Labour in the Documedia Age

Labour in the Documedia Age

In 2013, Michael Osborne and Carl Benedikt Frey ranked 702 occupations according to their probability of computerisation in the near future, from least probable (“recreational therapist”) to most probable (“telemarketers”). "Architectural and Engineering Managers” was ranked seventy-third, and “architects” eighty-second, while “architectural and civil drafters” ranked three-hundred and fifth. Clearly, technological advancements in fields such as machine learning and robotics are rapidly confronting us with issues of changing professional demand and qualifications. In this essay, Maurizio Ferraris turns the table on us: what if what we should be concerned with is not maintaining the human element in labor as production, but rather recognising human labor as consumption? Expanding on the arguments of his 2012 book, “Lasciar tracce: documentalità e architettura,” the author sees in automation an extraordinary opportunity in defining a renewed centrality of the human element, as the production of value associated with digital exchange is read through the three concepts of invention, mobilization and consumption.

For the 2019 Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB), titled "Urban Interactions," (21 December 2019-8 March 2020) ArchDaily is working with the curators of the "Eyes of the City" section to stimulate a discussion on how new technologies might impact architecture and urban life. The contribution below is part of a series of scientific essays selected through the “Eyes of the City” call for papers, launched in preparation of the exhibitions: international scholars were asked to send their reflection in reaction to the statement by the curators Carlo Ratti Associati, Politecnico di Torino and SCUT, which you can read here.

A few months ago I was waiting for a flight at the London City Airport, the one near Canary Wharf, which means it has the highest imaginable concentration of managers per square metre. The books on sale there, in addition to the usual Art of War by Sun Tzu (how curious that one should use the precepts of a Chinese general from the sixth century BC as a business oracle) were variations on the theme that the winner, who takes it all, is an egotist at best, and a fraudster at worst.

Ultimately, all these handbooks, like the general ideology that we often find in management, make the same mistake that Nietzsche made in his time. Nietzsche's idea was that the Greeks were strong and full of life, and that Christianity then introduced values of resentment and weakness - a morality of the flock that falsified the true original power of humankind. Against this morality of the weak and resentful, the Übermensch had to rise up, affirming the values of life, selfishness, power, and oppression, carrying out a transvaluation whereby moral value would once again coincide with strength, not weakness.

Nietzsche, however, was faced with an irresolvable problem. If the Übermensch is so strong, why is he regularly defeated by the flock? Doesn't this circumstance suggest that his analysis is wrong? Indeed, it is wrong. What eventually wins is not power, but something different, and not necessarily better: what wins is whatever we call "smart", something that looks much more like the knowledge of the needs and values of the flock than like an Übermensch proudly beating his chest. If that is the case, then the right choice would be to place books like The Way of the Wolf, Rebel Talent and What They don’t Teach at Harvard Business School on the same shelf as Thus Spoke Zarathustra and American Psycho. And to seek not a return to some heroic, brutal and (most importantly) lost and losing past, but rather an understanding of the present.


And what does the present tell us? First of all, it shows us a major and essential fact: labour will disappear because of automation. All labour? No, not all of it, but certainly what we most immediately recognize as "work": the activity whose purpose is production and whose means are fatigue and alienation. And trying to avoid this fate, as well as useless, is harmful. Automation, in fact, makes goods less expensive and eliminates the need for heavy labour. If today the earth is able to feed 7 billion people, and if the average life has doubled compared to a century ago, the credit goes entirely to automation, because no human being is as precise, tireless, submissive and self-sustaining as a machine can be. For this reason, embracing a perspective of degrowth, as advocated by some, is a promise of hunger and death - that is, it implies restoring the economy of scarcity in which humans have spent the vast majority of their natural history.

Now, there are two arguments in favour of degrowth: one unfounded and the other wrong. The unfounded one says that abundance is bad, forgetting that scarcity is much worse; therefore it is not an argument, but the enunciation of a religious or aesthetic belief that everyone is free to observe in their own internal forum and as a personal way of life, but that cannot in any way be imposed as a general social norm without introducing a fundamentalism that is infinitely more onerous and intolerant than any religious fundamentalism. The wrong one says that automation steals jobs. The mistake of this argument is to think that work is only the kind that involves fatigue and alienation. Now, this kind of work has been undoubtedly much reduced at our latitudes, and over time it will disappear everywhere, not because of some unlikely philanthropic decision, but simply because it will be swept away by automation. 

