Informatics Seminar Series
Fall Quarter 2021

Friday, October 15, 2021

“Are the Robots Coming for Your Job? Advancing the Next Wave of Studies of Technology and Work”

Beth Bechky
Seymour Milstein Professor of Ethics and Corporate Governance and Strategy
New York University

Organizations are investing considerable resources into developing and deploying AI algorithms to achieve their goals, accompanied by increasing media hype, both laudatory and critical. Informed by three decades of field research on how technologies are actually used at work, I raise a set of dilemmas about expertise, collaboration, and institutional structures that any organization implementing AI should consider. I ground this inquiry in my empirical studies of how organizational and occupational dynamics shape work in organizations, using an extended example from my ethnography of forensic scientists in a crime lab. I suggest that taking a systems approach is imperative for understanding how AI impacts the workplace. Without tracing organizational and institutional influences such as enactments of roles, patterns of collaboration, and dynamics across functional, disciplinary and occupational boundaries, our understanding of how AI influences work will be decoupled from reality.

Beth Bechky is the Seymour Milstein Professor of Ethics and Corporate Governance and Strategy at the Stern School of Business and a professor of sociology (by courtesy) at New York University. Beth’s recent book, Blood, Powder and Residue: How Crime Labs Translate Evidence into Proof, was published by Princeton University Press. In it, she shows how the work of forensic scientists is fraught with the tensions of serving justice—constantly having to anticipate the expectations of the world of law and the assumptions of the public—while also staying true to their scientific ideals.

As an organizational ethnographer, Beth’s research reveals the technical complexity of the modern workplace. She studies how workers collaborate to solve problems, struggle to coordinate, and manage the challenges of technological change. In addition to Beth’s in-depth engagement in a crime lab, in previous projects she locked up sets and made copies as a production assistant in the film industry, assembled semiconductor equipment in a clean room, and assisted technicians in a biotech lab. She has published her work in journals such as Administrative Science Quarterly, Academy of Management Journal, Organization Science and American Journal of Sociology.

Beth’s interest in the workplace began as a research associate at Xerox PARC, followed by faculty appointments at the Wharton School, UC Davis and her current position at NYU. She earned a doctoral degree in Industrial Engineering and a masters degree in Sociology from Stanford University and an undergraduate degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University.

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