How Will We Work?
A year ago I was invited by Anab Jain to contribute a short written piece to an exhibition she was preparing with colleagues Gerald Bast, Jake Charles Rees, and Martina Schöggl as part of the Vienna Biennale. The exhibition, called "How Will We Work?" investigated "future forms and functions of human work, particularly targeting the role of the creative sector. With a view to the disappearance of seemingly "traditional jobs," it will raise the question about who will, and should, actively participate in redefining the terms work and future."
The exhibition brought together the works of a range of artists, designers, theorists, writers and other practitioners. The line-up included Morehshin Allahyari & Daniel Rourke; automato.farm; Design Friction; Harun Farocki; Laura Forlano, Marshall Brown, Lili Du, Ron Henderson & Jack Guthman; Anne Galloway & Dani Clode; Sara Hendren & Caitrin Lynch; Het Nieuwe Instituut Rotterdam; Tim Maughan; Tobias Revell; Strange Telemetry; Addie Wagenknecht and many more.
Rather than submit a short forecast on the future of work, instead I looked at it through a fictional lens, focusing on a potential turn by humans back into (physical, emotional, economic) service, imagining our flirtation with fully automated work a historical blip, rather than a permanent transition.
The short microfiction below posits a possible future of work that isn’t often spoken about. In the rush to extoll the innate creativity of people, and the new opportunities automation may unlock, we neglect some historical patterns, one of which is the extent to which historically, and even today outside a few economies, many people still work in servitude to others. Technological progress has not only not eradicated this, but in some cases created new forms of servitude: see the growth of technologically enabled emotional labour, the generation of data to be farmed and harvested for (others’) value, the gig economy that enforces new kinds of servitude for survival.
In one version of this future, the domestic service model returns to the West in familiar form—only the house and human compete to provide comfort, conveniences, and to absorb pain, friction or boredom, so others don’t, an uncomfortable parity of machine and individual.
"I know nothing. I do. At least as far as he believes. I make things happen. Things he wants to happen, and things his family wants to happen. And it seems invisible. One step ahead. Removing barriers, snags, catches, discomfort. His god told him he, and the people he holds close deserve this.
At first I helped. Around for odd things. A day here and there. This stretched to a week. A month. There was shelter. I would find work. My family would have back what it lost. Then I was offered space to sleep, new old clothes, and things to send home. I just had to stay and be sure things happened. I had a knack for talking to machinery, he said. I could “tease the walls into behaving.”
Sometimes I had to stand in front of these walls and wave my hands. Sometimes a discreet dance was enough. It’s just a thing. You get a sense of how to make yourself seen.
Sometimes when he went out, I was asked to ride in front. When the garden or gate didn’t respond, I had to step out, give a small shake, or wave like a crane taking flight. The garden would wake, I’d walk back to the house as he left. The house, garden and I compete to satisfy his needs. Only I didn’t break. One day the house would push back.
It was a daydream, a con, a century’s deviation from the epic story. My ancestors were in service, keeping hinges greased, children distracted, lords indulged. After the Wars, we were “free” to work in factories. Then buzzing offices. Then awkward cafes. Then empty lots, buildings and broken schools. Then dead houses and regrown, damp stairwells. Now I am in service again. I know nothing. I do. "
- Scott Smith, May 2017