Collection No 6

Future of Work

Transcendent Labor: Finding Meaning in Work

Making work meaningful through knowledge acquisition and entertainment.

Our modern technocratic society is recasting labor in a new light, yet thus far we have collectively chosen to ignore the groundswell of forces that are poised to free us from the burden of “work.” We know that information technology creates extreme efficiencies and super-tools, but what is less understood is that it could also help us create new economies and styles of work, reviving dormant modes of value creation and exchange. What emerges is the recognition of labor exchange, not simply as a way to survive, but as a sacred investment in the future of civilization.

The problem we face today is that we must often adapt our humanity to the new IT tools that augment our labor. IT is an extension of industrial-age processes, organizing us into restrictive lines, repetitive body language, and time-boxed cognitive prisons. Think of workers in a fulfillment center or coders in a cube farm. Now we are compounding these labor constraints by equipping our environments, and even our bodies, with IT—software programs that quantify our activities at work and devices that generate data about our every move. Consider how wearables subtly recast human movement as a unit of financial value; in this new world, people are data. We prioritize task optimization over human well-being, and mechanistic control over natural body rhythms. The phenomenon of “tech solutionism” convinces us that flipping the switch on new technology can solve any problem, including human motivation. But this favoritism for the machine and computational efficiency negatively influences the value of labor, fueling a social atmosphere of rejection and helplessness.

Imagine a world where we share the burden of labor to explore new experiences, learn new skills, and contribute to sustaining the human race—this is the future of work. To paraphrase William Gibson: the future is here, it is just unevenly distributed. New labor economies are emerging every day, from socially supported platforms like Kiva and Kickstarter to TimeBanking and the digitally enhanced barter economies of Greece. Labor can truly evolve from being a burden of existence to becoming a path toward personal and social transcendence. We simply need to “experience” our work in a different and more participatory way.

This future of work lies at the intersection of several forces: alternative currencies, knowledge work, innovation communities, and amusement parks. To bring these forces together, every job must adopt the “learn by doing” model. Work must become theater. Technology can help us intertwine labor and learning in new ways, but we have not exploited this symbiotic relationship enough.

Labor transcendence will emerge through the introduction of knowledge acquisition and entertainment into all aspects of our work; when labor is rooted in learning about the world and the effects of human intervention, it is no longer normalized and repetitive. We must overlap knowledge domains with relative categories of work, making labor meaningful to the individual while also adding social value through workers who are cognizant of their contribution.

Consider the following models for transcendent labor, in which newly acquired skills could be traded on a global time-sharing marketplace:

Warehouse associate with cybernetics. Laborers in modern fulfillment centers are forced to operate at the cadence of their automated and robot partners, and eventually will be replaced by them. The warehouse associates of the future could learn how their robot partners are maintained and become knowledgeable about their construction and mechanics, which would result in a labor force of skilled robotic engineers.

Plumbing with civil engineering and water conservation. People laboring on the smaller end points of our broader infrastructure could understand the systemic implications of their decisions (for example, total water wasted due to loose fittings). Through these systemic insights, they could learn how systems behave from the bottom up and use this information to augment sensor data that exists on newer Internet of Things plumbing systems.

Childcare with evolutionary psychology. The babysitter with knowledge of Jean Piaget’s “stages of cognitive development” could capture valuable data at scale, which could be shared anonymously through a system like PatientsLikeMe. This would provide new insights into childhood development at the societal level and could also have profound effects on how individual childcare laborers parent in the future.

Service and hospitality with art and design. Hospitality is centered on presentation and aesthetics. People in the hospitality industry should be trained in aesthetics, craftsmanship, and theater in order to understand the artistry inherent in daily life. With this training, they could create expressions that articulate our day-to-day experiences in ways we never considered.

End-of-life care with metaphysics. Palliative care work is challenging, but many consider it rewarding. Future generations of people who choose to do this work should have access to information and philosophies that could provide context to their experiences. These mental tools could provide a framework for these laborers to share with society their insights into the questions of life and death.

Rethinking how we work means reframing the reasons why we work. We need a new framework to understand how skills relate to job tasks. We also need to understand the personal goals and motivations of the laborer in order to provide a meaningful development path. Technology can open the door to human transcendence, primarily by satisfying our needs through technological breakthroughs in food production, computation, and materials—all derived from the fruits of our labor. In this future, technology offers the option to redefine what we call work.

The Transcendent Labor Manifesto:

We will use digital tools to infuse labor with knowledge and macro perspectives.
We will use global reciprocity networks to scale personal service bartering.
We will use social networks to source labor and allocate skills in ways that are meaningful to workers’ personal goals.
We will use immersive experiences and virtual augmentation to create engaging models for difficult labor tasks.

Jason Severs

Jason Severs helps clients envision, implement, and evolve complex product and service ecosystems.

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