This disappearance, in this part of the world, is testified by those human beings who already live as in the communist society imagined by Marx: fishing in the morning, writing critical essays in the afternoon, looking after livestock in the evening. Which is to say: jogging in the morning, chatting on social networks in the afternoon, and rating restaurants on The fork in the evening - with a significant variation, namely that these temporal differentiations will no longer exist. Moreover, contrary to what Marx imagined, in this realized communist society people go on holiday much more often than in the bourgeois society. In the latter, holidays were a legacy of the division of labour, and did not produce value, while in the documedia world the maximum production of value takes place exactly through consumption, and the longer the time of consumption without production (and holidays are the paradigm of this) the greater the value that is created. 

This is the fundamental essence of the labour of the future, which will replace fatigue and alienation with the production of value through consumption. Transforming holidays into work seems like some kind of trick, but it is not, and revealing the mechanism underlying this apparent spell is the decisive step for anyone who wants to understand the present. Indeed, who said that work is only fatigue and alienation? Alongside the labour of the past, in fact, there is also the labour of the future.

Adaptative Plans: An Algorithm That Predicts Spatial Configurations © Finch3D


The work of the future should not be sought in residual activities such as those of a Deliveroo rider, an Amazon warehouseman or a tomato picker: these will all be carried out by drones. It makes more sense to look for it in the new care activities made necessary by the disappearance of traditional families. These, too, however, are not really examples of future labour, but rather remains from the past, i.e. forms of labour as fatigue and alienation that will survive automation only until the arrival of the so-called "robots of care", which are already being tested in Italian hospitals. What makes even more sense is to look for the work of the future not where the human component is necessary (in fact, a given need can always be overcome by a technical improvement), but where it simply seems foolish to imagine replacing the human with an automaton. 

The phenomenology here is vast. There are good reasons to prefer a sex robot to a flesh-and-blooded lover, but it is quite foolish to get engaged to a sex robot. There are good reasons to consider a robot's judgment more impartial, but you would hardly accept punishments inflicted by a machine. There's no doubt that a football match between automatons would be more spectacular than the ones we know now, yet it's likely that we wouldn't care about it, just as we wouldn't care about two computers playing chess. Paradoxically enough, even a car race without drivers would be uninteresting. And, of course, no one (except a machine) would accept to be judged by a machine, so no one would accept to be led by an automaton instead of a manager - even if managers often like to appeal to automata, be they computers or statistics, to support their decisions. 

Hence a consequence that deserves more attention. What is wrongly considered an increase in automation - a world in which production is totally automated - is instead an increase in the human element, which is now playing a prominent role, becoming the central actor of change. It is the complete reversal of industrial alienation, in which the organic characteristics of the human being took second place to the mechanical performances that they can produce. In industrial production, the human is not important as such, but as a component of a mechanical system.

© Nicolás Valencia, using image © Flickr user masakiishitani licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Instead, in the documedia world, where the only thing that is produced by humans are documents - in the form of Big Data that record our behavior, our preferences, our beliefs and our consumption - it is the human factor that plays the fundamental role. A smart company is a company without (or rather with little) human staff. But a smart market, a market without humans in it, is not conceivable. Please, do not consider all this as unfounded optimism or a futile eulogy of the market and automation. The situation is full of shadows, but it is certainly not by complaining about non-existent alienations, evils of Kapital and mechanical dehumanization that we can shed light on it.


The unique feature of the human being does not consist in production, in which it is perfectly replaceable by machines, but in consumption. Let's take a step back, and look at human nature trying to focus on the notion of "responsiveness". Let's take two energy dissipators that produce heat and are morphologically very similar: a hair dryer and a duck. If I leave my hair dryer in the drawer of a holiday home for three months, when I come back, if I supply it with energy (I plug it in) it will be able to produce heat. If I leave the duck for three months in the drawer of a holiday home, when I come back, if I supply it with energy (I give it bird seeds) it will not be able to produce heat, unless I tear off its feathers to stuff a duvet, because it will be dead. And, we can be sure,  it will not come back to life.

