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Message posted on 08/02/2018

CFP: The History of Automation and the Future of Work in East Asia, 1960s–2010s


Workshop and Special Issue on

Technological Innovations and Social Change: The History of Automation and
the Future of Work in East Asia, 1960s–2010s

An international workshop to be held at the
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

May 12, 2018

We invite submissions for a workshop and subsequent special issue of an
STS-related journal devoted to the history of automation and the future of
work in East Asia, running from the 1960s into the 2010s. Naubahar Sharif
(Hong Kong University of Science and Technology: will serve as
editor of this special issue.

Scholars interested in participating in this workshop and special issue
should submit an extended abstract (2–3 pages in length) by February 28,
Authors will be notified by March 15, 2018 if their papers have been
accepted for presentation at the workshop. There is no registration fee.
All meals, airfare and up to two nights of hotel accommodations will be
provided. Complete drafts of the papers (comprising a minimum of 5,000
words in English) must be submitted by April 27, 2018. All papers will be
circulated among the participants in advance and participants will comment
on each other’s papers. A subset of authors will be asked to submit their
papers for inclusion in the special issue by June 30, 2018, with the
expectation that their papers will be published in by late-2018, provided
they pass the external review process.

Overview and Submission Procedures

We are entering into a Fourth Industrial Revolution wherein automation
equipment backed by cloud data could determine the dominant logic of
operations that sustain the world’s economy. Both China’s “Made in
2025” plan and Vietnam’s “Industry 4.0” program embrace a technicist
that considers social change a consequence, not a cause, of technological
development. This workshop will perceive automation as a “socio-technical
system” in the effort to understand how technology not only shapes society
but is in turn molded by the prevailing structures of economic and
political power (Jasanoff 2004; Marcuse 1941; Nobel 1979). Through a
historical review of the dialectical relations that operate between
technological innovations and social change, we will conceptualize
worker-centered technologies that aspire to a socially sustainable model of

The history of modernization in East Asian countries has followed a quite
distinct trajectory from that in the West. Here, technological modernity
exists alongside centuries-old social and cultural practices, challenging
the rigid subject/object, human/non-human, and self/other dichotomies
(Latour and Nakazawa 2000). One notable example is the absence of Luddite
attitudes towards machines. Although the first programmable industrial
robot was invented in the U.S. in 1961, its diffusion in East Asian
countries quickly outpaced that in their originating counterpart. In Japan,
half of the major potential users began utilizing them within, on average,
only eight years, compared with 12 years in the U.S (Kumaresan and Miyazaki
1999). Korea has recently maintained a faster pace of automation to
register the world’s highest robot density in manufacturing (531/10,000
workers) (IRF 2016).

The trajectory of the contemporary East Asian model reframes the Needham
Question, which has heretofore been answered by describing the region’s
science and technology development through a narrative of “failure”. The
East Asian experience reflects the importance of socio-cultural factors in
shaping economic development, triggering debates over Asia’s uniqueness as
a region (Chen 2010; Deyo 1989).

Some scholars deploy a culture-centric view that either charges Confucian
culture with normalizing labor acquiesce or impugns the influence of
Buddhism for making “no particular distinction between the animate and
inanimate” (Christopher 1983: 292; Kaerlein 2015). Such an Orientalist view
has been criticized by political economists for marginalizing questions of
power and exploitation, especially in disregarding the conditions and role
of labor in the automation process (Morris-Suzuki 1988).

The emphasis on worker conformity has become untenable with the rise of
activism among Asian workers since the 1980s that has paralleled
globalization. In Korea, many firms vigorously implemented automation
following the 1987 Great Workers’ Strike when employers tried to improve
productivity and flexibility by using robots to replace human labor (Koo
2001). Similarly, such notions as “techno-animism” (Jensen and Blok
which assumes that Asians are receptive to new technology, fail to capture
the dynamic struggles between the state, capital, and labor. In Japan, the
rapid diffusion of robots was an expression of the “lifetime employment”
system promoted by the welfare-capitalist social contract that helped
dispel workers’ fears and balance the job-displacing effects of automation
(Morris-Suzuki 1988).

We explore the dialectical relations between technological innovation and
social change in East Asia from the 1960s onwards, when processes of
industrial automation accelerated significantly. Throughout the region, we
see a transition from labor-intensive to robot-driven manufacturing, albeit
within varying historical contexts: Japan and Korea initiated the
transition during the Cold War era, while China and Vietnam did so in the
post-socialist transition to neoliberalism. Apart from some limited studies
examining the automation process in Japan (Morris-Suzuki 1988), there has
been little research on specific patterns of industrial upgrading or on its
impact on social change in the East Asian context.

