A-Z Night #7. The Future Of Work
Digitalization, robotization and artificial intelligence: these are innovations that have the potential to radically change the nature of labour and thus our everyday lives, and they are in fact already doing so. Robots that take over the jobs of labourers, the boom of freelance work, the proportional rise in burnouts. What does the future of work look like? What does this mean for artists and designers? What are the new frameworks they operate in and what potential roles are set aside for them? This was the theme of A-Z night #7 held in Hasselt, Belgium on October 9, 2018. Jozefien Van Beek looks back and reflects on the main ideas, illustrated by the live drawings of Wide Vercnocke.
About four times per year, I have a minor to intermediate existential crisis. In eighty per cent of cases, it is about work. Doubts. About the point of it. About its financial benefit. About the lifestyle that it entails. And of course, I am not the only one. All the ways in which things can go wrong have been described in Christophe Van Gerrewey’s tragi-comic novel Work Work Work, which savages the current job market.
A few months ago, freelance writer and opinion maker Meredith Greer wrote a piece in HP De Tijd with the striking title ‘Freelancing: an elegant way to be exploited’. Greer hits the nail on the head so precisely that I would prefer simply to copy her article in full. Author Lieke Marsman summarized it very neatly in a tweet: freelancing is playing Russian roulette with the security of your very existence.
Silvio Lorusso, a self-described “designer without qualities, an artist without a gallery and a writer without a spell checker”, conducted research of freelancing: he investigated how technological and social transformations influence the organization of freelance work. He focuses on the platform Fiverr, which imposes new forms on the freelancer-driven economy. Fiverr is an online marketplace for people who want to offer services for five dollars. Eight years since it was founded, the website is currently the biggest online platform for freelancers. Its programmatic slogan reads: ‘Don’t Just Dream, Do’.
Freelancers divide their talents into tasks that they can and want to do for five dollars. Some offer their services as cheaply as possible while others emphasize quality – there is now also a site called Fiverr PRO, for high-end freelancers. On the one hand, Fiverr offers freelancers the opportunity to be in touch with clients around the world; to work from home and yet to build a huge, global network at the same time. For example, Lorusso interviewed an Italian translator who calls Fiverr “a godsend” because she would not be able to find enough clients if it weren’t for the platform. Working from home – or even from bed – has been possible for a while now thanks to the internet and laptops, and as a middleman, Fiverr creates extra employment opportunities. (Incidentally, I am writing this text in a coffee shop, so thanks, WIFI hotspot.) On the other hand, Fiverr also stimulates the bankruptcy of quality. For example, they advertised on Facebook with the question ‘Why Pay $100 For A Logo?’. Encouraging, in other words, the total devaluation of the profession of graphic designers.
Moreover, Fiverr glorifies the idea of ‘busy busy busy’, with advertising campaigns including posters of a beautiful brunette with messy hair; she looks like a Calvin Klein model from the nineties, when the junk look was still in. But it was the caption that led to a global backlash: ‘You eat coffee for lunch. (…) Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You may be a doer.’ Fiverr glorifies an unhealthy lifestyle that consists primarily of work. Working excessively and ‘being busy’ as a status symbol. But: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, remember? After all, thanks to technologies like laptops and smartphones, we are always available and thus almost always working.
The project of social designer Ottonie von Roeder is diametrically opposed to Fiverr’s glorification of workaholism. She graduated from the Design Academy in Eindhoven in 2017 with her Post-Laboratory project, for which she was nominated for the Gijs Bakker Award. She explores the possibilities of life after work has been taken over by robots. “According to researchers, between 47 and 80 per cent of current jobs could be automated in the next twenty years”, Von Roeder says. Instead of being terrified of dystopian futures, we should think of this prospect as an opportunity.