The mechanical dissipator has a very long series of on/off, on/off, on/off positions. The organic dissipator has only two: on and off. And the off is irreversible. This is a capital difference, which confers urgency and internal purpose to the organic dissipator, while the mechanical one has only external ends that we more correctly call "means". The latter are at all not despicable, but can only be mobilized (serve as means) from the perspective of an organism, which instead has internal purposes (what the Greeks called "entelechy").

It is precisely its urgency, non-deferability, and irreversibility that makes organic consumption incomparable with mechanical consumption. And this urgency is what gives rise to rationality, desire, purpose, boredom, anguish, and obviously also the taste for accumulation, waste and superfluousness. Unlike other organisms, being atopic and therefore necessarily dependent on technology for its adaptation to the world, the human being is also capable of cultural evolution, which therefore arises from the encounter between the needs of a non-stabilized organism and the remedies that this organism seeks in technology. This is a characteristic of humans, which I define as "responsiveness": it consists precisely in the fact that, as organisms, they are subject to irreversible processes, which they nevertheless correct and defer through mechanisms capable of reversible processes.


It is worth focusing on this point, which will prove to be crucial in the remainder of this discussion. If organic heat dissipators like humans are particularly interesting, it is because, unlike other non-human organic heat dissipators, such as ducks, they know how to use mechanisms to enhance their natural resources which, in the case of humans, are particularly weak for two reasons. Firstly, because human animals are objectively less strong and self-sufficient than other non-human animals. Indeed, if humans are constitutionally gregarious and dependent, it is not, as Nietzsche claims, because of the harmful action of ideologies and religions, but because, unlike other animals, they need prolonged parental care, social recognition (necessary for the Übermensch perhaps even more than for the average man), care in old age, pension systems, entertainment, supplements and ornaments.

Secondly, because they are more ubiquitous, which leads to further maladjustment in ever-changing environments, which therefore must be filled with ever more technical inputs and in general require processes of capitalisation unknown (because unnecessary) to non-human animals. Despite being aware of the usefulness of technical prostheses such as sticks, or the use of flavouring food by bathing it with seawater, a chimpanzee will never feel the need for more complex prostheses such as heavy clothing and suitcases in which to store it, because it will never feel the need to leave its environment. And, once the need for clothes and suitcases is triggered, this creates the need for money, low cost tickets, and therefore also culture, tourism, boredom, work and curiosity - that is, the whole panoply of the distinctive characteristics of the human animal as opposed to the non-human animal.

At some point, the human animal may find itself in the need to be creative, to give its leadership a distinctive characteristic that is not simply that of dominance, selfishness and opportunism - which is more than enough for chimpanzees and wolves, but is not enough for those who want to make their way in an environment that is not the steppe or the savannah, but Wall Street. It is here that we can recognize the characteristics of the labour of the future as production of value. I summarize it in three concepts: invention, mobilization and consumption.


Let's start with invention. The manager who thinks he is creative because he has found a way to cheat others or to cut on expenses is not creative, but a villain or a miser on behalf of others. But what he is committing is much more than a crime, which is what moralists insist on: it is a mistake. What's more important, in fact, is that he will remain a secondary figure, a small-time player, and will be thrown away at the first opportunity.

Invention is another thing altogether, it means "creating a new thought for an existing object", an idea with which Duchamp has summed up the inspiring principle of ready-mades: taking existing products (urinals, bicycle wheels, bottle racks), inventing new values and meanings for those objects, and conceiving a different function for the work of the artist, now detached from the necessity (and resource) of production. This alternative function is what is now required of every manager, programmer, etc., who is now in the same condition in which artists found themselves in the nineteenth century, when they faced the disappearance of their main function, i.e. the realistic representation of people and things.

