Remote for privileged few - it now becomes so very obvious - just won't be good enough in a future marred by more crises that forces all of us apart.

We should focus on technologies that make it possible for people to be apart and still muddle through as best as can online.

One promise of technology is that it will be a great equalizer. But that reality hasn't been quite that simple.

The infusion of technology into more industries is one factor that has divided the American work force, all the world's work force, between those with promising jobs with good salaries and low-wage workers with less possibility of advancement.

My colleague Ben Casselman recently wrote about the pandemic's causing more companies to use automation, which could eliminate jobs and erode bargaining power, particularly for lower-paid service workers.

Remote work could further widen the divide if it sticks around as another legacy of the pandemic. Professionals with desk jobs might have the option of untethering themselves, at least part time, from a physical work location. But you can't butcher cattle, take care of children or repave a highway over Zoom.

Apple has a plan for a new pilot program that might show that there could be a more democratic path for remote work.

The company said that it would experiment with letting its retail store employees work partly outside a store location, Bloomberg News reportedly recently. Even before the coronavirus, more customer service jobs were shifting from call centers to remote, at least part of the time, too.

It's an intriguing sign that technology could make the option of remote work available to more than just professionals, who are a minority of the American work force.  Only about one in six U.S. employees has been working remotely during the pandemic.

I will acknowledge that Apple might be an outlier and that working for one of its retail stores is different from other kinds of in-person work. Apple store workers can offer technical advice or handle online sales without being face-to-face with customers.

That's not easy for people employed in most other retail jobs, or in health care, manufacturing, construction and restaurants.

But one thing we should take away from this pandemic is that it most likely won't be the last criis that disrupts normal life. It's good if more people, businesses, governments and technologists are thinking now about how to make it possible to do more activities temporarily online  -not as a nice-to-have for a select few, but as a necessity for everyone.

That requires tackling the world's and America's unequal and ineffective Internet system and changing the mind-sets of employers and employees about working remotely.

And it might require technologies to reimagine remote work for more kinds of people. We might not have a choice, if future pandemics, wildfires or other emergencies again interrupt school, work and life.

The good news is that technology has already made a leap like this before - from the professional classes to everyone. Computers used to be confined to beige boxes that sat on office desks. Now almost every business and worker relies on technology in some form every day.

To prepare for a future that might be marred by more crises that force us apart, we should focus on technologies that make it possible for people to be apart and muddle through as best we can online.

The World Students Society thanks author Shira Ovide.


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