The essence of human labor

Creation, Curation and Care

by etnbrd on

I was talking with a good friend about, basically, the meaning of life, and how it impacts human activities. How does one occupie its time ? She advocated that a good life could be lived in pure nature, picking berries, and hunting for food. Like the Pirahã people. Doing the minimum labor for survival, and enjoying the remaining time for leisure, playing, relaxing and connecting … I strongly argued that I could not live solely like that.

Labor defines the activities one can pursue to bring value to society, and exhausting oneself ; while leisure defines the activities one can pursue to rest from this exhaustion.

This text relates my exploration of the essence of human labor.

Pirahã people — Credit Martin Schoeller

Unlike the Pirahã people, I don’t want to sew my clothes, grow my vegetables, hunt my meat and bake my bread every day. I want my labor to be about something else than mere daily survival. And probably you as well. Because of that, we need someone, or something, to take care of the daily chores we don’t want to do. Hence, we distributed survival labor among the community, to take advantage of a scale effect. It led to the industrialization era, The extreme distribution of labor. Fordism, Taylorism and so on.

As a society we have a lot to blame on industrialization. One result is the current labor/leisure balance definition. It now shows its limits as it locks up most form of creativity and exploration, trading it for predictability. But I must admit that this period yielded a pretty neat technological bootstrap. Since their inventions, the steam engine produces energy for us, and the transistor processes information. The two key components required to automate daily chores.

Fast-forward two hundred years, to current time with its load of autonomous cars, and deep neural networks. A time where there is a real question on the boundaries between artificial intelligence, and organic intelligence. Is it possible for a machine to do everything as a human ? I believe the answer to be yes. But the interesting part, for this topic, happens just before that point. Just before machines are able to feel and express emotions, to be compassionate, the way we do. Just before that critical point, machines are capable of wonders. They automate everything, hence replace the need for human presence in all physical, boring, demeaning labor. The last things that we will have exclusivity on is feeling and expressing emotions. Then what will remain for humans to do ?

The activities less prone to be replaced by automation. Creation, Curation and Care. Because emotions are at the core of these three activities.

Sharing emotions is at the core of Creation, Curation and Care.


If I refuse to live like Pirahã people, it is because mundane or repetitive tasks would kill me before a tooth tiger. I feel that the core meaning of my life is about curiosity and exploration. And by exploration, I don’t mean exploring landscapes, forest, or sea. But new ways of hunting tooth tiger, trying chemical reactions, mathematics, psychotropic substances, and extreme sports. Understanding us, and the world we live in. Science.

We strive for exploration. We are bored by repetition. We crave novelty.

think different
Apple Think Different — Campaign ads 1997

This exploration is at the core of creativity, one of the three essential human activities. It is about finding new interactions with the world and with others. Endlessly diving into the unknown ; sailing in the nebulous world of ideas, to tame the best ones, and bring them back into our realm.

One of the numerous use for creativity, is to increase leisure time. Hail the laziest! They are the smartest to find faster alternatives to accomplish labor, or to reduce pain. From inventing the hammock to satellite communications.

Laziness then turns into curiosity. The curious ones are pushing boundaries of scientific knowledge, discovering new methods of interacting with the world. Exploring psychology, studying economic markets, finding the Higgs Boson.

With this automation, we freed up time from survival labor to social and emotional connection. Another use for creativity, through artistic creation, is to inspire others and share emotions. Architecture, sculpture, visual arts, music, literature, performing arts, cinema, media arts and comics. All these artistic domains are about sharing something rather than a mere masterpiece of material engagement. It is about communicating a message, and really an emotion, through a medium. When you watch a movie or attend a play, the story is really just a support to move you.

And at the junction between scientific and artistic creation, is design. Which I define as the research for the best compromise between technical, and aesthetic constraints during creation.

Her (2013)

I feel that creativity is about cultivating and cherishing ideas. Confronting them, to make them grow, blossom, and distillate the best to produce knowledge, art, plans, methods, stories, pictures and so on … And those ideas, are nothing more than a medium for emotions.

During the last century, and increasingly in the last two decades, this creativity yielded a huge, gigantic, enormous amount of content. That is clearly not possible to ingest by a sole human being.


The explosion of content creation led to a heavy need for content curation. I recently read <a href=”” target=”blank”>this article which explains the process behind the playlists you listen in Spotify, Apple music, Google music, and other streaming services. They hire highly qualified music specialists to sort out the huge amount of available music, and compose the playlist we listen to.

First, curators can be seen as a practical way to acknowledge and pick the best among the pile of content. The Renaissance is over. Leonardo Da Vinci might have been omnipresent in the fields of his time, from painting to flying machines. But it is now impossible for a single human being to follow the many strands of creation. So there is a need for aggregating and synthesizing content. That is one way to see the job of curator.

Yet, I prefer to see these jobs another way. The main question, for a playlist creator, is: what will one feel when listening to this ? Putting themselves in other’s shoes. The core process of this content selection is about understanding others’ emotions. The entanglement between these jobs and emotions amazed me.

Most people would currently consider these jobs as hobbies, recreational activities, even leisure. Because it feels enjoyable. Yet, it is their job. And it provides great value to society. They inspire, they cherish, they wake you. Curators are the catalysts to stimulate the emotional flows supported by creations.

We are left with the third essential human activity.


At first, when I thought about caring, I immediately thought about elderly and child care. Protecting and cherishing the weakest. Nursing, medical, psychological, social care and so on. But it is only a facet of this activity.

I recently read <a href=”” target=”blank”>this article which explains the difference between machine money and people money. Machine money is the money we are familiar with. With it, you buy groceries, plane tickets, and spa days. It is the money you spend on kickstarter to support the projects you love. But the article introduces another kind of money, people money, with which you buy goods from people.

I found the article a bit misleading at first, but it eventually became clear. People money is caring. It is the attention we give, which transforms into reputation for the recipient. Attention is one thing that machines will never replace, as it implies feeling emotions.

Paying attention, the term itself is eloquent. Attention is a currency.
Diplo in Argentina — Credit Shane McCauley

We pay people money by spending time paying attention to something, as a recognition of the value it brings us. When you watch a movie, or attend a play, you give your people money, your attention, for the emotions it brings you. This people money is then changed back into regular money for the creator, through ads, and brain reception.

Sometimes, you change your people money against others’ people money, by spending time together, and cultivating relations. Sometimes, your people money is wasted by people who don’t need it. While some other times, this people money is put to good use, to spend time with people needing some attention.

Yet, I cannot deny that we are currently completely, and voluntarily spoiling our people money on 9gag and Facebook. It’s a shame. We need serious education about people money.

To all those fearing that the rise of machines will bring the destitution of humanity, fear no more. Before it happens, humanity will be stressed toward its core definition : expressing and feeling emotions. Our technological advance, and material engagement freed us from mechanical labor, by automating it. More and more, human labor is being distilled in creating social connections and manipulating emotions.

We built a huge communication network we solely use to transfer emotions. On top of this information network, it creates an emotional network. Is it possible to imagine the emotional equivalent of what computation is for information ?

wall e
Wall-E (2008)