🎧 Get the audio version of this article here.
It's a busy week! I am in the midst of teaching the inaugural cohort of Hype-Free AI. But I wanted to share with you some quick thoughts in between.
The next cohort is in August, with sessions timed for the convenience of participants in Asia-Pacific (but also for afternoon/evening participants in the U.S.). Check it out!
The Next Crisis Will Start At The (Empty) Office
The Atlantic just published a piece of mine about the broader implications of the office crisis. The article traces the potential fallout for cities, banks, pension funds, and individual investors. It also looks at what cities can do to adapt, what policies have worked in the past, and why even the best-case scenario will require a lot of work.
A few highlights:
- "Over the next two years, many downtowns will find that dozens of buildings are no longer fit for purpose. Municipal services will likely deteriorate, and more people might leave. The worst-case scenario is a return to the 1970s, with bankrupt municipal governments, rising crime, and the flight of (primarily white) upper-middle-class residents. Landlords like to point out that “New York always comes back.” But some cities—like Detroit or Pittsburgh—never recovered from the previous waves of technological change. And even in New York, a comeback may take decades."
- "In a world of consumer choice, locations must think like consumer products. One way to win is to double down on what only the biggest cities can offer—walkable streets, car-free transportation, and cultural and intellectual diversity. But smaller cities can emphasize shorter commutes, ample parking, proximity to nature, better schools, and lower taxes."
- "Most offices will chug along, under new ownership or in the hands of investors who will have to wait longer to recoup their investment. Many old buildings will have to be converted to other uses or demolished... To facilitate such conversions, cities must loosen existing zoning laws, streamline planning procedures, and provide tax abatements and other incentives."
It's not all doom and gloom, and I dive into more policy prescriptions in the full piece. The Atlantic is paywalled, but I will expound on some of these themes in my upcoming book. Premium subscribers will get advance access, as always.
Work As a Digital Destination
Apple finally launched its VR goggles, and everyone has an opinion. I'll definitely consider it as an alternative to my multiple desktop monitors and as a way to take my workspace with me when I travel. Also, I'm just a sucker for new tech.
But there's a broader point here. Beyond gaming and a few very specialized applications, Virtual Reality has yet to find mainstream use cases. Even in theory, it was hard to think of one. Until the Covid lockdown. Then, something changed in the way we think about work, and that change unearthed a whole new opportunity for VR. In 2021, Ben Thompson turned bullish on VR and explained:
...work is a destination, and its a destination that occupies a huge amount of our time. Of course when I wrote that skeptical article in 2018 a work destination was, for the vast majority of people, a physical space; suddenly, though, for millions of white collar workers in particular, it’s a virtual space. And, if work is already a virtual space, then suddenly virtual reality seems far more compelling. In other words, virtual reality may be much more important than previously thought because the vector by which it will become pervasive is not the consumer space (and gaming), but rather the enterprise space, particularly meetings.
We used to think about "work" as a place. We went to work. Increasingly, we think of work as an activity that can be done anywhere. But there's still an advantage in separating work from non-work locations such as homes, hotels, or airplanes. There is value in going to work, switching contexts completely, and stepping into a different environment. As our habits and hardware evolve, imagining a new combination becomes easier: Work as a place, but a place we can access from anywhere.
In other words, we might currently be in a temporary stage where we do our work from home (or anywhere). Temporarily, work is no longer a destination; it's just something we do wherever we are. But with better technology, work will once again become a destination — it will be somewhere we go to, leaving behind our non-work environment. But instead of going there physically, we'll do it digitally — by putting on our headsets.
Apple's impressive new device is filled with incredible chips and software that meshes together images and sounds from different sources to create an experience of true presence. These advances highlight the symbiotic relationship between remote work and artificial intelligence. As I pointed out a few weeks ago:
Remote Work and AI have a symbiotic relationship. The shift towards remote and hybrid work models has opened doors for AI-driven chatbots and virtual assistants to join the workforce. AI, in turn, enhances remote collaboration by improving communication tools and incentivizing humans to rely even more heavily on digital communication and modular work.
It turns out that the shift to remote work didn't just make it easier for software to pick up new work tasks. If Ben Thompson is correct (and he usually is), the rapid adoption of remote work also uncovered the primary use cases for virtual reality goggles. This, in turn, will help shift even more work tasks away from traditional offices and make it possible for people to do more complex tasks remotely.
What do you think will happen?
Let me know in the comments below.