What is ‘work’ nowadays?

As you already know, the world is vastly more connected since the emergence of the internet. We exist in a period of history called the “Information Age”, which is characterized by the shift from industrialization to information technology (or “IT”). Plainly speaking, I.T. is the process of storing, manipulating, or distributing information, which, by itself, isn’t a new concept. What has changed over the last fifty years though, is the scale of this storing, manipulating, and sharing. Radio, television, internet, and now artificial intelligence can orchestra information on a scale never seen in human history. But I’m beginning to wonder whether this new state of affairs is ‘good’ for the human race, especially as it relates to what we call work. Centuries ago, work was rather arduous and even dangerous at times. But it was also simple, and physically involved. Maybe people worked on farms, harvested crops, and milked cows. Or maybe they cobbled shoes or wove textiles. Now it seems the conventional advice — such as going to college — only serves to herd people into the same sort of activities. If you’re a professional in the U.S. (or any developed country for that matter), you’re most likely clicking, typing, and pressing buttons most of the day. Now I certainly don’t mean to offend or degrade anyone’s occupation by saying this, because many professions require an enormous amount of skill and education to perform. You need knowledge and know-how or else you wouldn’t know which keys to press and when, or what decision to make and why. But from a purely physical perspective, the activities of the lawyer, the accountant, CEO, businessman, and human resource manager, are largely the same. Those activities generally involve typing, clicking, pressing, talking on the phone, staring at a screen, while sitting at a desk. And in my view, there is nothing inherently satisfying about these activities, and could very well be contributing to our anxieties and lack of fulfillment in work, and even more broadly life in general.

Should we concede this as the future of work?

The usual hierarchy within a company for instance, has been employed for quite some time, but regardless of how you organize a company, it still requires someone to build the thing, assemble the thing, or execute tasks delegated from the top. But the need for physical human intervention is diminishing quickly. Now I don’t presume to know much about A.I. — actually closer to nothing than anything. But the shift away from human physical intervention has me and many others, asking some unsettling questions to themselves. Such as…

Where will humans re-allocate their time in the future?

Is this really the type of world we want, and are we ready for it?

You may say, the jobs previously used in manual labor will now require more skill in operating the technology. Ok. Then much of the work will be automated. What activities will humans be left with then? Will we live in a world where the extent of human work involves typing instructions into computers? This would seem to be more of a decision-making role than ‘work’.

In physics, there is an actual formula for ‘work’:

Work = Force x Distance

By these standards, to have done any work at all, you must have applied enough force to move an object. And no, your daily commute doesn’t count because it isn’t powered by physical force. This means, if you’ve only driven a car, typed on a keyboard, and made phone calls, I’m sorry to say that you’re not actually doing much work at all. So the vast majority of professionals in the developed world, for example, attend their jobs each day and get paid, yet have done no work. At least, from the physics point of view. You would be correct in arguing they’ve made decisions, or made plans. But they haven’t done work. Furthermore (and ironically) we’ve probably performed more work around the house than at our jobs. Recently I’ve rearranged furniture at my apartment and taken out the trash, while others may cut grass, build fences, and so on. All of these activities likely involved the application of force, to an object, and moving it some distance. So it’s possible we’ve conducted far more work outside of work than at work.

So why do we still use the term ‘work’?

So many professionals don’t build or assemble anything. It’s possible the only object we’ve moved is the office chair from one desk to another. Again, please don’t attack me for demeaning your job. That’s not my intention here. I’ve worked office jobs for nearly a decade. But do we really want this type of world we’re creating for ourselves? This world where physical labor is non-existent or at least reduced dramatically? This electronically-powered, digitally-altered, internet-connected type of world?

To me, it promotes interactions in what I would call a 2-dimensional world of screens instead of a 3-dimensional world of panoramic views, robust smells, variations in sound, and sensory pleasures. I for one, don’t like this path at all. I don’t know the statistics, but I have a sneaky suspicion this lack of interaction with 3-dimensional objects, using our hands to create, design, sculpt, trim, cut, sew, weld, tie, etc., is going away fast and at enormous costs to our human experience and overall fulfillment. Is it really satisfying to type and click? I’ve never found it to be. Much more satisfying would be assembling a desk, drawing a portrait, mixing a drink or cooking a meal. These are all physically involved, tactilely satisfying activities. Feeling the wood and measuring the cuts, breathing the aromas and tasting the ingredients, and so on. But we’re robbed of this when we subject ourselves to LCD screens and plastic devices.

Do we really want this?

I’m 32-years-old and my first 22 years on planet earth involved moving my body, sweating, and exerting what I would call real energy and experiencing real exhaustion by day’s end. Since then, however, my life has been reduced to dreadful commutes, packing into sardine-like parking garages, packing into sardine-like cubicles, staring at LCD screens, beneath artificial lights, typing into keyboards, talking to plastic phones, and if that wasn’t enough, wearing a pair of slacks and horribly uncomfortable shoes. Sure I’ve been paid money — electronically of course! — and had ‘benefits’. But the activities themselves, the actual doing of these ‘real jobs’, is a mind-numbing, soul-sucking endeavor with no flavor, no smell, and no personality.

The industry for these activities is irrelevant too, because it still amounts to the same set of physical activities. I don’t care whether you’re posting pictures or videos to social media, typing an email to clients or colleagues, messaging on Skype or Slack or whatever the latest, trendiest platform is. The type of platform people use now almost seems more about status than it does about functionality. But that’s an article for another day. But regardless of the platform, and regardless of the nature or context of the activity, you’re still typing and looking into screens.

This is terrible. And I for one, hope to distance myself as much as reasonably possible. How satisfying is it to do some type of real manual labor like cutting down a tree or mowing the grass and then guzzling an ice-cold beer? Now that’s satisfying. Instead many of us ‘work’ under the pampered conditions of the office, and then come home and relax under the pampered conditions of our homes. Because after all, everyone deserves some time to ‘take a load off’ after 8 hours of ‘taking a load off’. Maybe still pour that glass of red wine or crack open that beer, but many times I’ve felt so guilty I can’t enjoy those flavored grapes or that carbonated bottle of deliciousness.

Anyhow, I hope I’ve made my point and raised your awareness to some degree. The physically satisfying activities are disappearing quickly in the workplace, and I’m disappointed to see them go. Occasionally I entertain the idea of moving to Southern California and selling surfboards from the boardwalk. Maybe one day I will.

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