Now that the production of goods is automated, what the human being is responsible for is the invention of often unforeseen uses of objects. The paradigm here is the iPhone, which imagined a new use for mobile phones. But think also of Moleskine notebooks, conceived in 1997, that is to say in an era in which paper was supposed to be fully replaced by computers: these simple notebooks have filled the world not thanks to some novelty, but by restoring an object that had vanished from stationery shops at least half a century ago, and placing it not in stationery stores, but in airports, in the gift shops of American universities, at conventions and conferences. 

Obviously, invention is an elite function, on which one cannot imagine building the future of the whole of humanity, because strokes of genius are rare, they happen to a few, and those few must be lucky as well as be in the right place at the right time. But there are areas where a new use can come from human practices that do not necessarily have the innovative value of an iPhone: think of small inventions in fashion or the creation of trends (at the moment these are only recognized as the legitimate activities of influencers, who in turn see themselves more as advertisers, as sandwich men or women, but they or others better than them could become inventors), or the invention of apps, which are all new (small or large) thoughts for the object we call smartphone.


If invention is for the few - and is rare - what do the many do? And what do the few do when they are not having a stroke of genius? The manager guided by the wolf of Wall Street does not necessarily produce more value in his professional activity than he does by wandering around TripAdvisor to reward himself for his hard work, around Amazon looking for self-help books to improve his performance or around Tinder - or even YouPorn - to console himself for his failures. 

Così fan tutte, after all. Each of us, working in the canonical sense or lazing about in the no less canonical sense, produces data that we did not produce before: this is what I have called "mobilization", i.e. the incessant activity that we carry out on the internet. It might be ultimately a waste of time for us, but not for those who know how to collect the data and interpret them. Because those data, produced by people who are convinced that they are producing nothing or, in any case, something else, answer essential questions for the production and distribution of goods: who might be interested in this product? Where? To do what? In what quantity? At what price? Now that automation has solved the problem of production, the greatest corporate value is no longer access to manpower, but to customers.

Producing costs little or nothing: the problem today is knowing what to produce and where to distribute it. The success of Amazon, which (with very few exceptions) is not about producing commodities but is limited to distribution and market knowledge, is exemplary from this point of view. In fact, this knowledge is much more accurate than ever before and has inestimable value: it, therefore, must be seen as labour by those who benefit from it. Thus, it is a matter of conceptualizing Amazon as a company whose employees are not warehouse workers (soon and fortunately replaced by drones), but users, who allow the algorithms to make precise and reliable market analyses and to plan the production and distribution, and who, with the salary they receive, could, in turn, increase the cycle of production (automated and very low-cost), distribution (optimized by the knowledge provided by mobilization) and consumption. 


And this brings us to the third key concept of the labour of the future: consumption. Once again, the manager who follows the game plan of The Wolf of Wall Street (a martini cocktail, then another seven and a half minutes later, and then others at regular five minute intervals) produces more value than they would by applying the strategies advocated by Zarathustra or Sun Tzu. And this is the case because these principles apply not only to them, but to the whole of humanity. 

Think of what I was saying about responsiveness: consumption is the fundamental property of the human being qua an organism augmented through the possibilities and needs generated by technology. Consumption is the engine of it all, and, remember, it cannot be automated (unlike production). In short, I can imagine a machine that manufactures sushi and a drone that distributes it, but a machine that consumes sushi is nonsense, as it would be nonsense to produce sushi in the absence of sushi consumers. As said, if once the problem was finding manpower, today the real problem is finding consumers. Or rather, making sure they can pay. The first step in this direction is conceptual, and consists in conceiving consumption as labour, because it is the maximum production of value. 

This may come across as a paradoxical move, but it is not only necessary, but also obscurely present in all of us, as we are perfectly aware that the condition of possibility of production is consumption.  Plato expressed this very well, pointing out that the judgment on the validity of production must be made by the consumer: the quality of a saddle is judged by the rider, not by the saddler. For Plato, as well as for anyone until the advent of perfect automation, the centrality of consumption was hidden by the need for production. But as production moves towards total automation, it is necessary to achieve a conceptual transformation in line with the new era, so as to recognise that the most important thing in the world, when production is taken care of, is consumption, i.e. the human being. Whereas production, as a mechanical part of the human being, is teleologically predisposed to automation, consumption, as an organic part of the human being, is what cannot be automated in any way, for reasons that are not ethical but ontological, i.e. those that I mentioned when speaking of "responsiveness". 

