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What Do We Lose in the Virtual Workplace?

Profit is essential to the livelihood of entrepreneurs and innovators, but it doesn't have to come at the cost of our humanity.

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In Ernest Cline's 2011 science fiction novel Ready Player One, life is divided into two disparate experiences: the real and the virtual. The story is set in 2045, in a future beset by environmental, economic and social problems that leave its inhabitants spending time in a vast, highly-detailed virtual environment called OASIS. Entering OASIS with advanced VR visors and gloves allows users to maintain fantastic identities with altered appearances and even superpowers. These alternate identities provide people with an escape — not just from their dystopian world, but from their own identities and perceived inadequacies.

Years before Ready Player One, author Neal Stephenson, in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, described a fictional immersive virtual world similar to OASIS, that he called the Metaverse. In this Metaverse, virtual inhabitants could build world features from scratch, creating entire neighborhoods and personae in a way similar to many modern online games.

The technology and culture described in Ready Player One and Snow Crash aren't too farfetched when viewed in light of our own trajectory. AI and automation are rapidly eliminating the need for people to work or even live closely together. Advances in transportation and communication have allowed people to maintain seamless, instantaneous connections with each other anywhere on Earth. The world has become connected in a way that wouldn't have seemed possible just 100 years ago.

This has had a positive impact on most aspects of human society.

Telework is revolutionizing business and commerce. A software engineer can live in rural Kansas and work for a tech startup in Stockholm. Home-bound disabled people are becoming gainfully employed at record rates. Dating apps can find your perfect match 3000 miles away. Doctors can perform virtual life-saving surgeries. Making information almost universally available has led to more efficient processes of scientific discovery, education, cultural exchange and sociopolitical reform.

Even the term metaverse (which originated with Snow Crash) has taken on more concrete meaning, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that the social media company will focus on the development of a "metaverse" where users interact not just socially, but economically on a blockchain-based cyber-physical platform.

Yet despite this apparent condensation of our distances and our differences, mounting evidence suggests that increasing numbers of people are feeling more alone. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic forced drastic changes in our work and personal lives, humans had been becoming increasingly isolated from each other.

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Electronic communication has taken much of the spontaneity and authenticity out of human conversation and relationships. Social media has encouraged people to manufacture personae for themselves for the short-lived endorphin rush of likes and followers. Even crime is becoming less personal — perpetrators no longer have to look you in the eye as they wipe out your savings or steal your identity from an anonymous basement on the other side of the planet.

Simple human social dynamics like trust, understanding and empathy are difficult to fully realize without in-person interaction. Virtual presence can only partially transmit subtle cues like eye movement, body language and voice inflection that are important components in communication. A recent Zoom call famously went awry when one of the participants was mistakenly rendered as a cat. Not knowing whether anyone attending a particular meeting is currently wearing pants has become a modern reality.

Other signals, like nervous or amorous pheromones, sweaty-palm handshakes and fast heartbeats are completely lost in virtual communication. These are primal, subconscious variables that people have been using for as long as we've existed to find mates, avoid bad guys and forge partnerships.

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Humans are, for all intents and purposes, primates. We are highly social mammals with an instinct to bond and interact — an instinct that was millions of years in the making. For 99% of human history, we lived in small semi-nomadic groups, with only each other to rely on for warmth, safety and survival. This reliance on physical, tangible connection is built into who we are and cannot be easily supplanted by more user-friendly apps, denser silicon chips, and clever source code.

Covid simply accelerated a process that was already underway — a process of redefining human interaction, for better or worse, in likely permanent ways.

As creators, we must strive to balance the speed, efficiency and productivity of our innovations with the recognition that we are flesh-and-blood creatures. Understanding and respecting our vulnerabilities as a social species plays a critical role in the impact our products can have as this new virtual world market moves from fiction to reality. Profit is essential to the livelihood of entrepreneurs and innovators, but it doesn't have to come at the cost of our humanity and that of future generations.

Related: Hiring Virtual Assistants is the 'New Normal'

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