All The World’s A Stage

The Future (Location) of Work

In this post, I will discuss why I expect work in the Virtual Age to be very different from work in the Industrial Age as it exists today.

By the dawn of the Virtual Age in the early 2040s, the majority of “real world” jobs that exist today will likely have either been automated or have gone obsolete, due in large part to the effects of the virtual reality spiral.  Fortunately, virtual reality technologies should also have vastly expanded human job creation capabilities by this point. As a result, the most surprising thing about a typical job in the 2040s is not what it will be but where it will be located.  Most human work in the Virtual Age will take place in virtual reality environments.

In the Virtual Age, I expect that the vastly increased access to experiences that virtual reality and other technologies will provide will have resulted in very high living standards around the globe. People will likely spend the bulk of both their work and leisure time in immersive virtual reality environments, enabling them to subjectively experience a much higher quality of life than is possible today, while generating a smaller aggregate ecological footprint.

Private sector jobs and companies will also of course still exist in the Virtual Age. However, the private sector is likely to be much smaller than the public sector, after having shrunk during the economic turmoil of the virtual reality spiral.  As public works programs will most likely have to be used to offset private sector job losses during the virtual reality spiral, I expect the public sector to be the largest employer in the Virtual Age. [1]

 

LARP Speed

As I discussed in “The Jobs of Tomorrow: Part 2 of 2,” the most popular type of public works programs in the Virtual Age are likely to be what I’ve termed “Virtual Public Jobs Programs.”  I expect these virtual reality based public works programs to be introduced in the 2030s to offset private sector job losses resulting from the virtual reality spiral.

I envision Virtual Public Jobs Programs as giant, public sector sponsored “Live Action Role Playing Games” (LARPs) that will be conducted in virtual reality worlds.  I expect these “LARPs” to be structured to provide societies with practical insights about aggregate human behavior in hypothetical settings and scenarios. [2]  According to Wikipedia:

live action role-playing game (LARP) is a form of role-playing game where the participants physically act out their characters’ actions. The players pursue goals within a fictional setting represented by the real world while interacting with each other in character… Event arrangers called gamemasters decide the setting and rules to be used and facilitate play.

LARPs are commonly used as recreational or educational activities in the real world today [3].  However, they have a great deal more potential than this, and will take on heightened socioeconomic significance when they can be staged in immersive virtual reality environments.  I will refer to such virtual reality based LARPs as “VR LARPs” going forward.

By the 2030s, I expect that societies will have gained significant awareness of the potential of VR LARPs as a highly realistic social simulation tool.  Advances in virtual reality infrastructure by this point should also have paved the way for millions of people to simultaneously participate in the same VR LARP.  Societies that use the resulting social simulation capabilities wisely should be able to gain practical insights and experience that prove useful in dealing with real world scenarios.  They will also further refine their virtual reality infrastructures as they learn to adapt them to the demands of increasingly complex VR LARPs.

Since reliably authentic human behavior and interactions will be needed to generate high quality simulation results, humans will be needed to play humans in many VR LARPs, resulting in the creation of a completely new class of improvisational acting jobs. [4]  I illustrate below how this will differentiate the nature (and location) of work in the Virtual Age from the historical periods before it.

 

comparison table 7 pdf

 

Given the widespread success of reality game shows like Survivor over the past few years, and the significant popularity of a variety of role playing games today, there is plenty of evidence that people from widely varying backgrounds should be able to adapt well to improvisational acting jobs.  This should of course be even more so if the settings that people are asked to act in are highly realistic and have large numbers of human participants, both of which virtual reality technologies will enable within a few decades. [5]

I expect Virtual Public Jobs Programs to ultimately be popular because they are likely to have major social and economic advantages over other alternatives for providing relief to the unemployed.  For example, it will be pointless to use public works programs to expand Industrial Age infrastructure in the 2030s, as there is likely to be a significant overcapacity of such infrastructure by then due to efficiency gains in natural resource use and logistical coordination.  Furthermore, robots should be able to do a great deal of physical work more efficiently than humans by the 2030s, so hiring humans to interfere with or replace robotic work would be technologically regressive.  Simply doling out money to unemployed people who would otherwise be willing and able to work for it would also be a very inefficient use of public funds, as providing them with real jobs would yield significantly more benefits for them and for society as a whole. [6]

 

Stages and Wages

Centuries ago, William Shakespeare realized that improvisational acting is the one job that all humans do naturally from birth, and continue to do naturally throughout their lives.  In his play “As You Like It,” he famously noted that:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts… [7]

This perceptive passage, and the words that follow it, describe how each individual naturally plays a variety of improvisational acting roles throughout his or her life.  This of course occurs regardless of whether or not an individual is officially recognized as a professional “actor” or “actress” by society. For example, people naturally play different unscripted roles at home, on vacation, during job interviews, and so on. [8]

This truth will simply be formalized in the Virtual Age, as public sector sponsored VR LARP’s enable the vast majority of people in the workforce to work as improvisational actors.  Blue, pink and white collar jobs are destined to become a tiny percentage of the overall pool of jobs as this process unfolds, just as occurred with farming jobs before them.  These VR LARPs will also bring with them new workplace hierarchies and new paths to acquiring social prestige, as key cast, crew and analytical roles will clearly be in limited supply.

