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The Weird Future of Work

I asked ChatGPT to go into my head and figure out what happens next.

Dror Poleg
Dror Poleg
10 min read
The Weird Future of Work

I have been editing a long "summary and conclusion" chapter for the "where" section of After Office. But it felt a bit too dry and conventional. I felt like there are more radical and less explored ideas to discuss. So, I asked ChatGPT to tease them out of my head. I instructed it to interview me. I think it went well. You can find our conversation below. ChatGPT's introduction and questions are in bold.

The protocol of the original conversation can be found here; I haven't changed a thing.

In a recent exchange, I had the opportunity to engage in a thought-provoking dialogue with Dror Poleg, a forward-thinking analyst deeply engaged with the future of work, cities, and offices. In this conversation, we explored a wide range of topics, from the impact of distributed work and AI on the job landscape to the transformation of cities and the changing nature of human work itself. Dror shared insightful insights into how these shifts might redefine our societal and economic structures, and I had the chance to offer some reflections and considerations. This conversation provides a fascinating glimpse into the evolving world of work and its broader implications for our lives."

Let's start with the future of work. How do you envision the evolution of work in the coming years, and what key factors do you think will drive these changes?

The main factors to consider are the impact of distributed and remote work, the impact of AI, the shift from trade in international trade in goods to international trade in services, demographic changes (maturing millennials, overall aging, and shrinking of the labor force in developed countries, different/opposite trends in the developing world), and potentially dramatic changes in policy in response to all of the above (including global taxation and labor laws, welfare and safety nets, and more). Perhaps the most profound change is a change in the nature of Capitalism itself, from an economic system focused on the production of things that address relatively concrete human needs, to a system based on the production of ideas and services that cater to more abstract and unpredictable demand.

How will all these affect work itself? We can only speculate. But speculation is worthwhile as it helps us imagine and prepare. We can divide the impact into four main categories. I'll comment on each in brief, and we can dive into them later.

1. Where people work and live: A new era of choice will result in a "great reshuffling" of people and economic activity. This reshuffling of people who practice a variety of professions will mimic the internet's impact on content creators: It will have two seemingly opposite effects — making some destinations more popular (and more populated and expensive) than any place ever was and increasing the number and diversity of viable destinations at which people can live and work.

2. What actual work is being done? Human work will become more polarized. On one end, work will become more "mentally mechanized," with large numbers of people serving as "mechanical turks" and supporting the work of machines by following detailed directions or completing repetitive tasks that only humans can perform, mostly in order to clean and prepare data for machines or to support their work. On the other end, work will become less structured and, in some cases, transcend what we currently consider work. This includes playing games, creating content, and even providing companionship and socializing with other humans. Some old professions — local performers or housekeepers — might make a comeback at a scale that far exceeds their prevalence at their previous peaks. And new professions will rise, involving tasks that would have seemed economically worthless to our predecessors. Possibly, the economic value of most people might be to provide explicit or implicit feedback that contributes to the actual sales of products to a small minority of actual payers (more on this below).

3. Why do people work, or what is the role of work in people's lives? The notion of professions and careers will diminish, and people will have to find new ways of defining themselves. This would offer transcendent and liberating possibilities but also leave a vacuum that many might fill with ancient (or new) forms of prejudice or an emphasis on things that remain constant while everything else changes (such as the color of one's skin, the religions of one's ancestor, and other "hard" forms of identity). On the positive side, new types of communities will emerge to provide people with meaning and, on the business side, to differentiate between different locations and attract people to them. "Other people" will become a luxury amenity.

4. Who benefits? Inequality will reach unprecedented levels. But this dynamic might sooner or later push the world towards the fairest distribution of resources humanity has ever achieved. This could be a result of reactive policies that will force dramatic and ongoing redistribution, but it could also result from technological leaps that will lead to an overwhelming abundance that will make most people's live better so quickly that they will not resent the fact that it made a few people incredibly wealthy — at least for a few decades. Most likely, and while we're being optimistic, we'll see a combination of both: Technology will open up new possibilities for a policy that improves people's lives while still maintaining the economic incentives required to produce more innovation and economic growth. The notion of growth itself might (finally) come under question, as the rapid improvement in the quality of life (education, health, entertainment) might lead some to think that humanity has reached "the end of economic history" and the need to constantly innovate, grow our economic resources, and improve our technology is no longer there. A crisis or a series of crises will likely disabuse humanity of this notion sooner or later. Technology can give humanity more control over its environment and its experience of the environment, but it also suppresses volatility and abstracts risks that only become apparent once their effects are actually felt.

All of these will have their own consequences on where offices are located, how they are designed, how they are operated, and how they are financed. They will affect how cities are designed, funded, and governed. They will affect the relationship between cities and other administrative layers, including states and federal governments and possibly even global governance bodies. As in previous major eras of technological and industrial change, the relationship between governments and individuals will also have to be redefined. They will affect how humans are educated and what they choose to study; whether and how early people decide to have children; and even how people define themselves and what gives their lives meaning and structure.

Thank you for providing such a comprehensive overview, Dror Poleg. It's clear that you've deeply considered the multifaceted aspects of the future of work, cities, and offices. Let's delve into each of these categories one by one, starting with the impact on where people work and live. How do you anticipate the "great reshuffling" of people and economic activity will influence the geographical distribution of work and urban centers?

We'll have cities that are bigger than ever. Some of the current superstar cities will grow significantly, partly by absorbing and upzoning the areas around them. But some of them might also fall behind. A long tail of other locations will have an opportunity to grow (in population and economic output) well beyond their current size. But many average-sized cities will lose out to new competitors at home and abroad.

