A vision of humanity post-labor

If you spend much time (as I do) with your head shoved into a computer, you can’t avoid the whole “artificial intelligence armageddon-is-coming” (or is already here!) bruh-ha-hah. What’s always fascinated me—I’ve always irritated everyone even as a precocious little tike—is what happens when people no longer need to do any work?

Everyone’s always pushed back when I ask that question. For forty years (and why is there no U in forty?!) I’ve conceded that, yes, today there’s an enormous amount of work that needs to be done and people do that work. But I keep waiving my arms and asking: But the current amount of work is not always going to be the case. What happens when people no longer need to do much, if any, work?

The final point to make here is to emphasise that such a post-work world is indeed viable. Perhaps a better way of phrasing it is a post-labour world. Work is an essential part of the human condition; not only is it logistically necessary for social life, but it also provides us with purpose and a sense of self-respect. The thrust of post-labour thinking is not that this must be done away with, but that we can retrieve precisely these positive features—purpose, fulfillment, social value—from the tyranny of wage-labour, in which those are so often undercut by arsehole bosses, terrible working-conditions, and an alienation from the purpose of the work. A post-labour world just means that those types of self-directed activities we usually relegate to hobbies become the fount of meaningful social activity […]

~ Trey Taylor from, https://publicfuture.com/blogs/news/non-market-contributions

I particularly like Taylor’s use of the distinction between labor and work. There’s a lot of work I want to always be able to do, as he points out, because I derive meaning from doing so. There’s also some labor that I continue to do, which I’m happily looking to offload.

Nothing is infinite. (Not AI’s intelligence. Not our time, nor any software AI’s time. Not our energy, nor AI’s energy. Not resources, not willpower, etc.) Therefore we (people, AIs, animals, all “agents”, everyone and everything) will always need to negotiate to get what we want. Some things the robots or AIs will do, and some things they won’t want to do.

Maybe a better question is: As the quantity of labor that humans must do falls, where is the new equilibrium? Will the decreasing (vastly decreasing, if I’m right) amount of labor that humans must do be valued sufficiently highly so that people can still obtain sufficient resources to pursue meaningful lives?


Slightly better

An eternal question which I find myself frequently pondering: When to stick with something and when to dramatically pivot (or outright quit)? Pondering this problem is not a recent development. I have countless stories going back as far as I can remember—all the way back to little-kid baseball at, perhaps, age 10.

[…] there’s not a lot of readily available answers to the question of what the meaning of life is. The only answer I’ve been able to come up with for myself is this: to ensure that my presence on this earth makes it better than if I hadn’t lived at all. Whether or not I’ll have managed to achieve that is an unknowable calculation. All I can do is try to love this stupid, cruel, wonderful, gorgeous world I’ve been given through an accident of entropy, and hope that I can give it a better than equivalent exchange.

~ Jenny from, https://phirephoenix.com/blog/2022-10-18/work

When I find I’m staring into space, pondering the stick-or-pivot question, a two-part test has been getting me moving again: If I keep doing the thing (upon which I’m pondering sticking or pivoting) are my efforts making the world a better place, and does what I’m doing have a clear end-goal?

The perhaps counter-intuitive part is that while I want a ‘yes’ (obviously!) for the first part of that test, I want a ‘no‘ for the second part. When I have a clear end-goal things don’t work out well. I find I generally misunderstand in the beginning of a thing what would be a good end goal, and worse, I lose interest once I understand what done looks like for the long-arc of the thing. Far better it seems to point myself in a makes the world better direction, and wonder onward.


Everything unresolved

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke


Which are necessary

Real wisdom is not the knowledge of everything, but the knowledge of which things in life are necessary, which are less necessary, and which are completely unnecessary to know. Among the most necessary knowledge is the knowledge of how to live well, that is, how to produce the least possible evil and the greatest goodness in one’s life. At present, people study useless sciences, but forget to study this, the most important knowledge.

~ Leo Tolstoy


And in the end

It’s great to live a life of courage and compassion… but all the courage and compassion in the world doesn’t make any of it any easier. All it can do is hopefully make it more meaningful, somehow.

