The Human Condition:

The End of Locality – January 8, 2023

Janus coin

The Covid-19(20, 21 …) pandemic did it. The industrial world’s response did it. The internet and cloud computing did it. Zoom and other meeting apps did it. And we’re not going back.

And what is “it”? The notion that you have to live in a particular place, travel conveniently to a particular place, and meet in the flesh in order to get anything done.

Many social groups—think of book clubs, discussion groups, and online gaming—have already migrated to the internet. As a result, members can move away from an area and still participate, and they can do everything except share snacks and a glass of wine together. My own wargaming group, which used to meet in person around a table in somebody’s spare room, now includes members in Connecticut, Wyoming, Texas, and New Zealand. And every game has a Zoom component with an overhead camera and an open laptop for extra-local participation.

The internet and cloud computing showed that a knowledge worker—think of accountants, customer service representatives, programmers, technical writers, corporate lawyers, and all kinds of middle managers—can work from anyplace in the country, not just within commute distance of the corporate or local office. The old desire of bosses to see people at their desks to know they were working is now thoroughly eroded. We have measures, other than observing heads and hands positioned over keyboards, to show a person’s productivity.

Even jobs with high-level customer contact, like consultants and big-ticket sales reps, will eventually be done with a minimum of travel and facetime (lowercase, to distinguish it from the Apple communication app of the same name) and maximum delivery by internet connection and online meeting. Soon enough, even the most prosaic of information jobs, like those at the point-of-sale, such as cashiers and checkout operators, will either be performed online—or automated entirely. Right now, checkout in many grocery and warehouse stores is supplemented if not replaced by self-checkout stations. And much of retail has already moved online to services like and to a flurry of web-enabled sellers and supplements to brick-and-mortar retail stores.

In time, the only jobs that cannot be done through telepresence will be those that require a person’s hands to be placed directly on the actual, physical customer—such as radiologists, physical therapists, and dentists. Routine doctor’s visits, tests other than showing up somewhere to give blood or a biological sample (many of which can be sent through the mail), consultations, and almost all forms of psychotherapy can now be done online. Even surgery can be performed remotely using robotics and laparoscopy. And remote robotics paired with artificially intelligent expert systems may eventually take over some of the hands-on work. When that capability is fully developed, even the human knowledge worker may drop out of the system entirely.

Many of the customer-service jobs, especially in finance and insurance, are already handled by artificial intelligences, either as a chatbot on a website or an automated voice on the telephone. The expert system usually works by a combination of menu choices and pre-recorded, spoken commands, and the system only routes to an online human agent when it meets a response it cannot either interpret or fulfill.

One of the many things that will surely change in this future is the way we vote, especially after the claims and lingering suspicions about errors and confusion (and the possibility of fraud) in the 2020 and 2022 elections.

As we learned from the lawsuit brought in 2022 by Kari Lake about the election process in Maricopa County, Arizona, local law there allows citizens to cast their ballots at any precinct voting station in the county, not just in their own hometown. Since every district has a slightly different ballot—accounting for choices among city offices and school boards—each voting station had to stand ready to print out hundreds of different ballot forms to meet the walk-in demand. And on election day, some of the electronic ballots were sized for a different length of paper than what was actually loaded in the printer, so those ballots could not be read by the tabulating machines at the polling station. The result was confusion, photocopying of the voter’s ballot, chain-of-custody issues, and the suspicion of fraudulent intent.

Come on, people! We’re still using paper? And we’re relying on paper information being scanned into to electronic machines? What is this—the 20th century? We’re well beyond that!

When I do important transactions with an institution over the internet, I have a login protocol with a unique password that I have previously established. They still often require me to give the number of my mobile phone—which is personal to me and protected by a passcode or facial recognition software—and then they send me a one-time numeric code to key into the required box. Only then can we proceed with the transaction. If that system is secure enough for banking and insurance business, it should be secure enough for voting.

If we could securely vote over the internet, it would be another blow to the concept of showing up at a particular time in a particular locality. The voting system would recognize you, ensure your identity, provide you with the appropriate ballot based on your primary residence, tabulate your vote, and then lock you out of the system to prevent multiple voting attempts. (Eventually, voice recognition from a previously submitted and verified sample will replace the more complicated passing back and forth of phone numbers and numeric codes.) The voting process will then be accessible from anywhere on the planet and not require you to be present in your home district on a particular day. It would ensure that everyone voted just once. And it would allow the voting period to be extended for, say, a whole month and still have the results tabulated and counted instantly.

By now in the cycle of development, you have probably already met and worked with robots and intelligent systems in a variety of settings, with good results or sometimes not. The process of moving information transfer from face-to-face to face-to-bot will only accelerate in the coming years, as artificial intelligence and expert systems expand. It’s a new world out there, with new protocols for the way we work and interact.