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Telecommuting: What We Imagined Once, and Where We Actually Are Now

In his 1980 classic of futurology The Third Wave Alvin Toffler remarked that an era of general “transportation crisis” was upon the world, in which “mass transit systems [were] strained to the breaking point, roads and highways clogged, parking spaces rare, pollution a serious problem, strikes and breakdowns almost routine, and costs skyrocketing.” Toffler noted, too, the savings that a turn from in-person commuting to telecommuting might achieve, from the lower expenditure of energy of a computer terminal against a private car (or even mass transit), to the chance to scale down physical facilities as people worked from home permitting reductions of real estate, utility, tax and other expenditures. Indeed, it seemed to him that sheer market forces would go a long way to doing the trick, while pressure from environmentalists to bring down the ecological footprint of business activity, and government’s seeing in a shift to telecommuting potential benefits in ways from the oil import-beleaguered trade balance to the collapsing nuclear family, would easily nudge it further along.

Of course, four decades later it would seem that Toffler could not have been more wrong on this point — with his being so wrong the more striking given that the transportation crisis, the energy crisis, he wrote of did not get better, but only worse and worse; while the proliferation of computing and Internet connections, and the improvements in their performance and price, went far, far beyond anything Toffler anticipated in the near term. The reason is that, whatever those concerned for public issues like the environment, the trade balance or anything else thought about the matter— and certainly whatever employees thought — employers didn’t want it, as anyone who understood economic history had to see they wouldn’t, because of the simple matter of control. (The Industrial Revolution’s shift from the “putting-out” system to the factory, Taylorist time-and-motion study, Fordism — through it all the key to higher productivity and profit has lain through ever-more intricate division and direction of labor conveniently gathered together under management’s eye.)

Ultimately that opposition mattered more than anything else. Since that time it was only the shock of the recent pandemic put the matter as high on the agenda as it has been these last two years, with the scrambling to implement it in the wake of lockdown only underlining how little serious effort government and business made in the direction of figuring out how we could actually make large-scale telecommuting work in all those decades. And now with government and business discarding such measures as they took to constrain the pandemic there is a drive on the part of employers to go back to the old ways, with, ironically, those very business leaders who are apt to be most celebrated as technological superheroes by the makers of the conventional wisdom frequently in the vanguard; all these determined to see that the experiment in telecommuting remains just that, with, of course, the full blessings of government and the media, as media outlets like The Atlantic publish articles with obnoxiously wheedling titles like “Admit It, You Miss Your Commute.”

Of a course, a good many workers have displayed less enthusiasm for this course than their bosses — fully two-thirds of remote workers declaring that they do not want to return to the office, with discarding that trip to and from their workplace specifically cited among the biggest benefits of not doing so. (No, contrary to what the folks at The Atlantic would have the impressionable believe, they did not miss the commute that is for many the most miserable part of the day.) Meanwhile if the strikes shocking elites the world over are anything to go by (even Britain, the homeland of that icon of union-crushing Margaret Thatcher, is seeing the kind of strikes that the Thomas Friedmans of the world complacently thought safely relegated to the historic past), workers, shocked, stressed, burned-out and all-around less complacent after the pandemic, are asserting themselves in a way they haven’t in decades. The result is that while for over a generation employers have seemed to hold all the cards, and never let anyone forget it, one ought not to rush to the conclusion that they will get their way yet again.

Originally published at https://naderelhefnawy.blogspot.com.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.