Remote Work Won’t Save Us – The New Republic - Freelance Rack

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Monday, August 3, 2020

Remote Work Won’t Save Us – The New Republic

Over the last three centuries, the conception of the home has varied widely. In the seventeenth century, Patton notes, there was in the New England home “no expectation of privacy, as rooms served multiple functions, with family members and sometimes strangers coming and going at will.” Instead of dedicated bedrooms, they had “multipurpose family rooms where all members of the family slept on makeshift beds.” Abigail Adams wrote an annoyed letter to her husband John in 1775, explaining that to accommodate a new boarder, she had moved John’s workspace into her bedroom. Worse, she couldn’t have people over. The house was so crowded as “not to have a Lodging for a Friend that calls to see me.”

Before the introduction of wage labor in the Industrial Revolution, the home was a place where all members of the family contributed to some kind of cottage production and often took in boarders to make money; this perpetually destroyed any notion of privacy. But once wage labor became widespread in the nineteenth century, work moved outside the home. If you operate heavy machinery in a steel mill or a textiles factory, you cannot easily bring your work home with you. This changed notions of what the home was for and made it so that, as Walter Benjamin observed of the nineteenth century, “the place of dwelling is for the first time opposed to the place of work.” Especially for a new middle class composed of industrial managers, the home came to be a refuge from the public world of work.

But in the twentieth century, bits of technology that were originally invented as business tools, like telephones and typewriters, slowly made their ways into the home. Along with them came new ideas about running a business, like Frederick Winslow Taylor’s principles of scientific management. In 1913, an author named Christine Frederick wrote a book that argued homemakers could achieve more freedom if they adopted the efficient principles and organizational strategies of a modern office, assisted by files, binders, typewriters, lists, and telephones. Running a home, while unpaid, was a lot of work and quite time-consuming. Frederick’s book was, one might say, an early attempt to find work-life balance. 

The booming post-war economy only retrenched the patriarchal middle-class life that emerged in the nineteenth century. Many families could thrive on a single income earned outside the home, and a private, fenced-off suburban home began the ideal of middle-class life. But once again, advances in communications technology would shred this arrangement. Most prominently, the telephone gained widespread use and brought the outside world into the home; a plumber or grocery clerk could be reached without leaving the house. And the portable typewriter allowed business people to conduct office-like activities at home. As the United States industrial economy declined and moved overseas, upper-middle-class theorists, politicians, and business people threw all their economic hopes behind the creation of a new class. The future would lie with highly educated professionals whose existence was divorced from the material limitations of the industrial economy. Creative knowledge workers like marketing executives, lawyers, consultants, and journalists could perform most of their duties any time, any place.

The foremost theorist of the new economic arrangement was Alvin Toffler. In 1980, he published a book called The Third Wave, in which he breathlessly theorized that soon the home would become an “electronic cottage,” a place where middle-class professionals in the suburbs could telecommute to their jobs and, as the mass media started to call it, work from home. A strict technological determinist, Toffler didn’t limit his vision to the middle class. He thought the electronic cottage would soon be ubiquitous and that the world would be transformed into a place of pure information work. The basis for his idea was a tool that integrated the telephone, the typewriter, and the filing cabinet: the personal computer.

Just like the makers of the telephone, most early computer companies like IBM focused on selling their products to businesses. But executives at Apple, relatively late to the computer market in the 1980s, saw big business in the idea of the personal computer. They also saw Apple as a company that would bring about Toffler’s predictions. One executive thought the personal computer was part of the transition from “an economy based on the foundations of the petrochemical industrial revolution to a new economy where information services and information products [will] become the building blocks that shape a very different world.”

This was a grandiose, utopian ideal, but their marketing literature suggested a more basic premise. With the computer at home, sure, your kids could learn to write letters and play games, but you could also “sneak in a little work on the side.” Apple, as Patton notes, catalyzed the insurgent neoliberal ideas about the changing nature of work. That is to say, the hyper-connected, flexible and unstable employment, decentralized offices, and always-on schedules that are omnipresent today. Simultaneously, real estate companies began to catch on. House plans of this era began to include computer rooms, surely riding the wave of middle-class interest in computers. It was a great excuse to sell even larger houses with more bedrooms than one family could possibly need. The soon-to-be-overheated housing market was only too happy to oblige McMansions with fistfuls of computer rooms, extra guest bedrooms, home theaters, and other novelties.  

Apple’s sales pitch picked up on Toffler’s techno-enthusiasm, and soon politicians embraced the idea. In 1994, Newt Gingrich suggested that Toffler’s book should be required reading for Congress. Toffler’s writing made it seem like the future of completely digitally connected work was inevitable and predetermined. But the application of the electronic cottage was limited. In 1995, a government survey found that home-based workers were likely to be high-income white males, often in the suburbs. And at the turn of the millennium, close to 70 percent of telecommuting workers were either in technical or professional fields, a limited group of workers. “Technological advances in communication technology,” Patton writes, “did not radically decentralize the economy.”

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