on work and dignity

let’s suppose everything could be automated. even then— people would still write poems, type letters, and craft wooden toys (by hand), wouldn’t they? we’d make things to remain active, and to feel dignified ; and (i hope) we’d finally untangle our sense of self-worth from whatever “job” we’ve been conscripted into.

when several creative pursuits can be automated, scaled, parameterised and—crucially—deep-faked, we’ll live our lives dominated by universal mistrust and pervasive panopticons. (i hope) this will push us to spend more time in-person, stop forwarding messages, give hugs, live communally, share locally, be content with fewer ‘things’, stitch and weave and polish and craft our own belongings, and appreciate imperfect (but, human) creations.

the hype around gpt-3 (or whatever) shouldn’t be about what the technology can do. the conversation should be about whether it helps us un-cheapen1 healthcare, public service, education, food and farming, hobby-pursuits, natural resources, et al (and allows us to preserve—or reclaim—our dignity).

written: 20230317

people work for money, for pleasure, for principles, or other things. but, when you zoom out a bit, you realise—

people work for dignity2.

so, erm, let’s not call people ‘resources’. (¿not a very dignified thing, is it, to be a ‘resource’: to be mined, used, discarded, replaced, optimised, or otherwise ‘managed’.)

even if it’s just symbolic or hypothetical, would you like to imagine a different term for human resources (“hr”) departments across our organisations?

perhaps it will change how we treat each other ; how we define contracts ; how we approach work and relationships ; and, how we go about collaborating with others during the working years of our lives, and producing the work that defines our generation and its future.


when we meet new people, how about we ask them “what do you enjoy doing the most?” instead of “what do you do (for work)?”.

people don’t need to be employed to be valuable. (eg. caring for a sick family member.) people may be in jobs they are no longer passionate about : they may have other passions. (for example: cooking, surfing, birdwatching.)

and, there’s so much more to people than their ‘jobs’, isn’t there?

if we brought more of each-other’s lives into our work, perhaps we’d all be motivated to do work that actually makes lives—and the world as a whole—a better place.

why should you need to “separate work and personal life” or “build a work-life balance”? we have one life, and it flows through everything we do. embracing that—and learning to celebrate that—will help build better companies, managers, employees, partners, entrepreneurs, et al.


from a contract i write with residents who join slowstudio:

contracts usually come from a place of fear: they try to dissuade mischief, are lopsided in favour of the recruiter, and are burdened with legalese. while i understand some aspects of this practice, i am confident that we can do things differently (and better). you and i have written this letter together ; and for every time this contract describes your duties it also recognises my responsibility to help you do good work.

so, our working relationship will be built on a simple principle: “let’s be nice.”

first draft: 202012


  1. please read raj patel and jason moore’s book, ‘history of the world in seven cheap things’ (Verso Books, 2018), for more context. 

  2. you may read Monique Valcour’s The Power of Dignity in the Workplace (PDF) in harvard business review (2014).