“What’s exercise?” a question about the future of work

Let’s imagine you somehow got your hands on a working DeLorean – and took a trip back to the not-too-distant past of the pre-industrialised world. And when you arrived, you sat down with someone and asked them this simple question over a semi-dirty glass of water at their kitchen table.

Future Human: Did you exercise today?

Pre-Industrial Human: What’s exercise?

Future Human: It’s when you move your body around and lift things to stay fit.

Pre-Industrial Human: Oh, you mean work – is exercise a new word for work? Yeah, sure, I worked today. All day, in fact. All of the daylight hours. I’m very tired.

Future Human: No no, not work…I mean extra movement of your body before or after you’ve finished work.

Pre-Industrial Human: Why would I do that? I’m exhausted. I already did that all day.

Future Human: The reason is that you want to stay fit.

Pre-Industrial Human: What’s staying fit?

Future Human: It means you keep your body in good shape – like ‘thin’, and you remain strong.

Pre-Industrial Human: But my work already does that, and everyone I know is very thin, although I’ve heard stories about the King having a big belly.

Future Human: Well, in the future people do exercise, because they mostly sit down while working, and get fat from eating too much food.

Pre- Industrial Human: Wow, they sit down at work! How much food do they have?

Future Human: As much as they want, all kinds from all over the world…. but let’s focus here…

Pre-Industrial Human: So where do they do this…exercise thing?

Future Human: In gyms, mostly, or running or swimming. Or play sports.

Pre-Industrial Human: What’s a gym? 

Future Human: A place with weights, where you lift them, or do classes like spin or aerobics. 

Pre-Industrial Human: Oh, where do they put these heavy things they lift? Who are they lifting them for?

Future Human: Oh, the weights are specially made, only for lifting. People just lift them up and down. And the classes teach people how to move their bodies…

Pre-Industrial Human: Wow, this sure sounds strange…

Future Human: Strange, well you should see how they look in their spandex…

Pre-Industrial Human: What’s spandex…

Pre Industrial revolution dirty water

Of course this conversation could go on forever, in many directions and fill the void of the Middle Ages pre-industrial mind with all kinds of physical automation and wizardry of tomorrow. The Exercise Industry, and any flow of money, work and exchange of value associated with it, is of course a pertinent example. The positive energy balance (Read here excess food intake) many humans face would not exist without the invention of machinery to remove human labour in farming and food manufacture. The consequences of outsourcing of gathering our food are not limited only to the gym, weights and spandex. We could add to the list the birth of refrigeration, packaged foods, powered transport, television, the diet industry, Jane Fonda aerobics, education, sporting brands and all manner of things which are the result of us, the first generation in human history to have more people to die from over eating than malnutrition.

For every solution technology invents, it presents two more problems to be solved. It’s a less than a zero sum game where two new revenue streams arrive for every one it takes away. New unintended problems arise and new entrepreneurial solutions can be brought to market. Everything outside of the most basic physical needs are human inventions and the result of some previous invention. But ask me what the jobs in the distant future will be and I can’t tell you, just like a pre industrial human couldn’t fathom the need for ‘exercise’. And while AI will take away the need for many forms of intellectual labour in the near term, we will find new tasks for idle humans. Of this, I have zero doubt. Yes, there will be pain for the unimaginative, unprepared and stagnant humans during the transition, but it’s not the first time this has happened and our personal future depends on our personal actions.

Who knows, perhaps an entire industry might emerge to keep our brains in shape as we outsource left brain logic to the micro chip?

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