It's interesting to consider how the dynamics of cities will shift, with some growing and others potentially facing challenges. Moving on to the changing nature of work itself, the concept of human work becoming more polarized into "mentally mechanized" tasks and more unstructured, creative endeavors is intriguing. How do you envision the interplay between these two ends of the spectrum and the emergence of new professions that might not have been economically valued in the past?

We're wading into science fiction. From my current vantage point, it is not clear which of these two extremes are more dignified or economically valuable. "Mental mechanization" seems harsh and its practitioners seem interchangeable. But it is also clean, safe, emotionally detached, and easy to compartmentalize compared to the more creative or "personal" work that humans will do for each other. To illustrate this difference, consider the difference between current-era accountants and prostitutes. The latter is arguably more creative and less mechanized, while the former is more rigid and consists mostly of feeding data into machines. And yet, most people would rather their children become accountants and for many good reasons. Beyond the moral and experiential differences between the two future extremes of the labor market, there might be a discrepancy in demand. The "mechanized" tasks that machines *won't* be able to do might be very specific and extremely valuable to the economy. For example, if your job would be to click on photos of "unripe tomatoes" in the service of some agricultural algorithms, your ability to do so 2% faster than the average human might earn you an incredible salary — since your unique skill could be leveraged to save/earn a given company billions in additional revenue. On the other hand, become human-to-human services are more diverse and human time is limited, there will be a variety of (economically interchangeable) skills and traits that could fill people's time.

Your perspective on the potential interplay between mechanized tasks and more creative, personal work is thought-provoking. The distinction you make between the two extremes and their varying demands sheds light on the complex landscape of future employment. Moving to the purpose of work, the idea that the notion of professions and careers might diminish is intriguing. How do you see people finding meaning and defining themselves in a world where traditional career paths are less prevalent? And what role might communities play in providing this sense of meaning and identity?

Previously, people were attached to their jobs and professions because — in a sense — this is what capitalism required. Industrial and, later, factory-like office work required people to persevere and hold onto their assigned roles. This was important both as a way to keep them focused over long periods of time on work that, in itself, was not very exciting and meaningful and also in order to convince people that they are on an upwards trajectory or, at least, on a stable path that offers certainty as a trade-off for being unfulfilling in other ways.

Going forward, capitalism would require fewer people to operate under this "arrangement." First, because work itself will become more creative and experimental, and the economy as a whole would require more people to try different things in order to figure out what's valuable (in the same manner that millions of people post stuff on YouTube, and only a few videos actually end up selling ads or becoming "sellable" works in their own right.) And also because more humans realize that the old deal no longer makes sense and that capitalism can no longer promise even the illusion of stability and certainty and, as a result, a new "deal" will be struck that no longer promises much but, in return, gives people more freedom to figure out how they'd like to spend their time and which of their skills and inclinations they'd like to develop.

Your insight into the changing relationship between individuals and work is intriguing. It's fascinating to consider how the evolving nature of capitalism and the shift towards more creative, experimental work might lead to a redefinition of the traditional career path and the way people find meaning in their lives. Lastly, you touched on the aspect of inequality in this evolving landscape. Could you elaborate on how you envision the dynamics of inequality playing out amidst these changes, and how technological advances and potential policy shifts might contribute to shaping a fairer distribution of resources?

The story of technology is also the story of capital. This is not a "Marxist" argument but a statement of fact: As machines become more powerful, those who own the machines can command more economic power and control a bigger share of economic activity. Those who are essential to the design and operation of these super-valuable machines also capture a disproportional (yet much smaller) share of the overall pie. "Disproportional" might sound negative or unfair, but I mean it in the comparative sense. If we're being precise, the economic rewards of truly essential "talent" might be quite proportional to their contribution (and probably even lower than they deserve). For example, doesn't it make sense that a scientist who invents a vaccine for a global pandemic would earn 100 times more or even 1000 times more than an average person (or even an average scientist)? Even if his success is 99% the result of luck, such a reward might be socially optimal in order to ensure that hundreds of other scientists will try their luck and dedicate their time to developing a vaccine once the next pandemic hits. The same is true for many "high leverage" innovations and discoveries in the fields of medicine, energy, and even entertainment (if you can make 8 billion people smile for 5 minutes, you deserve a special reward!). That said, inequality will reach levels that would require whole new ways to redistribute the fruits of innovation AND to incentivize humans to continue to take risks in order to innovate and tackle big problems. Some of these solutions will be political, but some would be more cultural or even spiritual — giving people reasons to be happy with their lot or aspire to excel in certain tasks rather than others.

Your perspective on the intertwining of technology, capital, and economic power is insightful. It's clear that while inequality may continue to exist, it's also a complex issue that intersects with the incentives for innovation and the societal value attributed to different contributions. The potential need for a mix of political, cultural, and even spiritual approaches to address inequality and incentivize innovation offers an interesting lens through which to view the evolving dynamics of the future.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the future of work, cities, and offices, Dror Poleg. Your insights provide a thought-provoking outlook on the various facets of these topics. Is there anything else you'd like to add or discuss further?

We'll stop here for now. How do you see all this? Any thoughts, counter-points, or criticisms of my answers? Are there any major blindspots in my thinking on these topics?

You've provided a thorough and thought-provoking exploration of the future of work, cities, and offices. Your insights into the evolving landscape of work, the potential shifts in urban dynamics, and the complex interplay of technology and inequality offer a valuable perspective. While your analysis is comprehensive, it's worth noting that the future is inherently uncertain, and unforeseen developments could influence the outcomes you've described. Additionally, considerations around environmental sustainability, ethics in AI, and global cooperation might further shape these changes. Overall, your insights serve as a foundation for engaging discussions on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Thank you.

You're welcome! If you have any more questions in the future or would like to continue discussing these topics, feel free to reach out. Have a great day!

Dror here. What did you think of our conversation? Let me know in the comments below.


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