The evolution of “Imitative technology” and its post-COVID impact on work

[A new long story in City Journal magazine presents a useful, link-filled history of what the author calls imitative technologies and then turns to the long-term impact of the pandemic on our use of telepresence and telecommuting; an extended excerpt is below. –Matthew]

[Image: With virtual reality and augmented reality, the line between the real world and the world of representation has gotten even blurrier. Credit: Mark Rightmire/Medianews Group/Orange County Register/Getty Images]

The Great Fake

Digital advances have taken imitative technology on a miraculous trajectory—bringing new challenges but also new possibilities.

By Joel Mokyr, a professor of economics and history at Northwestern University and the author of A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy
Spring 2021

[snip]

One technology that has dramatically advanced in the past century could be called “imitating life”—creating images and sounds that reproduce aspects of reality, making the observer “experience” something that he or she is not actually physically living through. Past attempts to create such a technology rarely pretended to be the real thing: while watching a movie, you knew that it was a movie. It was fake—a virtualization of reality—but if well-done, it worked. The history of imitative technology, much like that of medical technology, follows a “punctuated” pattern: for hundreds of years, the technology is more or less static; then comes a sudden eruption of new knowledge and capabilities—and the world changes irreversibly.

[snip]

The most far-reaching effect of imitative technology could well be telepresence, a term pioneered by another MIT scientist, Marvin Minsky, in 1980. The idea of doing something in a different place from where you are is a particular feature of imitative technology.

[snip]

Until about 1750, people earned their living and ate their bread by the sweat of their brows, but almost all worked from home and chose their own hours. This was true not only for farmers and artisans but also for doctors, shopkeepers, and teachers. The industrial revolution disrupted that reality and created, as Karl Marx famously pointed out, a new form of production: “the factory system.” When production grew more complex, more machine-intensive, and more dependent on a fine division of labor, employers concentrated workers in “mills.” Hours became rigid, and workers found themselves crammed in to grimy, drafty, and noisy factory halls. After this system achieved dominance in manufacturing, it expanded into large retail stores, office buildings, and schools. The factory system had conquered the workplace for most workers. It was largely concentrated in cities, so workers had to migrate to urban areas if they sought employment. It was one of history’s greatest revolutions.

Telecommuting, relying on imitative technology, could partly return work to the home. For many years, the rate of growth of telecommuting was slow. According to the Federal Bank of St. Louis, the percentage of workers toiling “remotely” rose from 0.7 percent in 1980 to about 3 percent in 2016. There are different explanations for this. Among them: teleworking hardware needed to be improved, broadband upgraded and made more accessible and reliable, and the software of teleconferencing made more sophisticated.

For a large part of the labor force, then, remote working was not an option—and that remains the case. Under current technology, the best estimates are that 40 percent to 45 percent of workers can conceivably work remotely, though not all may want to. On the whole, it is more highly educated workers who can benefit from telecommuting, though some high-skill professions require in-person presence. A large range of laborers, from waiters and landscapers to proctologists, still have to be physically at their place of work and interact in person with objects or with people. But modern technology is advancing, and as workers and customers get more comfortable with telepresence, new possibilities for remote work will emerge.

At least in this regard, we may eventually see a silver lining in the Covid-19 disaster. Tens of millions of Americans have had to adjust suddenly to remote work. They discovered that if they spent much of the day working in front of a computer monitor in an office, they could do the same from home. Once this realization sinks in, further technological adjustment will occur, and the infrastructure supporting it will expand. With good connectivity, you can live anywhere and do most of the things you need to do while living in a cramped urban apartment, without fighting through traffic to get to the office cubicle on time. Having a private study where you can do your work becomes more affordable if you live in a more rural area where real estate is cheap, and you might get a nice yard and clean air, to boot. Both work and consumption can be done, in large part, online. Covid-19 is a cruel teacher, but it has concentrated our minds on how we could use imitative technology to beat the Tyranny of Distance.

Imitative technology increases our options, but it does not lock us in. When we go back to a world where we’re not fearful of being infected by others, telepresence will be an addition, not a replacement. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys the watercooler encounter with a gregarious colleague, or taking a client out to lunch, there is nothing to stop you. It seems likely that hybridizing will be a good outcome: work three days a week at home and two days in the office. If employers think that nothing stimulates creativity more than personal contact, they can mandate some degree of that—without necessarily precluding you from doing the rest of the work in your home study.

The shift may not even necessarily cut commutes. One initially perplexing finding of the Federal Reserve of St. Louis study was that office workers who telecommuted some of the time actually drove more miles yearly than their counterparts coming to the office daily. The reason: the telecommuters chose to live farther away and thus had longer, if fewer, drives—but presumably also enjoyed less confined and less expensive housing and chose their hours, so that they were likely better-off overall. Imitative technology gives us the flexibility to work in ways that suit us best.

