The future of labor

What does the future look like? There have been many storytelling examples of future scenarios in which many processes have been automated. In these visions robots will replace people in their jobs, but where does that leave humans? And while these ideas about our future seem far away they are actually quite close. Think about the self-driving cars which are being tested and improved as we speak, which will make chauffeurs obsolete. What do these developments mean for making money in order to cover your living expenses in our capitalist society? This is the concept of artist Manuel Beltrán’s current project named Institute of Human Obsolescence.

Beltrán (1989) is interested in how social and political structures deal with new technologies and their impact on society. He noted a gap between how technological developments affect us and how we address them. In 2015 Beltrán founded The Institute of Human Obsolescence (IoHO), under which name he examines possible arrangements for humans around the notion of work.

Based on this research IoHO developed some visual projects, first of which is Biological Labor (2015). For Biological Labor humans are hired to lay down on a table, in working shifts of 1, 2 or 3 hours, and not do anything except wearing a bodysuit which harvests their body-heat. The bodysuit then produces electricity which feeds a computer attaining cryptocurrency*. This project was shown at Elevate festival in 2017 in the form of three working stations with screens to show the data from the worker and what  he or she produced. The workers had to sign a contract and were then visibly connected to a blockchain which brought about the cryptocurrency.

Biological labor, worker signing the contract, 2015. Credit: IoHO-Katarína Gališinová.
Biological labor, connecting the worker, 2015. Credit: IoHO-Katarína Gališinová.
Biological labor, workers overview, 2017. Credit: IoHO-Elevate Festival at esc medien kunst labor.

A second project was Data-production labor (2017), which deals with the production of data as labor. Here people were being asked to sign a contract in which they agree to give the data they produced to the IoHO. This did not mean they had to create content online, but they had to look at and scroll down their Facebook timeline producing valuable information. These workers were observed with a camera that recorded what they were looking at, a camera with emotion recognition software to register their response to what they were seeing and a motion sensor tracking the movement of their hand. In this way a model was created to understand the correspondence between the movements of the hand and emotion. The small gesture of the hand interpreted as labor producing valuable data in exchange for currency.

Data-production labor, installation for data labor during European Lab (Nuits Sonores, Lyon, France), 2017. Credit: IoHO.
Data-production labor, detail data labor datasets, 2017. Credit: IoHO.

Both projects are similar in the sense that the workers were doing (close to) nothing to earn money, an idea which appeals to many people. At the same time they confront us with a possible future, one that is not very far off and is going to affect us personally, which is why it is important to think about it and discuss it.

The IoHO opens up these discussions and invites people to join in, not just figuratively but literally. In three sessions at Stroom, The Hague, Beltrán invited three experts to talk and participate in a dialogue with an audience. The first session with René Mahieu, researcher of economics and governance of privacy, was to create an understanding of big data economies. The second session was about the fairness of data-production labor and the Data Basic Income** with Sara Pape, artist and co-founder of the project (2013). During the third session with Luis Rodil-Fernández, artist, hacker and educator, a proposal was presented for a Data Workers Union to discuss if and how this would have to work in a future when data generation would be considered labor.

Discussion Sessions at Stroom, The Hague, the Netherlands, with guest René Mahieu. Credit: IoHO-Anna Kieblesz.

As a whole one could question this project as a work of art because it is mostly about the process and discussions, but it brings to mind conceptualism, a style where art was used as bearer of ideas. Thus the idea was more important than the material/visual assets. In the case of the IoHO the two visual projects contribute to the discourse by testing some of the ideas.

Both visual projects and the discussions present us with new possibilities of earning money and what comes along with that, which raises questions and brings up problems. They might seem almost ridiculous, because this future does not feel near enough and it is hard to imagine them as a reality. Still the IoHO confronts us and makes us think about what we want work to look like in the future, how attainable this is, how important our privacy is to us and if our capitalist society would still work when our current jobs are automated.

* Cryptocurrencies are digital monetary units used as alternative to regular money systems.
** Data Basic Income is similar to a Universal Basic Income, except that it proposes to have a basic income in exchange for data labor.

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Photographs: Courtesy of the Institute of Human Obsolescence.


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