Credit: the always-amazing Instagram account of Alexandra Valenti.

Here is something I think about a lot.

Is it better to have a body-centric job, or a mind-centric job?

I wonder about this because (as I’m sure I’ve mentioned somewhere before) my creative brain is basically divided into two halves: the writing side, and the movement side.

During times of physical stillness, pregnancy for example, I list far over to the writing side, and become a little story pitching machine. Then, the gears shift, a baby is born, and I swing back to the aerial dance side.

Rarely, if at all, do I devote absolutely equal energy to the two.

Anyway, I’ve been a freelance writer for almost two and a half years now, which is actually the longest I’ve had any job. Since my early 20s, something always happened around the two-year job mark that made it impossible to go on: the gears ground down, I got tired of the work, and subsequently tired of myself. I’d bitch and whine to whoever would listen, develop a growing sense of inauthenticity, then chastise myself for being ungrateful that I had work at all. Then a client would send me a passive aggressive email, I’d mentally punch them in the face, and the whole gross process would start over again.

But then!

The clouds parted, I became a freelance writer, and I don’t have those feelings anymore. I totally, unabashedly love my work, and when I hit the three-year mark I’ll buy myself balloons and send all my clients gushy thank-you cards.

So when I look far off into the distant future, I think, “writing FOREVER! This is how I shall earn my keep. Forever.”

Until, that is, something like this happens – in 2012! – and I think…”uh oh.”

Maybe it’s because I’ve been knee-deep in aerial stuff, or maybe it’s because I’ve been watching too much Black Mirror, but I have this growing suspicion that in the future, professional pursuits involving the body, rather than the wits, may be the way to go.

Now, we should probably stop right there and establish that the mind/body dichotomy is a false one. Everything involves both all of the time.

Still, though. I have mostly a speculative, but somewhat substantive, fear of the digitization of jobs, including my current one. Ross, my husband – a music teacher, I might add – says that’s silly.

But, Bill Cosby (stay with me here) couldn’t have predicted the Internet. Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, all the men whose past sexual sins are now coming to light, just didn’t know that we’d have these crazy machines in the future. Machines that would give us an audience, shift the balance of power, and enable us to tell anyone’s secret that we wanted to.

Which is all to say (in very bizarre fashion) that even though robots doing our jobs sounds like Jetsons stuff, maybe it’s not so nuts after all?

Here’s another way of looking at it:

Algorithms can deduce and replicate patterns. (I think.) They are predictive in a way that white-collar professions, especially those in tech or finance, also are. Tech/finance folks are also extremely innovative, of course. But they are diagnosticians, studying trends and predicting the future based on information that they have today.

Now, I do not know HOW Narrative Science (robot doing my job in the future) “automates” stories. But I believe it extrapolates from data, and rarely do their stories make mistakes.

But when you perform a body-centric job, especially if it is performative in some way…it is the small mistakes that makes things delightful.

Can you write a code for “human” mistakes?

I don’t think you can.

And this is what gives me pause.

Often, in this culture, we view performers, teachers, caretakers, yogis, etc. as idealists, rather than savvy business folk. At least I do. I think: “now, how long can you reasonably keep doing that? How long until your body gives out? Maybe find a job that you can always do even when you’re tired and broke-down, hippie artist person?”

But in the end, will hippie artist people who use their bodies for work have the last laugh?

Especially if it turns out that we can keep on using our bodies a lot longer than we think?

As it stands, I make a lot more money writing than I do for aerial work. But maybe that won’t always be the case. I guess my central question is: if info gathering and its attendants (data interpretations, trend projections, “narrative generation,” etc.) becomes cheap and easy work to perform, and is thus devalued, will the human touch become more rare? More valuable?

Will we be so sated by accuracy, that we start craving human slip-ups? Or at least the potential for slip-ups?

The sung note just a hair off-key…the flash of uncertainty in a teacher’s voice…the guitar string that snaps…the dancer’s foot with one funny, funky, unpointed toe – will these be our gems?

What is the work that you absolutely, cannot, never ever digitize?

That is what I’m wondering.

  • Breanna

    This is definitely a topic that deserves more response than a blog comment. I don’t know the answer, of course, and I don’t even think there is one, really. It stands to reason that the people who use their bodies throughout their lives will likely be able to use them much longer than people who don’t. I also think of the people who canNOT use their bodies for work, for whatever reason (illness, disability, etc.) and I wonder what their take on this would be. Anyway, I hope I can see you in person soon so we can talk more about it. I also need to catch up on Black Mirror. :)

    • Tolly Moseley

      Breanna…excellent point about different bodies, and access to various type of work.

      Maybe body vs. mind is the wrong way to think about this. Another, perhaps more accurate framework for these ideas might be:

      Future-based work vs. present-based work


      Predictive work vs. performative work


      Those-of-you-who-got-degrees-in-practical-fields vs. English, Theater and BFA majors :-)

  • Matt Hernandez

    As someone working in the tech world, but with a burning passion to be a full time writer one day, I find myself in an odd situation. Automation is definitely on the rise, in more ways that are eerily human. This video from CGP Grey does a great job breaking it down: On those days, I’m glad to have my new tech skills. But writing is still where I get the most happiness. I can only hope the robot apocalypse is not a written one too.

