#ScholarSpotlight with Jill Toh
Jill Toh is a second year PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam, Institute for Information Law. Her work looks at platform-worker relations, data governance and algorithmic management in the gig economy through a critical law and political economy lens. Jill holds a MA (cum laude) in International Affairs from Sciences Po Paris School of International Affairs and a BA (First Class Honours) in Media Studies from the University of Sussex. With two others, she runs the Racism and Technology Center, a foundation based in Amsterdam.
In this chat with Global Policy: Next Generation, Jill discusses platform capitalism, development in technology regulation and research, and shifting the discourse towards social justice goals through critically examining the political economy of data and AI.
What is the focus of your research?
My research looks at the intersections of data, labour and law and political economy. In particular, it seeks to understand how the perspective of labour can enable the construction of a more just political economy of data. This is done through a socio-legal approach to data and algorithmic management in the gig economy, which focuses on the ride-hailing and delivery couriers in Europe. Why is the perspective of labour often left out in the technology regulation spheres? How do gig workers resist and mobilise against existing power asymmetries? What can we learn from workers and trade unions building collective power? What role does data play in this? What is the role of law in mobilising worker power? These are some questions which my research tries to engage with. Theoretically, the law and political economy scholarship that centralises questions of power and legal and political mobilisation literature informs much of my research. Overall, my research falls within the ‘Digital Transformation of Decision-Making’ initiative at the University of Amsterdam, which sits within a wider sector plan research network.
Why is your research important to you?
Driven by the need to reimagine the existing world we live in, and the intellectual stimulation that can be explored within academia, I hope (in a small way), that my work and positionality as a researcher will be able to address some of the injustices that are constituted, perpetuated and exacerbated by technology and the law.
There are many injustices that exist in the current context of platform capitalism. For one, the power of technology companies cannot be built or sustained without exploitation of cheap labour, that affects precarious, marginalised and disenfranchised groups in Europe (where I research) but also globally like India, Argentina, and so forth. This happens in a myriad of ways, from profiting off their data, which feeds into predictive algorithms; the outsourcing and subcontracting of their low-wage workforces; and the constitutive role of law in enabling this. Furthermore, the relentless ideology of technosolutionism, and the pursuit of technology as a marker of ‘progress’ or ‘innovation,’ within the context of capitalism at the expense of others – workers – continues to persist. In the context of my work, we continuously see how disposable and disregarded workers are, while being subjected to pervasive workplace surveillance that affect and harm their livelihoods. Yet, workers tend to be excluded from many of the law and policy discourses related to data and digital technologies. Who defines the issues and harms related to data and technology development and use, will shape and determine our responses and solutions to them. Hence, the ‘who’ is a deeply political question, and it centrally remains a question about power. Fundamentally, many of these workers have invaluable knowledge, forms of expertise, and ways of building collective worker power, that should be foregrounded. I believe that these perspectives are essential in thinking about the role of law, justice, the redistribution of power and more crucially, ways to reimagining other possible futures.
Which academics’ work has inspired some of your key thinking?
My introduction into academia in my undergraduate years has shaped a lot of my thinking. I have been deeply affected and inspired by scholars from the Frankfurt School, Stuart Hall, Michel Foucault, Oscar Gandy Jr., Nancy Fraser, Bell Hooks, Judith Butler, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Sara Ahmed. As I’ve progressed through different disciplines, my thinking has certainly evolved but it remains largely in the critical disciplines. Currently, being a non-lawyer in a legal field, the law and political economy scholars and movement have also inspired much of my legal thinking: Veena Dubal, Amy Kapczynski, Amna Akbar, Sabeel Rahman, Julie Cohen, Adelle Blackett, Mari Matsuda, Diana Reddy, Salome Viljoen. In addition to the LPE field, there have also been the work of many who have been foundational to thinking through my research: Ruth Dukes, Linnet Taylor, Mireille Hildebrandt, Karen Yeung, Meredith Whittaker, Lina Dencik, Jathan Sadowki, Niels van Doorn, Marion Fourcade, Nick Srnicek, Juliet Schor, Philippa Collins, Valerio De Stefano, Jeremias Adams-Prassl, Wolfgang Streeck, Seda Gürses, Joris van Hoboken. Scholars that have also underpinned the consequences on technology on marginalised groups have also been crucial inspirations: Chris Gilliard, Safiya Noble, Ruha Benjamin, Simone Browne, to name a few. Importantly, my inspiration draws beyond academia. The relentless dedication to justice by gig workers, activists and community organisers, have informed a lot of my thinking and have given me the drive to research on my topics: James Farrar, Yaseen Aslam, Sarah Chander, Laurence Meyer.