~ Hugh MacLeod from, https://www.gapingvoid.com/blog/2022/07/12/the-one-choice-all-fulfilled-people-make/

I’d go further: The more courage and compassion I muster, the harder it gets. Compassion gives me a big “why” that burns inside, driving me to the next, harder challenge. Courage begets more courage; With each win won through courage, it becomes easier to again deploy courage intentionally. It seems that courage and compassion lead to the tackling of increasing great and difficult challenges. Meaning is great, but I haven’t yet figured out how to use any of it to pay the proverbial rent.


It matters that I am my work

[The common refrain is t]hat what you do for work doesn’t define you. That the health, hobbies, and relationships you cultivate outside the office are more important. That you’re a human being, and not a human doing, damnit.

It’s the kind of thing that sounds great in the abstract. Yet, no matter how often we rehearse it cognitively and rhetorically, it never entirely resonates viscerally.

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/career-wealth/career/you-are-kind-of-your-job/

I define “work” as: The things I do so that I can trade the results with others. We can all trade in many ways, but a common way to trade is to use money as a way of storing and exchanging value. I don’t think I’m veering off into economics. That definition is critical. There are an enormous number of things which I do that, by that definition are not what I’d consider “work.” How much work one does in terms of hours-spent is going to vary tremendously (and it’s going to vary for countless reasons). There are 168 hours in a 7-day week. If one works 50 hours a week, that’s fully 30% of your total time. Conversely, if one works 5 hours, it’s 3%.

Let’s take it as true that what one does for work matters. That it matters in a real way, which affects your physical and mental health. I do believe that one is able to outgrow this need for meaningful work; I do think one can grow from our inherent nature of a being in need of meaningful doing, to become simply a human being as Mckay (and many others through history) has pointed out.

As one works less, doesn’t it become increasingly important that each moment of work be good work? A couple good hours a week used to make those 50-hours-a-week good. Where’s the “good work” balance for 5-hours-a-week? This inherent need to do work that matters gets stronger as one’s trading-with-others needs diminish. This seems to me, to suggest that the necessity of shifting to the “human simply being” becomes more urgent.


Not so easy

The answer depends on whether he recognizes that though he may have subdued his external obstacles and enemies, he must overcome psychological foes — depression, anomie, angst — which are no less formidable for their ethereality. He must embrace the fact that though this world may be thoroughly charted, explored, and technologized, there remains one last territory to conquer — himself.

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/advice/sunday-firesides-mans-last-great-conquest-himself/

I would argue that all the external conquering and subduing was the easy part. That existential dread? That’s not so easy. The first part of solving that problem is of course realizing it is a problem for oneself. Yeah, I’m working on that.


Human existence

Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.

~ Bertrand Russel



Nothing you create is ultimately your own, yet all of it is you. Your imagination, it seems to me, is mostly an accidental dance between collected memory and influence, and is not intrinsic to you, rather it is a construction that awaits spiritual ignition.

~ Nick Cave from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/01/20/nick-cave-creativity/

This is a thought which seriously concerns me; What exactly, if anything, am I accomplishing in the totality of my life? In a very micro sense, I’m simply holding back entropy ever so slightly in one minuscule niche of the universe. I like to imagine this is like pushing the cuticles of my finger nails back: Comforting and aesthetically pleasing, but ultimately pointless because my nails continuously grow until they don’t at which point I won’t care any more. I’m not being morbid or pessimistic here. There’s nothing wrong with that micro-scale getting things done. I take comfort in the fact that pushing entropy back a bit is—quiet literally—all that anyone can do.

It’s when I shift to a much larger scale that things look quite rosy. I sleep well at night, (both literally and figuratively,) because I like who I am becoming, and I plan to keep at it. Along the way, a quite large number of people have said the equivalent of “what you did there made my life a little better.” What more could one attempt?



So begins her obsession with dominating the mind by dominating the body, which would follow her throughout her life in various guises — running, karate, yoga, cycling, skiing — always ambivalent and self-conscious, until it finally resolves into a glimpse of the larger truth beneath the mechanics of illusory perfectibility: that we exert ourselves so violently on keeping the package of the body intact in order to keep it from spilling its immaterial contents — the soul, the self — into oblivion.

