M A N O S T A X X
The personal computer was supposed to kill the office and liberate us from hellish commutes to the city. But the average American commute has only increased since then. Could virtual reality finally change that.
In 1975, when personal computers were little more than glorified calculators for geeks and the Internet was an obscure project being developed by the United States government, Macrae, an influential journalist for The Economist who earned a reputation for clairvoyant prophesies—including the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Japan—made a radical prediction about how information technology would soon transform our lives.
Macrae foretold the exact path and timeline that computers would take over the business world and then become a fixture of every American home. But he didn’t stop there. The spread of this machine, he argued, would fundamentally change the economics of how most of us work. Once workers could communicate with their colleagues through instant messages and video chat, he reasoned, there would be little coherent purpose to trudge long distances to work side by side in centrally located office spaces. As companies recognized how much cheaper remote employees would be, the computer would, in effect, kill the office—and with that our whole way of living would change.
Fast forward 40 years and suburban breadwinners still clog motorways in a daily trek to cities to make money. Young professionals flock to live in them for the perks of urban life. Far from the “re-ruralization” that Macrae predicted, the metropolis of the computer age has become an even stronger magnet for the physical bodies of human beings.
Ed Glaeser, an economist at Harvard University who is one of the foremost experts on cities, says that predictions about the city’s decline were not uncommon when he entered the profession back in the 1980s. At the time, urban centers were sinking into cesspools of poverty, blight, and crime. Since then, there’s been a remarkable reversal, with waves of development and gentrification, pushing more and more poor people out and bringing more and more rich people in.
Part of the story, Glaeser says, is that “Macrae didn’t foresee the rise of the consumer city, the fact that millions of people would actually want to locate in London or New York—not just because there are jobs there—but because it was fun.” The other part of the story is that, far from killing the urban office, computers invigorated it with new forms of work that made it even more profitable.
There are many reasons to believe commuting is stupid. It wastes resources. It’s bad for the environment. It’s unproductive time that we’re not paid for. It costs us money. It’s stressful. It’s associated with higher rates of depression, obesity,cardiovascular disease, divorce,death, and a whole host of other maladies. We report we hate it more than anything else in our routines and that we’re happier when we get to more regularly work from home. Why, then, must office workers continue to do it?
Social science points to the importance of face-to-face interaction for worker productivity. The principal-agent model in economics, for instance, stresses the need of employers to monitor and incentivize workers to make sure they’re not slacking on the job. Studies have shown that teams who work together face-to-face, as opposed to via email, are more productive when doing complex tasks. Being physically close helps us bond, show emotions, problem solve, andspontaneously come up with ideas. That may not matter for being productive at jobs that don’t require much teamwork, such as at call centers, but for the many that require collaboration, it’s a big deal. Companies like IBM once embraced Macrae’s worldview, but they’ve learned through experience that existing technology is no substitute for the brick-and-mortar office.
The Stanford University psychologist Jeremy Bailenson accepts this fact, but he dreams of a technology that can finally liberate us from the need to commute. The problem is that existing technology just doesn’t convey information efficiently enough when we communicate with colleagues from afar. Most scholars who study this area, he says, are in agreement that a significant amount of information is conveyed non-verbally. Many of these non-verbal channels, like body language, facial expressions, and eye movements, are lost with email, instant messaging, and even Skype. This is especially the case when meetings involve multiple people.
Bailenson and his associates have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to increase social presence in virtual reality. They’ve found, for instance, that people perform tasks better when avatars look,sound, and even feel like flesh-and-blood human beings. Their findings support the idea that the virtual office could become a more solid business model.
“There’s a long line of research about social presence in VR that suggests that we tend to treat digital representations more or less as we would real people,” Bailenson says. “In fact, even the mere belief that you are interacting with a real-time representation of another human makes you behave differently than you would if you were interacting with a computer algorithm.”
Continue at: https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2017/11/why-do-we-still-commute/544733/
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