Dr Ella McPherson is a Cambridge Early Career Fellow and will be at CRASSH in Easter Term 2022.
The original Luddites were a 19th century British workers movement, often misunderstood as against technology in general, but actually against how the control and effects of technology were developing at the time (Noble 1995). Aesthetically, this was a playful and subversive working class movement searching for an alternative vision of technology in society (Jones 2006). Like-minded movements and individuals are again relevant in the 21st century, yet the academy knows little about them, in part because they are often dismissed as ‘not with the times’.
My project addresses this gap by approaching neo-Luddism in the digital age from within and without the technology sector across three empirical sites. The first site is the corporate technology sector, where I will investigate how the relationship between so-called ‘laggards’ or ‘phobics’ and profitability is understood, taking a decolonial lens to shed light on the links between digitalisation and modernisation. The second site is people within the corporate technology sector working against the orthodox model of expansionist corporate control. Conceptually, this strand is concerned with investigating ambivalence sociologically, namely unpacking the experience and consequences of conflicting emotions about technology driven by groups’ positions within conflicting normative frameworks – techno-solutionism and techno-pessimism, in this case (Merton 1976). The third research strand focuses on people outside of the technology sector, from individuals who never joined social media or purchased a smartphone to community-based development projects. Conceptually, this dimension is focused on intersectionality, in terms of understanding how the beliefs, values and practices of these group relate to various axes of power and exclusion.
Overall, the project aims (1) to see how the tech sector and neo-Luddites talk and act past each other; (2) to understand the beliefs, values, practices, economies and inequalities at stake; and (3) to find a way to integrate the two perspectives to move towards a better interplay between technology and society.
I’m Associate Professor in the Sociology of New Media and Digital Technology at the Department of Sociology, where my research focuses on symbolic struggles surrounding the media in times of transition, whether democratic or digital. I am particularly interested in the implication of these struggles for, on the one hand, the formation, evaluation and contestation of truth-claims and, on the other, the individual and collective pursuit of good lives. My most recent research project is an ethnographic study of human rights fact-finding in the digital age, focusing on networks of human rights practitioners, humanitarians, technologists, journalists and scholars who collaborate on working with digital evidence. This research engages with the sociologies of knowledge, media/technology and human rights to examine what implications our practices and discourses to combat digital fakery – and who constructs and deploys them – have for democracy.
In my research and teaching, I am profoundly concerned with the normative frameworks of technologies, their designers and their users, as well as with the ethics of new forms of knowledge generation, such as social media research and big data. Underpinning this is my own normative concern with self-determination and pluralism in our societies, whether epistemological or with respect to access to solidarity and justice. My previous research project, an ethnography on the human rights beat at Mexican newspapers, identified the contest for public credibility between state, media, and human rights actors as a significant driver of human rights coverage, and particularly of who gets to be seen and heard, and on whose terms.
As co-director of Cambridge’s Centre of Governance and Human Rights, I support and engage in praxis research, including by leading The Whistle, an academic start-up focusing on supporting movements and organisations pushing for social change with digital evidence. As part of this, I collaborate with Dr Mónica Moreno Figueroa on the End Everyday Racism project, which maps the experiences of everyday racism.