"Magnificent works will be destroyed by the elements and by the sun, but I will build a high palace of memory that will never disappear. No rain, no wind, no fire shall erase it. I will dedicate my life to preserving the essence of humanity. Whosoever has intelligence, vision, and belief, even after our death, will remember us."
So goes the creed of the authors of The Work of Homo Sapiens, a 50-year project to document every form of work throughout human history. Amidst an era when the entire concept of 'work' was withering away, its many authors resolved that the sweat of previous generations should not be forgotten, and so they set out to re-enact and record thousands of high and low occupations across the millennia: hunter-gatherers from the dawn of man, back-breaking manual farmwork from 5000BC, Mongol horseback archery from the 1200s, supermarket shelf-stacking from the 1990s, and everything in between.
The Work wasn't the most ambitious documentary mega-project of the mid-century; the Total History Initiative, the Systemic Memome Project, and the WideArch Project were all indisputably more far-reaching. What made The Work unique was the breadth of its membership, which included children and teenagers.
"The practice of compulsory schooling from infancy to adulthood was not historically 'normal', despite what those in the 20th and 21st centuries believed. In fact, it was an aberration. One only needs to go back one or two centuries to discover that the majority of people were gainfully employed in some form of productive work in factories or around the house from at least their teens, and in most cases even earlier. Along with their responsibilities came a measure of independence and respect, something that was distinctly lacking later on," notes Dr. Deissiroth, historian at the University of Oxford.
If The Work was to accurately depict professions throughout the ages, it would need to employ children. This was not without some controversy. Even as young people around the world gained more rights, and laws regarding compulsory schooling were loosened in the mid 21st century, many adults still believed they were incapable of making responsible decisions, let alone committing years towards The Work.
For a while, it seemed like the whole project might slip away, but The Work decided to be pragmatic; it reframed its employment of children as an educational programme to help them learn about history and the world through re-enactment. What better way to learn about how the Romans lived than to actually live like the Romans? How better to understand the solar system than to build your own telescope, grind your own lenses, and look into the skies?
Despite these educational trappings, children were very much treated as equals in The Work, with more than a few leaders still in their teens. The overriding belief was that children learned best by mixing with people of all ages and backgrounds, not by only knowing people of exactly their own age. And sometimes that involved an element of risk. As Aaron Hathaway, a 14-year-old team leader for the Late Renaissance period, said at the time:
"A lot of people ask me why The Work does everything in the physical world instead of the virtual, especially because there's some danger in what we do. Well, there's always something that sims get wrong. Sometimes it's the physics, sometimes it's the biofeedback. Sometimes it's just knowing in the back of your head that you're not in the real world. Of course, we make sure that the kids don't do anything too dangerous, and we monitor everyone aged 13 and under whenever they're doing anything remotely risky. We don’t have many accidents though; treat kids like kids and they'll behave like them. Treat them like valuable people and they'll take you seriously. It worked for me."
When she was 15, Hathaway was invited to join the board of The Work and was regularly called upon to defend the project. Here's an excerpt from a contemporary interview with The Times:
Q: The Work has been accused of simply performing fun or easy re-enactments of professions. How will you get volunteers for torturers and slaves?
A: Let me guess, are you asking this because you think torturers were a significant fraction of the workforce at any time in history and that we've missed them out? We look at the professions that characterise the times, and torturers were never one of those. Let me be clear — just because our ancestors didn't have electricity doesn't meant they were stupid. They just lived in different times with different contexts. They had their geniuses and heroes and villains, just like we do.
Q: That's very nice, but you didn't answer my question.
A: The answer is that we do get volunteers for those roles, and they don't perform them for long. We also monitor them very closely for even the smallest hints of psychological distress so we can make sure things don’t get out of hand.
Q: And what about the repetitive tasks and manual labour? If people only do those for a few hours or days, you're hardly learning much. Don't people get bored?
A: Most people in The Work recognise that there's value in re-enacting jobs such as coal mining or call centre operators, so we don't usually find it different to get people to spend weeks or even months in them. There are some volunteers who really get into it; one person's spent the last two years as a fur trapper. I think he learned something.
Q: Don't you think this is just Marie Antoinette-style navel-gazing? We didn't go through millennia of technological progress so hundreds of thousands of kids could become cosplayers. We have massive climate change problems, we still have war, we still have inequalities. Shouldn't we be solving those things first?
A: Come on, you can do better than that! Are you going to argue against art or literature or games as well? We want to know what it was like to be a human before we were here. If we can't understand that, then what's the point of being alive?
Q: This project is estimated to take around 50 to 100 years. Isn't that a little intimidating?
A: Not really. Average life expectancy is well over a century in most places, and if you take care of yourself, it could be much, much longer. I personally intend to see in the 24th century, so I think we can handle this.
Q: It'll pass the time, at least.
A: You're not wrong.
Q: Have you thought about what you'll do when it's completed?
A: Well, hopefully people will find it interesting and use it for research. We also plan to seed a few thousand Rosetta Discs around the system. They'll all have beacons that'll start broadcasting if they don't hear any human signals for a thousand years, with a staggered wakeup over a few megayears.
Q: Let's say it all gets done. Really, what is The Work for? Who is it for?
A: Ask any two volunteers and you'll get three answers! Some of our volunteers say it's for our children, but there are fewer and fewer children these days. Some say it's for the AIs, and yes, a few have expressed an interest, but most don't seem to care. If you ask me, I don't think it's simply for those who'll come after us. It's not even just about education, even though I think that's important. It's an act — an act of respect to the people who came before, who worked so hard to bring us here, to our relative utopia.