Monday, September 07, 2015

Fake Labor Day Post

I missed my traditional Fake Labor Day post last year thanks to Burning Man, which seems somehow appropriate. Burning Man is many things, and one of those things is is a deliberate celebration of unalienated labor. The amount of effort that goes into the production of all the spectacle is truly astonishing, and it՚s all done for some reason other than the normal economic ones. Yet it certainly is a kind of work. If your work is your own you don't need a day off from it to celebrate yourself.

So what is labor? Making art is labor, so is mining coal or working as a cashier at Arby՚s, and maybe even writing these blog posts. It՚s a very expansive term, almost to the point that it is hard to say what human activity isn՚t labor. Lying on the couch watching TV? But even that involves some level of engagement, there is no such thing as purely passive ingestion of content.

Here՚s the best definition I can come up with off the top of my head: Labor is the focused application of intelligent action to a goal-directed task that engages with the world.

It՚s vaguely Marxist concept, I guess. I՚m not a scholar of such things and am not about to become one, I՚m just trying to tease out this sense I have that there is something about this conception of labor that is powerful and valuable. It՚s too bad that the philosophical ideas are so thorougly contaminated with the manifest failures that ensued when they have been put into political practice.

Marx viewed labor as one of the essential defining qualities of humanity, that which distinguishes humans from animals:
For labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need – the need to maintain physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. … 
The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity.
The word “labor” points to a certain view of the relationship between mind and world. Vaguely similar concepts from philosophy of mind like “embodiment” have a bit of a Marxist tinge to them, whether or not this is made explicit. All these ideas seem to be working against what might be called the Cartesian/computational default model of the mind, a symbol procesor in a box that only incidentally interacts with the outside world through narrow channels of perception and action.

Marxism has rather famously failed, and as far as I know all the efforts to reform AI and philosophy of mind through embodiied or situated approaches also failed. Perhaps they are all just completely wrong, but I actually don՚t think so. Their critiques were incisive, but their solutions were naive, half-baked, or perhaps just premature. It still seems to me that the way into the future requires both less alienating ways to organize human labor and better ways for computational systems to take on some of the real qualities that make human labor possible.

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