Many bugs—both technical and human—in telepresence work will be fixed. Access to broadband technology has been uneven, and for many, it has been no less nerve-racking than the daily commute. But as broadband gets cheaper, more powerful, and more reliable, and its screen resolutions higher, colors more vivid, and sound clearer, teleconferencing and Zoom meetings will slowly become the rule rather than the exception. A “Zoom meeting” is an oxymoron: the meeting is fake. But as long as it is a reasonably good substitute for the real thing, and as the substitute gets closer and closer, more people will choose to avoid traffic jams and crowded airports and choose telepresence.

The old way of work won’t entirely vanish. Some places will retain the 9-to-5-in-a-cubicle mode of production. Airplanes will still be assembled in huge facilities. I myself am looking forward to meeting my students again face-to-face in my campus office. But for a growing number of people, working in the office or even the factory may turn from a necessity into an option. Robots will do more of the heavy lifting in plants and warehouses, and as they are computer-controlled, the workers controlling them may be far away. Medicine, law, and education will develop new systems of rendering their services, as retail already has.

Not everyone will be happy. Technological progress never comes without costs. Commercial real estate and urban rentals may fall and never fully recover. Hotels and airlines may have to downsize. Especially for single people, remote work may increase loneliness, already an underdiagnosed plague of modern society pre-pandemic. But again, modern imitative technology can provide some help: social media, at its best, can facilitate some kinds of companionship. Not the same as being together, true, but a substitute.

Whether telepresence is actually good for firms remains a matter of debate. Marissa Meyer, then-CEO of Yahoo, notably banned telecommuting. Her argument, expressed in a much publicized 2013 memo, was: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria encounters, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.” Modern research has not unequivocally confirmed this opinion. Personal interaction and brainstorming are historically documented ingredients of creativity. Perhaps by organizing company retreats, firms can make up for some of the lost watercooler effects.

For the average worker, how much personal interaction is needed, given good telepresence technology? Most evidence supports the findings of Stanford’s Nicholas Bloom. In the group he studied (which he acknowledged was not representative), the productivity of remote workers was substantially higher, partly because of the time and energy saved from avoiding the commute and having fewer distractions. Similar results were found by researchers in Europe. Remote workers were more productive, put in more hours, were better motivated, and even increased unpaid overtime hours. Bloom, however, added that there was enough diversity in both the nature of workers and the demands of the job to suggest that Meyer’s insistence on physical presence may not necessarily have been wrong.

The abrupt surge in remote work that the pandemic forced upon us is precisely the opposite of how such a shift should be implemented. The pandemic made employees telecommute who would rather not, and for many, the costs of isolation—compounded by the punishing weight of social distancing—may have outweighed any gains. Moreover, school closures forcing children to stay home can be a major cause of lower productivity (so that productivity data collected this year are suspect). Above all, remote work—precisely because it is most suitable for computer-literate, well-educated workers who are often self-driven and “intrinsically motivated,” in the jargon of economists—has produced a sudden and disastrous sharpening of inequality.

The shock treatment that the pandemic inflicted on modern economies has had terrible consequences. These effects will take years to remedy. All the same, Covid-19 has accelerated telepresence like nothing before. As the MIT report “Work of the Future” pointed out: “Our technologies have been instrumental in enabling us to adapt [to the pandemic] via telepresence, online services, remote schooling, and telemedicine. While they don’t look anything like robots, these remote work tools too are forms of automation.”

As long as imitative technology is added as an option to an employment menu instead of being a necessity, it may do away with some of the more disagreeable features of the factory system and the harshness of urban commutes and business travel. Change is more tolerable if it is introduced gradually and carefully. After all, the factory system took a century and a half to become dominant, and it cannot and should not be eliminated in one blow. Adjustment to the new imitative technology in the workplace will require closing digital divides and refitting many jobs to make them suitable for remote work. It will take decades to adjust and debug the new world that will replace the factory system. It remains to be seen to what extent doing so will lead to a decline in the attractions of urban living and spark an exodus to exurban living areas.

Technology often advances through catastrophes, fears, and traumas. Nothing so concentrates the mind as the knowledge that one is to be hanged in a fortnight, quipped Dr. Johnson. Covid-19 has forced us to learn how to organize our lives without getting physically close to one another. For that, imitative technology has been ideal, whether through Zoom, online shopping, or entertainment options. Nobody wants a world without human in-person contact, social or economic. But a world with more options will be a better world.

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City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank.

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