In a fascinating new paper in the Sociological Review, Robert Dorschel examines the sensibilities and self-identities of current tech-workers. At its heart, the paper suggests that many IT professionals in the 2020s are driven by a politicised subjectivity that raises possibilities for collective push-back against the worst excesses of digital capitalism. In short, while we might despair at the hegemony of ‘Big Tech’ titans such as Google, Meta and Amazon, perhaps change might be possible from within these corporations – i.e. change that is led by the people that these corporations employ.

What is a tech worker?

Of course, there are many forms of ‘tech worker’, with academic research tending to pay most attention to low-paid content moderators and dataset labellers working ‘behind the screens’ (Roberts 2019) – i.e. the digital proletariat that tech development depends on. In contrast, Dorschel’s study focuses on people in professional technical roles at tech firms – “relatively affluent employees who code, design and manage digital technologies” (p.1307). These are what might be termed the ‘coding classes’ – programmers, designers and developers “who are paid upper-middle-class wages” (p.1303).

Dorschel reasons that these tech professionals occupy a powerful place in contemporary society. First, this is a group of workers that holds considerable ‘inscription power’ by actually shaping and building the digital technologies that underpin most aspects of contemporary society. Second, this group also occupy a key position within what Dorschel terms “the backstage of digital capitalism” (p.1303). These tech workers are therefore of significant interest to anyone interested in forcing change to the techno-social bases of society.

Researching the subjectivity of the contemporary tech worker

Dorschel interviewed 40 tech workers in Germany and the USA – focusing on two groups with distinct positions in the professional fields of data science and UX (user experience) design. 

The main thrust of these interviews was to explore how these professionals saw themselves and their work – particularly in comparison to the neoliberal notion of the ‘entrepreneurial self’ that is seen to have shaped professional work over the past 40 years. This is the idea of professionals driven by a sense of their individual flexibility, creativity and self-actualisation, while also taking on personal responsibility for any successes (and failure), as well as the effort required to maintain their market-value. Such individualistic entrepreneurialism has long been seen as a ‘new spirit of capitalism’ that has sustained the past few decades of neoliberalism (Boltanski & Chiapello 2005).

In contrast, Dorschel reports finding a distinct altered subjectivity amongst the tech workers that he interviewed. These were not white-collar professionals striving to fulfil values of individually-driven market success. Instead, the paper lays out four ‘novel cultures of subjectivation that characterise these professionals’ perception of their work. 

  • Critique of economic inequality: Many interviewees were keen to express dissatisfaction with economic inequality in society – echoing contemporary political debates around unequal distribution of wealth, the excesses of the ‘1%’, and economic elitism of IT industry leaders such as Jeff Bezos.
  • Critique of a lack of diversity: Similarly, Dorschel found tech workers to be engaged with wider societal controversies around lack of gender diversity and racial discrimination in US and German society. Again, this echoed contemporary political debates such as controversies around Black Lives Matter and MeToo.
  • The mindful self: Many interviewees also embraced an ethic of mindfulness, and desires to maintain social and symbolic boundaries between their work and life, as well as the need to take care to avoid overwork and burnout.
  • A lifestyle of ordinariness: Finally, Dorschel also noted a valorisation of commonplace interests, mainstream leisure pursuits and modest modes of ‘dressing down’ that did not signify excessive expenditure and conspicuous consumption . This ‘lifestyle of ordinariness’ was felt to prevent associations with excessive wealth and/or being ‘nerdy’.

A new generation of politicised tech workers?

Dorschel paints a picture of tech workers of the 2020s as broadly engaged with progressive political issues of the time, engaged with the plight of others, reflective about their class position, and aware of the need to see their work as a moral issue.

This research therefore depicts a distinct social character and political sensibility that contrasts sharply with stories told previously about tech and programmer cultures – i.e. an IT industry characterised by valorisation of over-work, obsessive focus on computational problem-solving, unwillingness to engage with political outcomes of one’s work, high interest in nerd culture, and corresponding uninterest in social issues.

In particular, Dorschel’s tech workers seemed notably self-aware of the politized nature of the industry that they were part of. This was evident in interviewees’ concern around issues such as data privacy, and unease around the recent “development of many tech companies towards quasi-monopolies” (p.1314). In short, these workers seemed aware how their work was implicated in broader societal problems and socio-technical controversies.

This raises the prospect that tech workers (at least those who make up this new type of ‘technical middle-class’) constitute some form of collective sensibility that might be leveraged to initiate change from within the IT industry. These certainly appear to be workers that “embody an honest longing for political purpose and world improvement” (p.1311). Dorschel describes his interviewees as expressing values and desire for change that runs deeper than tech-industry assumptions of ‘technical fixes’ to social problems, and a faith in IT to somehow work ‘for good’. Instead, as Dorschel concludes, these were workers that “identify as a collective, hold a hierarchical worldview, engage in workplace solidarity, and are sympathetic towards calls for more government regulation of the tech industry” (p.1314).


Of course, any expectation of an imminent tech-worker revolt against the excesses of Musk, Bezos et al. needs to be put into perspective. Regardless of any misgivings they might have expressed to a university researcher, Dorschel’s interviewees continue to work hard to perpetuate digital capitalism, and ultimately are driven by a desire to achieve middle-class wealth, albeit in a moral manner. As Dorschel acknowledges, the progressive stance of many of his interviewees could be seen as self-serving – as with many upper-class factions, deploying a moralising modus operandi can be a useful means of legitimating one’s privileges. 

Moreover, outside of Dorschel’s two sub-sets of data scientists and UX designers, the tech industry still gives a strong appearance of harbouring pockets of reactionary and right-wing politicking. For example the Big Tech remains home for all manner of ‘tech-bros’, crypto-fascists, and emerging ideologies of effective altruism, Long-termism, Objectivism and other libertarian thinking.

Yet, Dorschel’s study does give a sense that some tech workers hold potential for a renewed sense of solidary, and the basis for a collective push for tech-related outcomes that are more socially-fair, less harmful and generally more progressive than at present. Indeed, the past few years have seen sporadic push-back from within corporations such as Google and Microsoft against some of their more egregious business in defence, national security and law enforcement sectors.

Dorschel therefore raises the possibility of tech workers taking a more widespread moral and ethical lead on how digital technologies are impacting on society in unequal and unfair ways. As general public and political awareness increases around the need to push-back against the excesses of digital capitalism, then tech workers might well be a core constituency that can work for better forms of digital technology and better forms of contemporary society.



Boltanski, L, and Chiapello, E. (2005) The new spirit of capitalism. Verso

Dorschel, R. (2022). A new middle-class fraction with a distinct subjectivity: tech workers and the transformation of the entrepreneurial self. The Sociological Review, 00258172221103015

Roberts, S. (2019). Behind the screen: content moderation in the shadows of social media. Yale University Press