ERC Grant for DIGIPORTS

This blog was one of those things, like reading and generally enjoying life, that fell by the wayside due to the pandemic and the related transition to online teaching. Although the pandemic isn’t over, I’m looking forward to start blogging again from time to time, putting me back in the vanguard of the internet circa 2010!

One thing that will allow time for reading, writing, and research is my DIGIPORTS project, which was recently awarded an ERC Starting Grant for 2022-2027. Despite the years of work that go into writing a grant, actually getting it is always something of a surprise. I also know of several great proposals that didn’t get it in the end. So I am really fortunate and privileged that it worked out, and aware that there has to be a more just and equitable way to ensure all researchers have the means to do their research. The plan for now is to hire a great team of 2 PhDs and 1 postdoc to start in Rotterdam in fall 2023–open calls will be posted on academic transfer sometime later this coming spring. I hope to work collaboratively as a group, to talk to everyone who will speak with us, particularly those often erased from narratives about the future of logistics, and to write like a beast.

DIGIPORTS will look at how digitalization and automation are reshaing the racialization of workers. In less formal terms, we will analyze the spread to container shipping of tactics and infrastructures that are common in sharing and platform capitalism, or the Uber-ization of maritime logistical labor. Shipping is a very international and diverse field by definition, but it’s also deeply racially stratified (see e.g. the work of Charmaine Chua, Juan de Lara, Laleh Khalili, and Deb Cowen), serving as an engine of racial capitalism (also see Harney and Moten on logistics) and the uneven reproduction of the human (see the foundational work of Sylvia Wynter, and scholars like Michelle Murphy). Ports especially are pushing to rapidly digitalize in the ongoing wake of the Corona-related supply chain crises. The DIGIPORTS group will examine which kinds of digitizal infrastructures are being rolled out, and focus on how they change and are changed by labor–especially who is doing the work and how that work is e.g. distributed, managed, and valued. So we’ll look at how tech is reshaping racial capitalism, but also how racial capitalism reshapes the digital and makes it amenable to racial capitalism (or, why-we-can’t-have-nice-things). Here is the project abstract:

Digitalized Ports, Racialized Labor: Shifting Infrastructures for Work in Container Shipping

Container shipping has implications for everyone who has ever shopped in a store or online. Shipping is the backbone of the global economy. 90% of the world’s goods travel by ship. The industry has a global reach and a highly diverse workforce. It is also structured by workers’ nationalities, resulting in inequalities. Inequalities occur within ships, where some European workers systematically receive higher wages, and between regions, where labor conditions vary.

Shipping is currently undergoing rapid change as it digitalizes its workflows. It is unknown if digitalization will help or hinder worker equality, or for which groups. Technology can increase workers’ skills and make travel safer and more efficient. Yet the benefits may only extend to some, while others face difficulties becoming skilled or lose their jobs altogether. Because pay and working conditions are structured by nationality, the digitalization of shipping will likely also affect labor’s racialization, or how practices and ideas about race are constructed and employed, and related inequalities.

The aim of DIGIPORTS is to understand how and to what extent digitalization is reconfiguring the racialization of shipping labor. This project innovatively combines critical logistics and algorithm studies. It provides a groundbreaking study of how the on-the-ground implementation of digital infrastructures is reconfiguring four processes of racialization: the displacement, classification, potential for criminalization, and related precarity of work.

DIGIPORTS is the first ethnographic study of the digitalization of shipping. It will provide an integrated analysis of how digitalization is reshaping labor and racial inequalities, develop a four-part framework for studying racialization as sets of institutionalized practices that extend across space and time, and lay the groundwork for a new interdisciplinary field: digital logistics studies.