Living on the Internet

The world is going virtual, and we’re all moving to the internet. 

Andreessen Horowitz recently ran a survey across their 250+ companies asking how they’re going to operate post-covid, and here’s what they learned: 90% of organizations will continue to hire remote employees and be remote in some form. And these are companies that were started pre-COVID. The vast majority of companies that are created after COVID will be remote only. 

This is a shocking change from a few years ago, where remote-first was frowned upon. There was no way you could build a big remote-first company, they said. The shift in sentiment demonstrates how well our tools work right now (Zoom, Slack, Email, etc), and how well companies were able to operate during COVID. Of course, no one liked being locked in their house, forcefully glued to a screen for hours on end, but the truth of the matter is that remote work turned out much better than anybody thought it would. I can’t think of a single company of any size in which their knowledge work was materially influenced by remote work. No bank went down, no Stock Exchange went down. And no major internet company went under either. 

Put simply, remote work worked, and this was during the most trying conditions possible, where people were on literal lock down and couldn’t leave their houses.

Remote work might change something that was fundamentally true throughout all of economic history — the idea that where you work and where you live must be connected. With remote work, maybe they don’t, because as COVID proved, you can work anywhere and produce high quality work. And even further up the stack, maybe you can get a high quality education from anywhere too — perhaps even completely online. And so it's possible we’ve decoupled geography from economic opportunity for basically the first time in a few thousand years.

Professionally speaking, where you live physically may no longer be more important than where you live digitally. The people who you engage with on Twitter, or on group chats, or in online communities might influence your career more than your longitude & latitude. Which means you can finally live & work anywhere — an absolute game-changer. We didn’t even have to build The Silicon Valley of Idaho or India: we built it in the cloud. 

We might instinctively think that decoupling geography might lead to less encounters, but since COVID it seems people have been able to keep up with 3x the people in ⅓ the time. All that time saved on commuting adds up. 

It almost feels like business relationships have fully evolved from predominantly IRL coffee meetings & conferences to text-based group chats, Clubhouse conversations, and digital networks/fellowships.

We used to say it was never *less* important to live in SF, but never *more* important to be connected to SF. But this misses the glaring fact that even more people are now (professionally) living mainly on the internet.

It's less that the importance of SF has decreased and other regions have risen to fill the gap — it's more that location matters less & less altogether.

Indeed: Living on the internet is the great equalizer — you no longer have to move to SF or go to Harvard to get your education, grow your network, or build your reputation. You can now do that from the comfort of your own home.

So we’re seeing this incredible inversion of how we used to understand work. In a way, COVID has provided us what we’ve always wanted, a global talent pool and a flatter, more meritocratic global society. Balaji often talks about this political science concept of “voice vs. exit” — you can either use your voice in an attempt to reform some institution from the inside, or you can exit that institution entirely to create your own version that’s 10x better. COVID provided us an exit from the old ways of working, and the further away we get from the worst parts of the pandemic, seeing no reversion to the mean, it’s now clear we aren’t going back.

But living on the internet not only equalizes us through the lens of a global talent pool, it also democratizes social status: today, if you live on the internet, no one cares how big your house is, how nice your car is, or how cool your clothes are. The currency of the internet is moreso based on intelligence, wit, interestingness, and competence .

But what about the benefits of in-person? How will we replicate those serendipitous water cooler conversations? Clearly Zoom-based relationships can’t be as strong as IRL ones. And what about people’s non-work life? Where’s this all going, by the way? Won’t living on the internet lead to some Ready Player One dystopia?

To be sure, there are tradeoffs. Startups will try, but we won’t be able to fully recreate the intimacy of IRL. However, let’s not pretend everyone has fulfilling communities today.

Someone once remarked: if IRL were a movie, the visuals would be amazing, but the plot and characters would suck.

Living IRL is wonderful if you happen to live in a nice place with lots of nice friends, weather, and fun things to do — I’ll give it that. But most people don't live in places like that. The idea that everyone does Marc Andreessen playfully calls “Reality Privilege.”

Living on the internet allows someone without a great research university nearby to go into a virtual classroom and experience nearly the equivalent of a Stanford classroom, taking a class from one of the world's great professors, just as if you were there in person. 

The internet partly unbundled professional networks from geography, but of course it can’t unbundle intimate community. (Not yet, anyway. :)) Of course, people will always prefer in-person to build actual friendships and relationships, but living where you work in order to build professional relationships is not as necessary as it once was, and that’s a foundational development with all sorts of interesting second order effects worth paying attention to.

Cheers from The Internet,

Erik