Over the next 25 years or so, the global economy should thus be transitioning from a machine-like contraption focused on solving Keynes’ “economic problem” [9] to a neural net like entity [10] focused on analyzing and solving a variety of new problems.  During this transition, our universe of potential jobs will expand from the currently limited set of “real world” based jobs to the truly unlimited set of virtual reality based improvisational acting jobs.  As humanity successfully transitions to this new (but not entirely unfamiliar) form of work, societies will acquire the unprecedented ability to realistically simulate alternate human futures and realities.  In turn, the data generated from these simulations will vastly increase human knowledge and bring tremendous benefits to the world.

Amazingly then, it appears that technology has been acting throughout history to enable most people to do a job that everyone is born with some ability to do – improvisational acting in a variety of social settings.  Perhaps this should not be too surprising though, because technology is a human tool, and humans are a social species.

As the promise of virtual reality technology is realized in coming decades, I expect the levels of individual convenience and access to experiences enjoyed by people around the globe to reach incredible heights compared to today.  In the process, our world should literally be transformed into a stage on which the majority of people in the workforce play improvisational roles in social simulations.  I plan to discuss some of the many implications of this in future posts.

 

References and Additional Notes

[0] The phrase “All the World’s A Stage” is a famous line from William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” Act II, Scene VII

[1] I expect stimulus spending by the public sector to be used to offset declines in private sector employment and wages caused by the virtual reality spiral, in countries that are capable of do so.  Governments and central banks in these countries will of course have to work diligently to ensure that this stimulus spending does not unduly erode the purchasing power of their currencies, and also benefits their societies as a whole.  In my post “The Jobs of Tomorrow: Part 2 of 2,” I explain why I expect a lot of such stimulus spending to be on public works programs.

[2] While preparing this post, I learned about the work of Jane McGonigal, a game designer who is a prominent advocate of using games to help solve real world problems. Dr. McGonigal gave a fascinating TED talk in 2012 titled “Gaming Can Make a Better World,” in which she makes several great points about the potential of games to achieve positive social outcomes.  I also expect games to be increasingly used for socially beneficial purposes in the future, and it seems logical to expect that if they can in fact bring tangible benefits to societies (as Dr. McGonigal’s TED talk suggests), then societies should be willing to fund them if the costs (and benefits) of doing so become compelling enough.

[3] For example, I recently learned that a large amount of literature about LARPs that take place in real world settings already exists (e.g. see the Nordic Larp Wiki).  This means that a huge amount of LARP design, role playing and analysis work has already been done.  In addition to this, the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game industry has done a tremendous amount of groundwork already in creating simulated worlds that large numbers of people can interact in.  As virtual reality technologies are integrated into these currently niche gaming areas they will take on new dimensions of social significance.  The widespread success of social media today, which seems to have had its foundations in the message boards and chat rooms of a few decades ago, should be a good indication that the niche online social activities of the past have great potential to go mainstream in the future.

[4] In “The Jobs of Tomorrow: Part 2 of 2” I discuss why I believe that human actors will be needed to play reliably authentic human characters in simulations for the foreseeable future, although machines should also be able to pose as increasingly convincing characters in simulations over time as well.  Note also that “human actor” responses in post-simulation debriefs are also likely to be considered more authentically human than “machine actor” responses for some time to come as well.  Along these lines, Erving Goffman’s classic book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1959), is a good reference work about some of the many complexities and nuances of human social interactions.

[5] A word of caution is in order here, though. The Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated in 1971 that although people have significant innate ability to immerse themselves in improvisational acting roles, they may sometimes become so consumed with such roles that they cross moral boundaries during their performances. Societies will thus need to seriously debate what types of scenarios and behaviors should be permitted in VR LARPs, to ensure that participants have positive experiences overall.

[6] I expect there to be spirited debate as the virtual reality spiral progresses about whether providing a basic income to every citizen is preferable to providing public works jobs at fixed wages to all citizens who request them (known as a “job guarantee”).  Clearly the latter option is likely to not only be financially cheaper for societies in the near term, but would also encourage a society’s citizens to stay employed, benefiting both society and them.  Gainful employment in turn would help individuals to maintain their problem solving skills, social skills, and dignity in the eyes of their families and communities.  Furthermore, countries that use public works programs to build out and refine their Virtual Age infrastructures should acquire significant economic efficiency advantages over countries that don’t.  So economic competition between countries alone seems likely to lead to public works programs being eventually preferred over basic income schemes, regardless of whether or not the public works programs are associated with job guarantees.  Please see this paper by Dr. Philip Harvey of Rutgers University for a good overview of the issues involved in comparing costs between basic income and job guarantee proposals.

[7] Although “actors” were known as “players” in Shakespearean times, acting was clearly very challenging work then, and it remains very challenging work today.  As a result, people are still likely to work significant numbers of hours each week as the workforce transitions to a majority of improvisational acting jobs over the next 25 years or so.

[8] Professional actors and actresses play many more “roles” throughout their lifetimes than non-actors, at this point in time.  The number of unscripted roles that the average person plays in his or her lifetime is simply going to increase in the future as improvisational acting jobs become mainstream.

[9]  Humans are natural problem solvers.  So it’s logical to expect that after humanity solves Keynes’ “economic problem” (making the struggle for subsistence essentially obsolete), it will move on to analyzing and solving other complex social problems.  By this future time, however, humanity will be able to use advanced reality simulation tools to gain insights on these problems. For reference, Keynes discusses the “economic problem” in Keynes, John Maynard, Essays in Persuasion, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1963.

[10]  I use the term “neural net like entity” here to describe a situation in which networked human and machine “nodes” work in conjunction rather than competition with each other to provide societies with practical insights on highly complex social problems.

 

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