Neoliberal Fever: Precarity, Hope & Future Making

Dates: Sept 28-30, 2017

University of Michigan

School of Information

Department of Communication Studies

Silvia Lindtner, Aswin Punathambekar, Seyram Avle, Cindy Lin, Jean Hardy


The notion that we live in a moment of precarity and instability is central not only to scholarly work but also to broader discourse, mobilized by political leaders and media.  Across diverse political and economic regions, entrepreneurship, innovation thinking, and hands-on tinkering are touted as solutions to this economic and social instability, all the while masking behind a rhetoric of techno-utopianism, a further expansion of neoliberal ideals.

Let’s take three examples. Since January 2015, the Chinese government has been implementing a policy called  “mass makerspace – mass entrepreneurship – mass innovation”, which describes how the build up of incubator spaces and the cultivation of an entrepreneurial mindset amongst the masses will address what the government calls China’s “new normal.” The notion of the “new normal” refers to a state of heightened instability, precarious work and life conditions, and insecurity from the rise of college graduate unemployment to the increasing informationalization of work. Here, the future of the nation rests on Chinese citizens to transform themselves into entrepreneurial tinkerers, who create their own jobs and livelihoods. Similarly, in the United States, politicians and educators have begun installing entrepreneurship programs and design thinking curricula at colleges, universities and companies to motivate people to not only make their own technologies but also their own jobs, social security and safety networks. Across Africa, tech hubs and entrepreneurial training spaces have emerged to promote tech entrepreneurship as a viable source of employment, and necessary labor in the remaking of specific countries and the continent at large. At recent count, there are now over 100 of such hubs scattered across the continent, all enthusiastically endorsed by a range of people, from governments, to business organizations, to the world bank, and silicon valley insiders.

In many ways ironic, values at the heart of the neoliberal project, from flexibility to self-entrepreneurship and individual reinvention, are promoted by technologists, researchers, and activists alike as ideal to intervene into the consequences of neoliberalism. These consequences include, for instance, the dissolution of stable welfare structures and safety nets, the privatization of resources, and broadly environmental and social instability. How do we make sense of these seeming contradictions, and the fervour with which they are being endorsed today? Are we witnessing an extension of neoliberal tendencies or their dissolution or something altogether different? Do frames such as neoliberalism, globalization, and capitalism accurately describe these contemporary shifts? And, what role do tech industries, science networks, digital media and entrepreneurship networks play in regional governance and shifts in global relations? And, crucially, do we have to rethink what counts as resistance today?

This workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners from multiple disciplines who work in and across various regions to unpack this current moment of shifting political, economic, and technoscientific relations. An underlying goal is to create an account of the relations between technological, scientific and political processes as they currently unfold globally and in specific regions and locales. Fundamentally, we want to help advance our thinking on the topic and learn from our respective research endeavours across sites, different cultures and political processes. Potential outcomes of the workshop might include a special issue on the topic, an edited volume, a journal, etc.

Themes: global shifts in work and labor, precarity, digital labor, physical labor, neoliberal governance, post-neoliberalism, austerity, global trade relations, discourse of tech innovation and future making, techno-governance, politics of design and digital technology/media.


  1. Participants will be asked to send 2-3 of your favorite readings related to the workshop topic

  2. Workshopping a short think piece, a position paper. These will be pre-circulated.


This workshop is sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Division: CISE-IIS-CHS (PI Lindtner).


Tentative Program:

Thursday, September 28: Arrival of Participants & Kick-off:

7pm, Dinner & Drinks (included): Introduction to the workshop

Friday,  September 29: Writing Workshop

8am – 11am: Breakfast (included) & read each other’s work

11 – 12pm: Small Group Discussions based on readings

12pm – 1:30pm – Lunch (included)

1:30 – 3:30pm: Session I: Workshopping each other’s papers in small group

3:30pm – 4pm: Coffee Break

4:30 – 6pm: Session II: Workshopping each other’s papers in small group

6:30pm: Dinner (included)

September 30, Saturday: Wrap Up & Future Plans

9am – 11am: Breakfast (included) & Collective synthesis across the break-out groups

11am – noon: Future Plans & next steps

Followed by lunch on your own, networking, nature walks