Katia Truien, a researcher at the New Institute, based the exhibition WORK, BODY, LEISURE, which she curated for the 16th edition of the Architecture Biennale in Venice, on a similar premise. In 1961, Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuijs delivered a lecture about New Babylon at the TU Delft. In his utopia, New Babylon, nobody needs to work because it has all been automated – everybody is liberated from the “tyranny of labour”. In a certain sense, Nieuwenhuijs was thus a precursor to Von Roeder’s Post Labour Society.
In her book The Human Condition (1958), philosopher Hannah Arendt makes a distinction between ‘labour’ and ‘work’. Labour is a cyclical and futile process, and the most important way to acquire an income. Work, on the other hand, is an extremely important human activity: it results in creativity and satisfaction. Von Roeder proposes that we seize on automation to make the transition from labour to work, or in other words, make a transition from an activity that we do because of economic need to an activity that we do out of intrinsic motivation. She raises several very concrete questions, such as ‘What if a robot could do your job? What would you do if you no longer needed to work?
What if free time became a fundamental right instead of a luxury? We still have a long way to go. Von Roeder’s research faces stiff opposition. People are afraid, they don’t know what they would do if they no longer needed to work. Work is so closely associated with status and identity that people fear the so-called Post Labour Society. That is why we must first create the right social and economic context. A universal basic income, for example, about which pioneer Philippe Van Parys wrote many years ago, is an essential criterion.
The automation of work and a basic income for all? Employees in so-called ‘bullshit jobs’ would certainly benefit. Being unhappy and facing burnouts are not exclusive to freelancers, salaried employees also feel miserable. ‘Bullshit jobs lead to deeply unhappy people’, read a recent headline in De Morgen. It was inspired by the book Bullshit Jobs by the American anthropologist David Graeber. He claims that if all lobbyists and company lawyers on earth were to disappear, nobody would miss them, not even their clients. But if rubbish collectors, child carers, teachers and nurses were to stop working, society would collapse into a total dystopia before you can say ‘pensionable age’. Rutger Bregman wrote the little book Why Rubbish Collectors Earn more than Bankers four years ago.
A disconcerting number of people do not think that their jobs make a meaningful contribution to the world. And to be perfectly clear, these are not badly paid jobs. One of Graeber’s interviewees invoiced more than 13,000 euro for a two-page report for a client who would present it at a meeting. It wasn’t used because they never made it to that point on the agenda. In other words, many people with bullshit jobs have high salaries. And they are still unhappy. That is because feeling useless gnaws at your sense of self-worth. As Dostoevsky said: if you want to completely crush and destroy a man, if you want to give him the worst possible punishment, just make him do work that is stripped of all meaning and worth. This week, HUMO has published an interview with the manager of the VDAB Fons Leroy, who claims in his new book No Jobs that robots will not replace us, but will make our work meaningful again. “We can outsource all our repetitive, stultifying tasks to computers”, he says. “This will free up time for more enjoyable and more meaningful tasks through which people can make a difference.”
In 1928, John Keynes predicted in his famous essay that technological progress would generate such prosperity that people would be driven insane by all their free time and boredom. Ninety years later, politicians are so fixated on creating jobs that they do not stop to reflect on which jobs, and whether they are even necessary. It appears that we are not yet ready for a Post Labor Society. Graeber therefore likewise champions a basic income and thereby aligns herself with Bertrand Russel’s essay ‘In praise of idleness’. In 1932, Russel had already argued that people work too much for no other reason except their malignant conviction that work is salutary. While free time is essential for a civilization.
When I cycled to my office this morning, I saw a boy playing the violin at a music stand on the edge of a park. That does not appear to be in any way related to the above. But in one way or another, perhaps it is.
A-Z nights is a series of undisciplined talks, co-initiated by Z33. It’s an assemblage of hands-on inspiration, out-of-the-box thinking, remarkable perspectives and insights on the artistic practice of the future. For & by makers, thinkers and students from the creative industry. Every night is captured in both words and images. For more info on the upcoming nights, see a-znights.be.