Obviously, the question is now how to pay for consumption, but the problem is less serious than it seems. The surplus value generated by the reduction of costs due to automation and the possibility of targeted production and distribution allowed by mobilization is such as to be able to create, if redistributed, further consumption capacity that will in turn result in new capital gains. Rather paradoxically, the problem consists rather in understanding what managers will do, what kind of value they will be able to generate in addition to what (like all others) they produce as mobilized users and as consumers, outside the rare moments of lateral thinking (which for many may never take place) in which they may come up with something useful.

Image by Maurizio Ferraris. Image Translation: Left side: Organisation/Responsiveness/ Mechanism. Right side: Mobilisation (creating value through recorded actions) / Invention (creating new ideas for an object) / Consumption


The first thing a manager needs is to put away their strategy books and look at the invention/mobilisation/consumption circle. That's what they have to focus on, so as to understand organization in a different way: not simply as a more or less military structuring of one's own action and group, but first of all as the recognition of the priority of the organic element, made possible precisely by the generalization of the mechanic component in a productive function.

When machines do the bulk of the work, and therefore act in an organized and coordinated way (a machine is used to execute a program), that is to say to support an external purpose, it becomes essential to focus on the special machine we call organism, which instead has an internal purpose, i.e. its own preservation (which is like saying that it has and serves no purpose). The human organism is the bearer of the capital function that gives meaning to the whole system: that is, consumption. Therefore, the human capital aimed at production is destined for extinction: it is the Homo faber heir of the hands that worked in the fields and in workshops, tired and alienated. This human capital remains second-choice even if it uses its hands to use a tablet, so long as the function it performs, can be automated. 

The passage to first-choice human capital takes place, of course, when the mechanism meets the organism, that is, the system of needs and consumption. Chefs, tailors, politicians, rock stars, and obviously writers, directors and philosophers, all achieve excellence not only because they are able to handle technical devices (these devices are indispensable, and will become more and more self-sufficient) but because they are able to understand the mixture of mechanism and organism that we call human beings.

About the Author

Maurizio Ferraris (Torino 1956) wrote more than sixty books that have been translated into several languages. The last one is From Brillo to Moleskine (Leiden, Brill). Full Professor of Philosophy, he is the President of the LabOnt – Center for Ontology and Deputy Rector for Humanities Research at the University of Turin. He is columnist for ‘La Repubblica’ and for ‘Neue Zürcher Zeitung’. He is working for the realization of Scienza Nuova, the Institute for Advanced Studies of the University and the Polytechnic University of Turin. The Institute is dedicated to Umberto Eco.

"Urban Interactions": Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (Shenzhen) - 8th edition. Shenzhen, China

Opening in December, 2019 in Shenzhen, China, "Urban Interactions" is the 8th edition of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB). The exhibition consists of two sections, namely “Eyes of the City” and “Ascending City”, which will explore the evolving relationship between urban space and technological innovation from different perspectives. The “Eyes of the City" section features MIT professor and architect Carlo Ratti as Chief Curator and Politecnico di Torino-South China University of Technology as Academic Curator. The "Ascending City" section features Chinese academician Meng Jianmin and Italian art critic Fabio Cavallucci as Chief Curators.

"Eyes of The City" section

Chief Curator: Carlo Ratti.

Academic Curator: South China-Torino Lab (Politecnico di Torino - Michele Bonino; South China University of Technology - Sun Yimin)

Executive Curators: Daniele Belleri [CRA], Edoardo Bruno, Xu Haohao    

Curator of the GBA Academy: Politecnico di Milano (Adalberto Del Bo)

"Ascending City" section

Chief Curators: Meng Jianmin, Fabio Cavallucci

Co-Curator: Science and Human Imagination Center of Southern University of Science and Technology (Wu Yan)

Executive Curators: Chen Qiufan, Manuela Lietti, Wang Kuan, Zhang Li

About this author
Cite: Maurizio Ferraris. "Labour in the Documedia Age" 28 Jun 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

You've started following your first account!

Did you know?

You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users.