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QUT Global Law, Science and Technology Seminar Series - Episode 3

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ONLINE SEMINAR 3: Negotiating the Digital Welfare State: Regulatory Tensions of Surveillance and Localisation


In 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights criticised the growing reliance on automation and digital technologies in the provision of social welfare. Warning about the rise of the “digital welfare state”, he condemned Big Tech and private actors’ increased influence on social assistance delivery, growing surveillance, and ineffective self-regulation.

Scholars of law, technology, and society caution against subscribing to over-arching narratives about surveillance and advocate for better understanding how it operates in everyday life. Drawing on a larger multi-sited study, we examine negotiations among practitioners and digital technologies in the delivery of social assistance. Through an analysis of emergency and humanitarian responses to the 2020 Beirut Port explosion, we isolate a set of competing tensions: While many technologies encourage business rationalities, cost-cutting measures, and customer-oriented approaches, practitioners endeavour to localise aid as part of calls to decolonise humanitarianism. The logics and functionality of digital tools often undermine practitioners’ efforts.

After mapping out the contextual dynamics surrounding the Lebanese case, we explain the mundane practices of digitised welfare programming. In doing so, we elaborate on how they reify power asymmetries that are better understood as hybridised, not simply dominance by Big Tech. We conclude by reflecting on how this case of the digital welfare state evinces capitalist and colonial dynamics that are neither fully state-centric nor private sector-driven.

Jenna Imad Harb

PhD Candidate 

Member, Justice and Technoscience Lab, ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet)

Jenna Imad Harb is a PhD candidate and member of the Justice and Technoscience Lab in the ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet). She has published in areas of protest surveillance, policing technologies, anti-sexual violence technologies and data protection, and financialised welfare surveillance and regulation. Focusing on cash-based assistance and emergency response to the Beirut Port explosion, Jenna’s dissertation examines how social assistance and humanitarian systems in Lebanon adapt to ongoing crises, drawing on science and technology studies, regulatory governance, and transnational feminist theories.

Professor Kathryn Henne
Director, ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet)

Adjunct Professor, Arizona State University

Professor Kathryn (Kate) Henne is the Director of RegNet, where she also leads the Justice and Technoscience Lab, and is an Adjunct Professor at Arizona State University. Her research is concerned with the nexus between inequality, technoscience, and regulation. She has published widely on biometric surveillance, human enhancement and wellbeing, regulatory science, and technologies of policing. She previously held the Canada Research Chair in Biogovernance, Law and Society at the University of Waterloo, where she was also a Fellow of the Balsillie School of International Affairs.

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