Tag Archives: RemoteWork

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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Remote Work Is Teleportation Lite

The division of labour is limited by the extent of the market. Adam Smith

Adam Smith gave the famous example of pins. He asserted that ten workers could produce 48,000 pins per day if each of eighteen specialized tasks was assigned to particular workers. Average productivity: 4,800 pins per worker per day. But absent the division of labor, a worker would be lucky to produce even one pin per day. (More)

Factories are dramatic examples of scale economies resulting from specialization. When you break up a large task into many small tasks, each to be repeated many times by a specialist, then you can do those tasks much faster and cheaper. Especially when the work product is very standardized, not varying much from case to case. Each worker can figure out just how to set up his/her task to do it best, with just the right angle, lighting, tools, and order of subtasks. And just the right people can be assigned to each task. Specialized tools can be designed for particular subtasks, and some subtasks can be automated. For example, car factories cars need only 14 hours of work to make a car, but if one person makes a car it takes them two months to two years.

Now consider car repair. Today, that process is mostly done via the same sort of general methods by which one person would make a car by themselves – much less efficient. Could we make more efficient car repair factories? Yes, if we had sufficient scale. If all the cars that were built the same (with same make & model) and had the same presenting problem could be lined up in front of a huge factory, then that repair task could be broken into many small tasks done by specialized workers. The problem is that it would be too expensive to ship all the cars of a particular model with a given problem to one location, and then there might not be enough of them at any one time to keep a big factory busy.

There is one car maintenance task that is needed often enough, and similar enough across car models, that we do actually make small factories: car washes. In large urban areas, there is enough demand to support small car wash factories near enough to each customer. And automated car washes are often substantially cheaper than hand car washes.

Now imagine that we had cheap teleportation; things disappear from one spot and immediately appear somewhere else on the globe. In this case we would be able to create larger repair and maintenance factories for each product, probably right next to the factory where that product is made. This would create stronger incentives to standardize products, to allow larger more specialized factories of this sort.

We could also make specialized factories for maintaining things that we don’t create. For example, with teleportation, there could be big facilities for grooming each particular type of pet. And veterinarians could specialize in dealing with each particular kind of animal and presenting problem. Making those services much cheaper.

All these gains would come because cheap teleportation would allow the entire world to become one big integrated market. Today larger cities are more efficient at most everything, and have more specialized services, such as more kinds of restaurants. With teleportation, the entire world becomes one big city, allowing vastly more specialization, which can be used either for more variety, as in the case of restaurants, or cheaper repair and maintenance, as in the case of specialized pet grooming and medical care.

Now consider remote work using advanced avatars. A robot can show up at your door, together with its large tool kit, or just sit in your closet. Larger more specialized toolkits and setups can sit ready a mile from your home. These all can be tele-operated by any human worker anywhere in the world. After years of practice, they can work the robots and tools remotely nearly as fluidly as they can work their own hands.

These remote workers and their avatar robots allow many of the efficiency advantages that teleportation would bring. That is, remote workers are teleportation lite. Instead of the item to be worked on moving through a factory space filled with different workstations run by different specialists, the item can stay in one place next to the same avatar that is controlled by a sequence of specialists, each doing their particular task. Instead of physical objects teleporting around, it is the workers who in effect teleport to each new task. This arrangement may limit the number and kind of specialized tools that can be brought to bear on any one task, but there’s otherwise no limit on how specialized the workers and their methods can be.

If the idea of a service factory seems fanciful to you, consider that they already exist for services that can be done by phone:

Starting in the 1980s, airlines, insurers, health care providers, credit card companies, and other enterprises began outsourcing labor-intensive back-office work to shared-services providers—at first close to home and then increasingly offshore—to cut costs and improve efficiency. In most sectors, this workbench extension was about as far as the transformation got. The majority of large service enterprises still use traditional factory layouts that rely on large numbers of people following workflows that are hardwired into legacy IT systems. … [This] traditional service factory works well in terms of reducing costs and enabling service companies to scale up. (More)

Recently I said:

Remote work is my guess for the most important neglected trend over the next 30 years. (At least of trends we can foresee now.)

My reasoning: remote work should greatly increase the division of labor. While today we live in a globally interconnected world, most industries and professions are not actually global. Some are national, some are regional, some are city-wide, and some are even more local. The smaller the market, the less specialization, and the less productive is an industry. So as remote work spreads, the geographical scope of many kinds of markets will increase, and thus so will their variety and productivity.

Customers will have the choice to spend the new remote work possibilities on more specialized products and services, or on more efficient versions of a smaller number of more standardized products and services. But either way, remote work can be a very big deal. In the long run, about much more than just saving on the costs of commuting or renting office space.

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Remote Work Specializes

We seem on track to spend far more preventing pandemic health harm than we will suffer from it, which seems too much spending given the apparent low elasticity of harm w.r.t. prevention. But an upside is that some of this prevention effort is being invested in remote work, which is helping to develop and innovate such capacities. Which matters because remote work (a.k.a. telecommuting) is my guess for the most important neglected trend over the next 30 years. (At least of trends we can foresee now.)

My recent polls put remote work at #24 out of 44 future trends, which IMHO greatly underrates it. AGI, biotech, crypto, space, and quantum computing are far overrated (due to drama & status). Automation matters but will continue steadily as it has for many decades, not causing much trend deviation. Global warming, non-carbon energy, the rise of Asia, falling fertility, and the rise of cybersecurity and privacy are important trends, but their trend deviation implications tend more to be correctly anticipated. However, I see remote work as big and mattering more than and driving trends in migration, aug./virtual reality, and self-driving cars. And remote work implications seem neglected and unappreciated.

Remote work has been a topic of speculation for many decades, so likely somewhere out there is an author who sees it right. But I haven’t yet found that author. I’ve recently read a dozen or so recent discussions of remote work, and all of them seem to miss the main reason that remote work will be such a big deal: specialization due to agglomeration (i.e., more interaction options). The two most formal math analyses I could find actually explicitly assume that remote work, in contrast to traditional work,  produces no agglomeration gains! In contrast, these discussions get closer to the truth: Continue reading "Remote Work Specializes" »

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