious: On-Demand Work in the Majority World

Location-independent work has been on the rise since before the COVID 19 pandemic, yet its possibilities, limitations and emerging questions came to the surface during lockdown. This presentation draws from a larger ethnographic book project on what are popularly known as “digital nomads” and how they leverage the flexibility aspect of the precarity/flexibility arrangement of on-demand work to gain time and autonomy. The presentation will focus on definitions and uses of “precarity” as an analytical and political category, noting that in the Majority World, the ideal of nine-to-five secure, waged labor has been an exception rather than the rule. In this sense, these “digital nomads” are meeting the Majority World where they have always been: always already precarious.

Associate Professor Elizabeth Stephens (UQ) – From Fatigue Studies to Burnout

This presentation examines the shift in conceptualising overwork and exhaustion in the fields of industrial and time management represented by the transformation of the concept of fatigue into that of burnout. In their 1916 book Fatigue Study, Frank and Lilian Gilbreth argued that fatigue was the inevitable consequence of work, so that maximising labour productivity required minimising unnecessary fatigue. The problem of fatigue is structural, they argued, and its solution to be standardised. This approach is quite different to that of modern concepts of burnout, which are highly psychologised and individualised. This presentation will examine the shift from fatigue to burnout not simply as a response to changed working conditions, but as representative of different imaginaries and models for understanding the working body.

This event has been organised by Dr Luke Munn and Digital Cultures and Societies at UQ in collaboration with the Centre for Policy Futures (UQ) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society.

For more information see the registration page for this event: Fitter, Happier, More Productive - Event Registration

Or contact us at: digitalcultures@hass.uq.edu.au.

Find out more about Digital Cultures & Societies on our website: Digital Cultures & Societies at UQ


The Pavilion, Building 53C, Sir William MacGregor Drive, UQ, St Lucia