Our Brave New Merged World

AGI isn’t coming in the next thirty years. Neither are Moon or Mars colonies, or starships. Or immortality. Or nano-assemblers or ems. Cities won’t be flooded due to CO2, a nuclear war won’t devastate civilization, aliens won’t arrive in the skies, and a religious jihad won’t remake culture. The rates of change in the economy, lifespans, fertility, automation, and non-carbon energy will stay about the same. Quantum computing, 3D printing, and crypto-commerce will grow but remain small. There won’t even be that many flying or self-driving cars. So if you are looking for science-fiction-level excitement re dramatic changes over this period, due to a big change we can foresee today, you’ll be disappointed.

Unless maybe you look at remote work. (Yeah, its not the best name; “work from home” may be better. But I’ll stick with the US standard name here.)

I’ve written about how remote work can, for many industries, allow the merging of many local markets into fewer much larger, often global, markets. If this potential is realized, big changes will result. In this post, I’ll outline many of them.

First and foremost, this is a more productive and richer world that would otherwise exist. It has some mix of more stuff and experiences, and a wider variety of such things. Workers are more specialized, and so take longer to train. Firms are also more specialized, and are larger on average, with wider geographic scope.

This is also a more standardized homogenous world. Products and services are more the same around the world, as are workers and their tools, culture, and training (including school). Regulation of work and product quality is also more standard, as are currency and accounting units. Variety becomes more across professions and industries, and less across places.

This is also a more equal world. Places that resist integration and standardization will suffer, and that is likely to especially include the richest and poorest places. But for the rest, market integration will ensure more equal wages and prices for products and services. As usual, this will help those whom the prior fragmentation hurt, and hurt those whom the prior fragmentation helped. And everyone will gain from new economies of scale and scope. Of course real persistent productivity differences, such as across regions or demographic groups, should continue to induce real wage differences.

There will be a boom in key enabling tech and infrastructure, such as avatars, avatar tools, home controllers, home offices, and low-latency bandwidth. And also a boom in personal habits and skills better suited to this world, such as introversion, self-discipline, self-motivation, and writing. (Ph.D.s look better.) And there will be a relative bust in tech and infrastructure that supported prior work habits, such as offices, high rises, work suits, parking garages, freeways, and cars. And also old-style work habits and skills. New generations who learn the new ways early will also gain.

As jobs will less force people to move, people will move areas less often, and the areas where people live will be less set by jobs. As life at work will be less social, people will have to get more of their socializing from elsewhere. Some of this will come from remote socializing, but much will still probably come from in-person socializing. So people will choose where they live more based on family, friends, leisure activities, and non-work social connections. Churches, clubs, and shared interest socializing will increase in importance. People will also pick where to live more based on climate, price, and views. Beach towns will boom, and the largest cities will lose.

Because people will move areas less often, the social connections they make in school will last them longer into life. Yet today school is widely talked about as a preparation for work. So schools will be torn between wanting to be in-person to promote local social connections, and remote to promote work skills. Perhaps schools will split, with core work-related classes being remote but electives and “after school activities” being in-person. Work hours will be less rigid, and it will be easier to do non-work tasks during usual work times.

Because of their stronger social solidarity, local areas dominated by family and informal social ties seem better suited to provide social insurance, such as medical, retirement, and unemployment benefits. But if so they should arrange for global reinsurance, to deal with risks that could hurt whole areas together. And firms might resist, having long offered social insurance to induce worker loyalties.

The firms in this new world are larger, full of foreigners, create weaker personal bonds via less in-person contact, and sit in more competitive markets for workers, customers, and investors. Local and national governments also find them harder to regulate, and the world will probably fail to coordinate to create strong global governance. These global firms may thus find it harder to get workers and customers to trust them. And so such firms may try harder to create clearer track records and incentive contracts, as substitutes for regulation and loyalties based on area or personal connection.

Some smaller firms will advertise their connections to particular areas as ways to gain allegiance from local customers and workers. But larger firms will find that doing so puts off too many customers and workers from other places. Most such firms will thus seek an international brand, not tied to particular areas. As a result, they are likely to seek to create generic customer facing workers, not clearly associated with particular areas. They might even use simple machine learning to map local worker appearances, in image or sound, into more standard appearances. For example, they might remove distinctive local accents.

Most work interactions will be recorded, making rule-violating discrimination, sexual harassment, and conspiracies harder at work. But those things will still be common in person among friends, family, clubs, etc. Automation will be promoted by the fact that tasks done remotely satisfy more prerequisites of automation. Large datasets of workers doing tasks would be created, and remote service workers could easily invoke an automation to do a small task, often without clients even noticing the difference. Even so, automation progress will continue to be slow.

Some firms may retain in-person work and interactions at their headquarters, with personnel drawn more from in-person social networks and schools in a nearby local area. Even if this puts such firms at a global disadvantage, local political games may make it hard for outsiders to get in. At the other extreme, some workers may be so unskilled and poor as to not make it worth the bother to have them work remotely. Remote works seems to most help folks in the middle: middle professions and middle nations.

While fictional depictions of remote service work often try to make it seem alien, harsh, and degrading, everyone is more likely to work to make it seem natural, friendly, and comfortable. For example, instead of people wearing goggles that completely obscure their view of their immediate world while they immerse themselves in distant work, workers are more likely to see both worlds in overlay. Somewhat like how through a window you might see both the world outside and a refection of your room. And avatars that deal directly with customers are likely to prominently show a human face and voice.

A brave new world of remote work awaits. It isn’t AGI or aliens, but it is a pretty big change, coming to your world in the next few decades.

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