Talkin’ bout Digitalization. A Quantitative Mapping of Discourses on the Digitalization of Work in 8 European Countries

Mr. Timo Seidl
Mr. Matteo Marenco

Digital technologies are changing the nature of work. On the one hand, digital platforms like Uber have ushered in new forms of work intermediation (‘gig economy’), challenging both existing labor regulations and social security systems. On the other hand, the growing use of advanced digital technologies such as artificial intelligence or next-generation robotics raises the question of how to prepare workers for – and compensate them in – a world in which machines can do more and skill requirements are changing.

But digitalization is no force of nature. It does not just sweep over the world, levelling everything in its path, but is molded and channeled by the uneven landscape of history and politics. What is more, digitalization is not even the same problem everywhere. Rather, the advent of digital platforms like Uber or the introduction of new technologies into the production process, often triggers very different regulatory and discursive issues in different countries, depending on their economic, institutional, and cultural legacies. In other words, the common challenge of digitalization is often translated into different national problems, with digitalization itself being viewed very differently in different countries.

This refraction of common trends into divergent problems, we argue, happens in discourse, that is, when political actors voice their concerns, express their interests, define problems, and offer solutions. This paper uses various text-as-data approaches on a novel dataset of text corpora to show how countries talk about the digital transformation of work (sentiment analysis), and what they talk about when they talk about this (topic modelling). The dataset so far consists of 7260 newspaper articles (communicative discourse) and 770 policy documents (coordinative discourse) collected for 8 countries (France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, UK – Poland and Sweden are not yet collected). Quantitatively analyzing digitalization discourses provides us with a window into how institutions and culture shape the collective definition and negotiation of novel problems – in our case: how they mediate the political struggles over the digital transformation of work. This comparative mapping of discourses on the digital future of work allows us to better understand how digitalization shapes and is shaped by existing regulatory regimes.