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PWR 2MGD: Silicon Valley and the Future of Work: The Rhetoric of Labor Utopias and Dystopias

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Catalog Number: PWR 2MGD

Instructor: Mark Gardiner

Units: 4

Grade option: Letter (ABCD/NP) 

Prerequisite: PWR 1, ESF, ITALIC 95W, or equivalent


Course Feature: WR-2 requirement

We live in the heart of Silicon Valley, an engine that promises–or threatens–to disrupt the way that national and global economies are organized. The future, we’re told, is automated–the robots are coming! And the work that remains for humans is in an outsourced economy. Or the sharing economy. The gig economy. The always-on–personal-branding-everyone’s-an-entrepreneur economy. Work is increasingly tele-work, increasingly mediated by improved communications technologies, and increasingly managed by more sophisticated surveillance and planning tools.

In this writing and speaking course, you’ll explore how a range of critics and analysts imagine the future of work. Does all this point to a coming utopia? To a dystopia? Works from technologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, historians, activists and more will all help answer these questions. We’ll read those who embrace these changes and those who don’t; we will analyze the predictions of various bright-eyed techno-optimists and steely-eyed doomsayers, from Silicon Valley insiders like Elon Musk and Bill Gates to radical academics and activists. We’ll pick through what’s really new about Silicon Valley’s effects on the future of labor–and discuss in what ways we’re seeing the continuation of longstanding trends.

Your own research projects will be central to the class. Many students will choose to take advantage of opportunities for original research or even fieldwork. Projects or technologies under development at Stanford or by nearby companies could be a focus for your research. So too could the lives of workers in the area, whether affluent techies or low-wage workers in what is one of the country’s most unequal regions. As you hone skills in research, writing, and presentation, you’ll enrich your own understandings of how Silicon Valley, Stanford, and ultimately your own future career might fit into these imagined futures.

Major Assignments

Research Proposal

(5-minute live oral presentation; written text of 900-1200 words) For this first assignment, you will develop research questions and a research plan for the work you will be undertaking over the quarter. You might choose a technology or trend that presents particularly exciting utopian (or terrifyingly dystopic) possibilities, and propose to evaluate those possibilities. How will law school graduates cope with the predicted rise in AI-based legal review tools? Are Uber drivers “employees” of Uber–and if not, what are the consequences? What are the applied ethics of developing technology that transforms or displaces work? Should society be preparing for mass unemployment?

Genre/Modes assignment

For the second major assignment, you will develop a piece of what sociologist Peter Frase calls “social science fiction” about labor utopias and dystopias with reference to your proposed research topic. This could be a brief written piece or 3-5 minutes of audio/video.

Written Research-Based Argument

(3000-3600 words; 10-12 pages) Your final research-based argument will carry out your proposed analysis based on a range of primary and secondary sources. In doing so, you’ll unpack the rhetoric of utopia and dystopia you explored in your genre/modes assignment.

Delivery of Research

(10-minute live oral presentation with appropriate multimedia support) At the end of the quarter, you will present your findings to the class.