The region was once touted as the incubator of “four little dragons” or
“newly industrializing countries” (NICs) when export-oriented,
labor-intensive production helped it achieve rapid industrialization and
rising literacy (Vogel 1991; Chowdhury and Islam 1993). Now, however,
facing shrinking orders and rising labor costs in the aftermath of the 2008
global economic crisis, countries like China and Vietnam have had to adopt
industrial upgrading to transform their workshop-of-the-world status to
that of manufacturing powerhouse. However, the dominant discourses of
“Industry 4.0” and “robotic dividend” assume a Whiggish perception of
technology as “progress”, but they have been oblivious to the impact of
advanced machineries on social equality and labor solidarity. We have not
yet explicitly heard the voices of those who are potentially vulnerable to
these changes, nor have we seen robust government plans that seek to
mitigate the adverse impacts on workers. It remains to be seen whether
embracing high-tech manufacturing can lead to socially sustainable

By perceiving industrial automation as a “socio-technical system”, the
workshop will explore a dialectical approach to technology and labor by
focusing in particular on workers’ everyday interactions with technology.
On the one hand, this approach refutes the mainstream notion of
technological determinism in virtue of which economists view labour as a
static and passive force awaiting manipulation by capital. On the other
hand, it also cautions against the opposite tendency, which champions
workers’ power as inherently invulnerable to machines. It is, however,
worth studying how specific cultural, political, and social
factors—Confucianism, post-socialist ideologies, and authoritarian
regimes—might play out in the interface of shop-floor automation and labor

The aim of this workshop is to explore the historical and social
implications of industrial automation by combining historical experience
and current transformations. Topics and questions that we will explore
include, but are not limited to:

1) What are the socio-cultural, political, and economic conditions that
induce East Asian governments to launch policies that stimulate industrial
upgrading? How do these countries devise their own strategies to tackle
social issues through policy? How do ideas, technologies, and practices
flow across national borders and temporalities?

2) What have been the outcomes of these policies? What kinds of social
and technical barriers have emerged? How do manufacturers decide whether or
not to automate, which parts of their factories to automate, and to what
level of sophistication they should automate? How has automation led to
changes in industrial organization?

3) What are the historical path dependencies—technological and
policy-related, for example—that have significantly influenced how
technology policy in East Asia is shaped today?

To submit an abstract for consideration for the workshop, please attach
your abstract to an e-mail and send it to both Naubahar Sharif (
and Yu Huang ( In the subject line of the e-mail, please
write: MMEA Workshop: The Title of Your Paper.


Chen, Kuan-Hsing. 2010. Asia as Method: Towards Deimperialization. Durham,
Duke University Press.
Chowdhury, Anis and Iyanatul Islam. 1993. The Newly Industrialising
Economies of East Asia. New York: Routledge.
Christopher, Robert. 1983. The Japanese Mind: The Goliath Explained. New
Linden Press.
Deyo, F. C. 1989. Beneath the Miracle: Labor Subordination in the New Asian
Industrialism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
IFR. (2016). World robotics 2016 industrial robots. International
Federation of
Robotics. Retrieved from
Jasanoff, Sheila. 2004. States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science
and the
Social Order. New York: Routledge.
Jensen, CB and A Blok. 2013. “Techno-Animism in Japan. Shinto Cosmograms,
Actor-Network Theory, and the Enabling Powers of Non-Human
Agencies”. Theory, Culture, and Society 30(2): 84-115.

Kaerlein, Timo. 2015. “The Social Robot as Fetish? Conceptual Affordances
and Risks of Neo-Animistic Theory”. International Journal of Social
Robotics 7: 361- 370.

Koo, Hagen. 2001. The Social Robot as Fetish? Conceptual Affordances and

of Neo-Animistic Theory. Itaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kumaresan, Nageswaran and Kumiko Miyazaki. 1999. “An Integrated Network
Approach to Systems of Innovtion: The Case of Robotics in Japan”.
Policy 28(6): 563-583.
Latour, Bruno & Shinichi Nakazawa (2000) “To Move Beyond ‘Modernity’-
between Bruno Latour and Nakazawa Shinichi”, in S. Nakazawa (ed),
Feature: A
Contract with Nature (Tokyo: Coucou no tchi): 190-211.
Marcuse, Herbert (1941) “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology”.
Studies in Philosophy and Social Science 9 (3) (April): 414-439.
Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. (1988). Beyond Computopia: Information, Automation
Democracy in Japan. New York: Routledge.
Noble, David. 1979. “Social Choice in Machine Design: The Case of
Controlled Machine Tools, and a Challenge for Labor.” Politics and
Society 8 (3–
4): 313–347.
Vogel, Ezra F. (1991) The Four Little Dragons: The Spread of
Industrialization in East
Asia. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
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