I originally wrote this article in response to a question on Quora.
Why isn’t all retail work distributed?
Many if not most people want to try on clothes before they buy them. This requires having clothing in retail stores where you can compare sizes and styles before trying them on, try on what you’d like, and then buy.
Food is often something we buy based on sensory input. Does the fruit smell ripe? Does it feel right? Many people can order grocery items online but want to buy what they choose.
Many items are purchased at the time they’re needed. It may be insect killer, over the counter medical supplies or a book purchased before a flight.
In all of these cases, you need retail outlets people can conveniently visit, choose what they want and take it home. They won’t wait hours or days for the item they’ve chosen to arrive.
Yet this means retail IS relatively distributed in the form of stores in nearly every town and in many neighborhoods in large cities.
What prevents all service work from being done online or remotely?
Let’s be honest. Most people are not do-it-yourselfers, and most of the world’s equipment is not designed for it.
Your mechanic can’t fix your car remotely, and you don’t have the tools to do most car repairs at home per the advice of someone looking through augmented reality glasses. Plumbers can’t fix your clogged toilet or leaking sewer pipe remotely, either.
Most people lack the expertise or safety equipment to properly troubleshoot and repair an air conditioner or a gas furnace. In fact, many don’t even change the air filters as often as they should, and you can get air filters at the store or online and safely replace them yourself.
The average home owner might be able to kill fire ants in the backyard, but they may not want to deal with bees in the wall. And they lack the ability to deal with termites on their own.
Furthermore, a lot of service work is done by people we hire to come to our homes because many people don’t want to do it themselves. Classic examples are yard work and pet care. How is someone going to walk your dog remotely? You might have an automated pool cleaner or lawn mower controlled via an app, but they’re clunky and hard to maintain. That’s why we hire people to do the work instead.
None of these things can be done online or remotely.
And there is work we do not want to have done online or remotely. The criticism of homeschooling is that it doesn’t result in enough socialization. I know several homeschooling families, and they choose to participate in sports, music lessons and clubs so their kids do socialize with a lot of people. And that’s aside from attending science and PE group lessons. We can and should have more homeschooling, but the socialization cannot all be online.
We do not want children to only sit at home connected to the internet to learn. It stunts their social skills. This is addressed in the book “The Like Switch”. This means we need teachers in the classroom or in the homeschooling coop. It means we need coaches, physical trainers and childcare providers who are physically present. This work cannot be done through a remote drone who can’t react to emergencies in an effective, timely manner or provide normal, healthy support when problems arise.
Yet we can say this work is distributed, because childcare facilities and schools are scattered throughout communities. But it cannot all be remote.