Inspiration, Productivity, Wellness

Back To The Future: Artisan Work And The Return Of The Labour Theory Of Value, PT. I; By Hung Lee


When talking about the ‘future of work’, we might be forgiven for feeling that soon there may not be too much of it left for us to do.

Another day, another example: a machine performing a complicated task at a speed and with a precision beyond the capability of the human beings who were doing the same job just days before. Whether it is laying bricksreading legal case files or performing dental surgery, there appears to be no domain of work where robots can not only do it but obviously do it better than us. For those of you who like to feel inadequate, there is even a twitter account dedicated to keeping us up to date on our impending redundancy; humanvsmachine (a bot, appropriately enough) which shares side-by-side gifs of robots outperforming us in every conceivable way, demonstrating robotic supremacy a tweet at a time.

 There is no longer any serious debate that automation and AI are accelerating us towards profound societal change.

The question now is what we might do about it?

For some, the answer lies in a robust defence of human labour through decoupling from the global economy, reining the forces of free market and legislating for worker protections – we are going to keep humans in work by stopping the robots from taking it from us.

For others, the answer lies in the acceptance of the inevitability of human redundancy, abandoning paid work altogether and instituting some form of universal basic income (UBI) – we cannot compete with the machines as producers, but at least we can keep the economy going by keeping humans in as consumers.
And in between these extremes is the ‘optimistic middle’ where new models of work are being developed, such as the vision of the ‘centaur’ worker – a human augmented by robots, rather than being replaced by them.   It is also from this optimistic middle that we can draw upon another potential answer. One that neither rejects technology nor embraces it but rather rejects the logic that has driven much of technology innovation over the past 300 years. This is the idea that things and services are valuable not only in of themselves, but also because of the fact that it is people that make and do them. For an economist, this is the return of the labour theory of value. It might also be described as the return of the artisanal economy.
Hung Lee is Co-Founder & CEO of, a “matching service for Tech talent”, and writes the hugely popular Recruiting Brainfood newsletter.