Will We Ever Witness the Death of Distance?

“The death of distance” is the phenomenon by which more and more activities can be performed remotely, by grace of technology (e.g., phone, internet).  We care about whether this happens, and how fast, because it has serious consequences for social welfare.  There are mundane advantages, like saving the commute by working at home, and more extraordinary ones, like enabling shared experiences across continents.

At the advent of the internet, writers commonly predicted the death of distance – that the internet would almost completely obviate the need to meet in person for a large variety of purposes (mostly work).  Despite the consistent climb in its speed and functionality, though, the internet has not yet delivered on that promise.  This begs the title question: will we ever witness the true death of distance?

We can start our analysis by considering that there is some set of total activities that humans do, from innovation to intimacy.  Some proportion of this set has already witnessed the death of distance – for example, I can now easily take a virtual tour of a potential home I want to buy.  The remaining proportion of this set has thus far resisted the death of distance – as work from my former colleague Yasuyuki Motoyama has shown, R&D activities tend to occur in a very tight geographical location, even if the firm has multiple labs in multiple locations.

The first question to ask is whether there is anything systematic about what has “died,” and what has not.  I would identify several factors here, barriers which can increase the difficulty: the length of time the activity takes, the degree to which people need to act on other objects, and the fixedness of location.  First, the longer an activity takes, the less likely people will want to spend in one place in front of a screen – it’s simply not very comfortable, or enjoyable.  That brings us to numbers two and three, which is that “the death of distance” is actually more about setting up two fixed nodes, which then have an audio-visual portal set up between them.  Consequently, the two parties cannot both move to another location (or, it is very hard to move one of the nodes, Meerkat aside), and most importantly both parties cannot act upon a third object (e.g., a blackboard).  There are limited and specific solutions to this last problem, like screen sharing, but no way for both people to do something like, say, play with a Lego set.

This brief analysis suggests that many activities may resist the death of distance for much longer than we originally thought, even as VR grows more sophisticated and more popular.  VR could improve the intimacy of the experience, and the degree of collaboration, but we’re still left with the fixedness problem and the physical problem.  We might see the first solved if the technology advances to such a point that one person can freely move their node, and the person on the other end moves through the space in VR with them.  It is difficult to see, however, just how one party could interact seamlessly and physically with the world on the other end.  So far, where we’ve seen physical interaction realized, it has been in highly specific and expensive machinery, as in surgery.  To overcome this hurdle would require, essentially, the creation of humanoid robots which could be controlled remotely, and that’s jumping a little too far into science fiction at the moment.

VR is likely the future of this particular problem, but it certainly will not be the final step.  In order to conquer physicality, we would need another two or three generational leaps in technology – a distant prospect, a little exciting, and maybe a little terrifying.

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