    • Tolly Moseley

      Ha! I also hope the robot apocalypse is not a written one, Matt. ;P

      So first of all, I should clarify that I don’t think that living life as a writer / painter / dancer etc. is “better” than living a life in the tech world, NOR do I even think they are diametrically opposed. Computer programmers talk about code as a rich language, and I know programmers who liken code writing to novel composition, where they have to negotiate different modes of expression and even tease out characters. The work is not “uncreative” in any sense of the word, so I don’t want to imply that.

      But, BUT! I (of course) understand your burning passion to become a full-time writer. Automated work, especially automated writing, feels threatening to people like you and me who want to support ourselves doing this stuff. However, a friend reminded me the other day that the issue here is not really whether or not a robot *can* write (already possible), but the sense of connection a reader on the other side feels to the (human) writer. So until robots gain subjectivity – not just human mimicry, but actual, self-reflective, morally guided or misguided subjectivity – I think we are safe.

  • layla guest

    Tolly! Yes, I love this discussion. As someone with a BFA and MFA in Dance – a 90% body-centric art form, this is something I think about so regularly.

    When I was in Grad School, I had a brilliant professor who made a statement that sounded like this-ish: There is no scientific differentiation between BODY and MIND. The mind does not exist in one spot (the center of your forehead) inside of your body. Your whole body exists as a thinking entity and is a physical structure inside of which your mind, spirit and soul exist as a unified thing – expressing experiences and drafting responses in both visceral and physical forms.

    A huge part of what I love about dance is that is one of the truest forms of “live theatre.” There are no do-overs, very few chances to re-record or do another take, or whatever. And while there are these facets of life that involve highly technologicized (that’s a word now) people and computers, there’s an art to that too. It’s an art that I struggle to understand – but I really believe that the technicians who create robots or programs to do human’s jobs see the beauty and art in it. Though, yes – there are a million more conversations to be had about this.

    I guess what I’m saying is that you bring up these interesting thoughts about the balance between body-centric and mind-centric jobs. For me, one does not exist without the other. Without my body-centric knowledge, I cannot actually do the mind-centric work and vice versa. The subtlety and sophistication of the processes of both are what make the work so vital and so valid. And yes, we need (as a global community) to be able to recognize these important differences to survive. But, I think that’s what you’re already saying. Especially since there are people in the world who thrive off of the continual growth and understanding of algorithms and code and robot-making. They have both a physical and visceral reaction to that being a part of there lives, whether they know it or not, you know?

    Probably, I’m rambling. Check out the work of Mabel Todd, “The Thinking Body” it blows my mind every time I open it.

    • Tolly Moseley

      Layla! So great to hear from you!!

      What you and your professor say is absolutely true: that mind/body/spirit don’t exist separately. The subtext of your comment is also true: that computer programmers are no less “artistic” than dancers. Just creative and artful in different ways.

      As Breanna and I were talking about it (see our little thread below), I came to realize that the actual dichotomy I was trying to get at was performative work vs. predictive work. (Which isn’t to say that ALL work even exists in those two neat, tidy categories; I’m just opposing them for the sake of argument.)

      If we envision a future where robots do some of our work for us, I think it will be easier to “program” them for predictive tasks, rather than performative ones, because in performance, mistakes are possible. (A la your live theater remark.)

      So REALLY – I think technicians and computer people are great; they created this magical world called the Internet, which is in itself a collective consciousness. You probably can’t call their work *either* predictive or performative, and also, their work is vulnerable to mistakes. Which appears to be what this whole post was actually about: a love letter to human mistakes. :-)

  • steve eckelman

    I love the discussion…what I can’t digitize are humility, confidence and talent…my ‘self’…and I guess the hardest thing for me to integrate is my mind into my body and my body into my mind, even though they are one in the same. I suppose writing can be an example, as I read recently in The Week — One of the most effective ways to study and retain new information is to rewrite your notes by hand. That’s because putting ink to paper stimulates a part of the brain called the Reticular Activating Center, or the RAS.According to Lifehacker, “The RAS acts as a filter for everything your brain needs to process, giving more importance to the stuff that you’re actively focusing on that moment — something that the physical act of writing brings to the forefront.” One study from 2010 found that the brain areas associated with learning “lit up” much more when kids were asked to write words like “spaceship” by hand versus just studying the word closely.

    • Tolly Moseley

      Steve, I remember that study! There was a story last year in New York Times about cursive lessons going away in public schools, and teachers arguing to rescue them on that exact same principle.

      It is, of course, true that mind and body are one and the same. And, I love your quote about “humility, confidence, and talent” as things you can’t digitize. Looking back, I think this whole blog post was really a way to process my anxieties/fears about machines eventually having subjectivity, a la “Her.” But your comment reminds me that the most human qualities come from lived experience…as humility, especially, is hard to manufacture.