The “Future of Work” and Digital Livelihoods for Vulnerable Populations

By Kiera Schuller

As part of ICTC’s Technology and Human Rights Series, ICTC spoke with Dr. Andreas Hackl, Lecturer in the Anthropology of Development at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. Kiera Schuller, Research and Policy analyst with ICTC, interviewed Andreas about his research on digital labour and refugee livelihoods, and the digital economy, international development, and vulnerable populations.


Anthropologists are not typically the first professionals that people think of when they think of expertise on the digital economy. How does having an anthropological lens shape help you uniquely see, understand, and research the digital world?

Dr. Hackl:

Anthropology as a discipline has largely neglected the field of research that is digital labour and topics like online work. While there has been quite a strong digital anthropology focus, it has targeted mostly social media, identity, cultural engagement with online media, etc. The sphere of the digital economy, including digital labour, the gig economy, ride-sharing, etc. hasn’t been looked at much by anthropologists. Yet, on the other hand, anthropology has a unique strength of combining an analysis of (a) how digital forms of work are organized and structured and (b) the local, grounded experience of people who are doing this work or doing this training, which is key. A particular benefit of anthropology is the ability to do research on the ground for extended periods, to really embed in a community and understand people’s perspectives. Unfortunately, a lot of existing and current research on digital labour and work lacks this bottom-up perspective from people’s life-worlds. We need more of this.


What is digital labour and how does it differ (or not) from traditional labour?

Dr. Hackl:

Digital labour’ is the term that is used to talk about a new form of labour but, in many ways, still carries several trends from traditional labour. For example, digital labour shares many of the same problems that traditional labour does: problems of informality, lack of security, sometimes being indecent work (particularly, for example, in the online gig economy). However, the means of connecting employers to employees have changed: they have been digitized. Yet, at the same time, software engineering, programming, and new tech-driven jobs are also changing the character of work and producing new kinds of work. For example, one thing that is different is scale. Platform work is a great example: platform work is rooted in the process of outsourcing tasks from the Global North so that they can be done by individuals in the Global South. Many platforms are now global in scale, causing workers from all over the world to compete with each other online. So, the scale of competition in the [digital] economy has increased.

Read the full interview here 🎙


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