What issues do you see your field being focused upon in the next several years?
As my work is interdisciplinary, I will make several observations (or hopes) for the respective fields. In the technology regulation field, which is already very dynamic, there will continue to be a flurry of research related to the emerging (and ongoing) technology regulatory proposals (on data AI, etc) in the EU level, in order to address the power of private platforms, but also the idea that the EU wants to be a ‘regulatory leader’. Therefore, I see the possibility (and potential) of the field to take a broader, critical view of the role of law related to these emerging laws and regulations, and its intersecting political economic conditions. There will also be increasing cross-disciplinary work. Additionally, there are increasingly more (and I hope it continues) researchers taking a social justice approach towards research about digital technologies and infrastructures. However, there are significant concerns related to tech funding, which is increasingly worrying, as this field of research is dominated by funding streams that often dictate the types of topics and questions that are researched and critiqued. I hope that there will be less co-optation of research, and ways forward in thinking systematically about funding.
Related to the platform economy, the field is growing in directions that provide more nuance to the different geographical contexts, in places such as Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, are some examples. Relatedly, as the pervasiveness of workplace surveillance in the platform economy (and beyond) continues to proliferate, and I think that more researchers, activists, organisers, and workers, will continue to come together to forge better understandings and interventions on how to improve their working conditions with worker data, tools, projects and so forth (as seen in the recent Digital Worker Inquiry event). Labour law will also increasingly intersect with technology law discussions, particularly related to data and algorithmic management.
How does your research link to or have an impact on global policy issues?
Platform capitalism is reshaping our many social relations, which has profound effects globally. The many issues related to the increasing extractive and exploitative data practices, and the use of algorithms and automated decision-making in the gig economy (and other sectors), affect workers across geographical boundaries, as well as the many different forms of work. My hope is that through critically examining the current political economy of data and AI, that there will be increasing focus afforded to workers (and a labour perspective) in relation to addressing power asymmetries, which can help to shift the discourse towards more social justice goals that will prioritise and protect the most vulnerable and harmed. I also hope that we can broaden what constitutes ‘impact’ in academia, and to recognise that impact can be more than informing policy, or constantly publishing. Other forms of impact, such as teaching and mentoring students, supporting communities on the ground, are valuable too. Fostering interdisciplinary thinking and work, and having the time and space to ask bigger and longer-term questions, seems to be well-suited for academia, which I hope can be cultivated over time.
What is the one piece of advice you wish you had been given when starting your academic career?
Academia can be a competitive and isolating space that can sometimes make one feel like they do not belong, or that they are not good enough. It is important to find people and activities that support and inspire you. While it is part of academic culture to challenge your values and views, it also becomes necessary to surround yourself with people that you trust, and that are interested in building communities and spaces – not solely academic ones – that uplift you and each other’s work (and of course, do the same back, whenever you can with your peers or your students!). This includes learning to draw boundaries, when to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to people and work, and prioritising your mental health. It’s definitely easier said than done, and all of this is still very much a work-in-progress for me, so know that you are not alone in your struggles.
What is one must-read book/ article for scholars not in your field?
There are so many I would suggest, but Julie Cohen’s Between Truth and Power: The Legal Constructions of Informational Capitalism is a book I often come back to in this PhD.