The End of the H-1B Visa

How Virtual Reality Will Disrupt Immigration

Donald Trump and virtual reality, two of the hottest stories of 2016, have a surprising amount in common. They both rose spectacularly despite a legion of naysayers, inspired millions with both hope and fear for the future — and they’re both anti-immigration.

Hold up, technology can’t harbor a secret political agenda! Now, I’m not saying that your Vive headset secretly wants to build a wall between US and Mexico. Rather, it will help usher in a world where people can interact and communicate as if they were in the same room. Virtual reality could make widespread immigration for knowledge workers completely unnecessary.

Today’s debate over the H-1B visa revolves around the fact that if companies want to hire a person in another country, they usually need to bring them here. Although outsourcing works for some tasks, technical teams usually need to work together in the same office. When a company wants to hire people for those teams from other countries because of their unique skills, they must go through the arduous and uncertain process of applying for an H-1B visa.

But virtual reality will mean that people will be able to work together in the same office even if they live thousands of miles apart. Although people will still want to move for other reasons, their location will no longer be a factor in where they can work for many jobs in the knowledge economy. For the first time in history, workers will no longer be limited by borders, radically reshaping the labor market in ways both good and bad.

Immigration from the Comfort of Your Home

Anyone who has never tried a social VR experience should stop reading this article and check out Altspace or VRChat right now. Seriously. It’s one of the most powerful and compelling VR experiences simply because it feels like you’re talking with other people as if they were right next to you.

Or getting right up in your face!

Right now the experience is a little gimmicky but it gets better every day. With improvements in facial tracking, body tracking, and photorealistic avatars, we’ll get to the point where these social VR experiences will be almost indistinguishable from talking to someone face-to-face. And when that happens, why would we ever need to be in the same room?

This will lead to massive changes in the way we interact with friends and loved ones around the world. We’ll see transformations in the communications, travel, and real estate markets. But this also means a fundamental change in the way we work. Right now, working remotely often hampers productivity, especially in team-based environments. Sure it’s effective for projects that require a lot of concentration, but for many jobs it’s necessary that employees share an office.

Even if you’d really rather they didn’t. Image Courtesy of David Trawin

With a virtual reality office, we get all the cost and time savings of working remotely without losing any of the productivity benefits. Companies no longer need to rent expensive office space, employees no longer need to commute, and, possibly most transformative of all, we can work with people from all over the world.

A Truly Global Workforce

For companies, the ability to hire any worker from anywhere would be incredibly beneficial. They will finally have access to the global talent pool, able to hire the best and brightest from around the world. Companies will no longer be limited by visa restrictions if they want to hire a rockstar programmer or a marketing aficionado from Bangalore or Buenos Aires.

New employees also means a greater breadth of ideas in the workplace. The idea of diversity in the workplace takes on a whole new meaning when you can hire people from Nigeria, South Korea, and Chile as easily as someone from San Francisco. These employees will bring new ideas and practices into the workplace. They also offer an understanding of foreign markets, allowing for faster, more effective global expansion.

These ideas definitely didn’t come from a US marketing team. Image courtesy of counterclockwise.

From simply a cost perspective, there’s no need to pay for moving or transportation expenses for new workers — they can live wherever they want. Companies don’t even need to provide office space!

Virtual reality also makes freelance and short-term work far easier for both employees and companies to commit to. This will create a far more flexible labor market, allowing both companies and individuals to adjust their work to fit their needs.

These advantages should make it far easier to start and build companies. The “Miracle of Silicon Valley” can be democratized all over the world at the push of a button. We should see a massive increase in global innovation and collaboration as people currently on the fringes of society are able to contribute to the global economy. Our jobs will involve constant interaction with people from the four corners of the planet.

Allowing us to create some truly next-level shoe stores.

Overall this will lead to a far more dynamic labor market. An increase in the ease of entrepreneurship should lead to an increased demand for workers. Top performers will receive job offers from all over the world, driving up salaries for workers that are the best at what they do. But on the other hand, a more flexible labor market is also a more competitive one.

The Age Old Struggle

The problem with a global labor market is that people have widely-varying salary demands based on a whole host of factors from local cost of living to sheer desperation. Under a global labor market, salaries will be pushed down to what the market can support.

A person with a family of five, a mortgage, and student debt that’s living in New York needs to make a lot more money than a single person living in Guangzhou, and yet both could be competing for the same job with the same qualifications. This could lead to a decline in wages and an increase in inequality as companies hire the least expensive workers and keep the vast majority of the profits.

Because we haven’t had enough of that already.

This is the same argument used by many anti-immigration activists today. Essentially, foreign workers will usually work for less than their American-born counterparts. Therefore, companies exploit immigration to drive down wages, forcing American workers out of their jobs.

Most economists disagree with this argument. They point to a whole host of economic effects of immigration that offset the increased competition for jobs including increased investment, productivity gains, new innovations, more demand for goods, and increased workforce mobility. So far, the evidence suggests that these effects more than make up for any change in wages or job supply.

But this has only been studied in an environment with highly-restrictive immigration regulations. Virtual reality will lead to the economic equivalent of “open borders.” We’ve never had that level of labor mobility and flexibility before and it’s impossible to say what the effects will be. We could see the positive externalities of immigration play themselves out on a global scale with millions of new companies forming to take advantage of the wealth of qualified labor. Or we could see a global race to the bottom in wages and living standards.

And in 20 years, Donald Trump’s successor could be talking about building the most magnificent firewall you’ve ever seen.

Matthias McCoy-Thompson is a co-founder and COO of AgoraVR. We create tools for companies, organizations, and individuals to present and share their ideas in virtual reality.

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