Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Digital History

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Institut für Geschichtswissenschaften | Digital History | Forschung | Technological change and regulatory discourse from a digital-historical perspective

Technological change and regulatory discourse from a digital-historical perspective

Habilitationsprojekt – Anselm Küsters

„Technological change and regulatory discourse from a digital-historical perspective” (Arbeitstitel)


Digitalisation has advanced automation in several industries, stoking fears that human workers will become redundant. A widely discussed Oxford study predicts that nearly half of existing jobs risk becoming displaced (Frey and Osborne 2017). Although other researchers question this finding, a broader public discourse has emerged on whether digital platforms, goods, and services represent disruptive innovations that create significant value or constitute exploitative and surveillance technologies that reduce societal welfare (Ezrachi and Stucke 2022; Zuboff 2019). To illuminate the prospects for humans in the digital age, historians and social scientists have turned to historical examples of technological change for guidance, for instance, by constructing the first historical index of good jobs and measuring work-related wellbeing in spinning and transportation (Schneider 2022) or by analysing the long run trends in information and communications technology and skill-biased technical change (Autor et al. 2006; Fouquet and Hippe 2022; Goos and Manning 2007). While the impact of the Industrial Revolution is one of the most studied topics in economic history (Feinstein 1998; Logan 2006), the essential motivation behind this more recent literature is to use lessons from history to contextualise contemporary debates surrounding digital technologies (Center and Bates 2019; Juma 2016).


By placing the discursive transformation associated with digitalisation in a broader historical perspective focused on the relationship between technological change and public opinion, my habilitation project hopes to enrich this literature with a new perspective. In other words, I am less interested in the political economy of technological change (for this, see Mokyr 1992a, 1998) than in the accompanying discursive patterns (diskursive Aushandlung in the sense of Habermas), in the hopes and fears associated with innovation, and their regulatory consequences. To approach this research question, I will rely on large sets of digitised primary sources, like historical newspapers, parliamentary speeches, and legal cases, and draw upon different text mining methods (Silge and Robinson 2017), above all, sentiment analysis. As such, the project is situated between science and technology studies as well as economic and legal history in terms of disciplinary orientation and between conceptual history (Koselleck 1972; Koselleck and Richter 2011), discourse analysis (Diaz-Bone and Krell 2009), and new techniques of Natural Language Processing (NLP) from the Digital Humanities (DH) in terms of methodology. The empirical evidence gathered in this research might contribute to the scholarly debate on the ‘Great Divergence’ while at the same time advancing theoretical discussions about sentiment analysis by comparing its usability in transnational case studies involving different languages and contexts.