~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/01/01/the-secret-to-superhuman-strength-alison-bechdel/

Ah yes, “oblivion.” Good stuff. Popova is referring to a graphic artist, and midway through the article is an exquisite cartoon example; the author drawing, figuratively and literally, a metaphor for life involving a hill and a bicycle. Reading that cartoon brought to mind my beloved practice of meditating on death. (Try this explanation.) Closely related I often call to mind the impermanence of things. Sometimes I mix the two, thinking…

This is my last sip from this [my favorite, morning coffee] mug. (Knowing it will one day be broken.)

This [regularly scheduled weekly] conversation with this person is our last one. (Imagining when priorities change and we’re no longer working together.)

This conversation I’m recording for a podcast is my last one. (Because I will die.)

This dinner with this person [my mom, my spouse, etc] is my last one. (Because one of us will die first.)

The goal is not to be morbid and depressed; The goal is to maintain a realistic perspective to enable wringing the absolute maximum enjoyment and appreciation from every single waking moment.



Our instincts as humans are slowly dimming the less time we spend in wild nature: rainstorms, cold, whiteouts, loose rocks, adventure. Climbing is an important and sacred opportunity for us to exist in situations that we faced a hundred thousand years ago. The animalistic side of human beings. Our instincts are an important element of our intelligence.

~ Reinhold Messner



As climbers, we are inventors of our own goals, and must decide on our own how to achieve them. There is nobody else there. Nobody to control. We do extreme, dangerous things, and nobody else can say what is right or wrong. There is no moral loathing. We have only our instincts about human behavior, and in the end we are our own judges.

~ Reinhold Messner


Lulled into a trap

We tend to think that what we see is all there is — that there is nothing we cannot see. We know it isn’t true when we stop and think, yet we still get lulled into a trap of omniscience.

~ Shane Parrish from, https://fs.blog/2016/10/the-island-of-knowledge/

Admiral Ackbar called it correctly in Return of the Jedit, and this too is a trap. There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but they are generally of two types: the harder, science ways, and the softer, experiential ways. Both of those types have their traps. If one is strictly a follower of the hard, science paths up the mountain, one will be lulled into this trap of faux omniscience. And if one is a strict follower of the soft, experiential paths, one will be lulled into a trap of… well, I’ve not travelled much on those paths. My prescription is those travelers would do well to try these hard, science paths more. Therefore, I should try those soft, experiential paths more.

Which path are you currently on, and do you have a pattern of choosing one type over the other?


The mid-point

At the mid-point of the path through life, I found myself lost in a wood so dark, the way ahead was blotted out. The keening sound I still make shows how hard it is to say how harsh and bitter that place felt to me —

~ Dante



Cognitive load matters. Mullainathan and Shafir believe that scarcity imposes a similar mental tax, impairing our ability to perform well, and exercise self-control.

~ Shane Parrish from, https://fs.blog/2013/12/scarcity-why-having-too-little-means-so-much/

Short of food: starving. Short of water: dehydration. Short of money: in debt. Short of time: over-committed. Short of attention: distracted, mindless. But also, short of outlets for creativity? Short of satisfaction? Short of peace? Short of meaning?


All that will be

Let me tell you, then, how you must think of me. I am as happy and lively as in my best days. Indeed, these days are my best, for my mind is now free of preoccupations and has leisure for its own concerns; now it amuses itself with lighter studies and now, pressing keenly after truth, it rises to the contemplation of its own nature and the nature of the universe. First it investigates the continents and their position, then the laws which govern the sea which surrounds them with its alternate ebb and flow, and then it examines the stretch which lies between heaven and earth and teems with such tumultuous and terrifying phenomena as thunder and lightning and gales and the precipitation of rain and snow and hail. Finally, when it has traversed the lower reaches, it bursts through to the realms above where it enjoys the fairest spectacle of things divine and, mindful of its eternity, moves freely among all that was and all that will be world without end.

~ Seneca, from Consolation of Helvia (20)

This type and period of writing is referred to as “silver point.” It’s highly polished, almost performance art in itself. Some pieces of silver point—including in my opinion swaths of Seneca’s writing—are tortuous to the language. (As I understand it, tortuous in the original as well as the English.)

What I’ve quoted is the ending of his letter. 2,000 years later, sounds to me like the human experience remains identical.