Steve August 3, 2020
remote-work-won’t-save-us

A hallway room in the back of my childhood home contained the
sewing machine and, beginning in the mid-1990s, a succession of computers. The
first computer wasn’t even a computer; it was a monochrome word processor and printer. Then an uncle gave us a Macintosh 128k, a small boxy Apple personal
computer with a floppy disk drive on the front. After that, we went through a
series of Apple computers including one of those iMacs that looked like a piece
of candy. Early on, I used the computers to play games. When dial-up internet
arrived, my sisters and I pillaged a never-ending stream of free trial America Online
CDs from the local Target to surf the internet and chat with friends. My
parents used the computer infrequently for the occasional email.

Easy Living: The Rise of the Home Office

by Elizabeth A. Patton

Rutgers University Press, 216 pp., $28.95

It wasn’t until I read Elizabeth A. Patton’s new book, Easy Living: The Rise of the Home Office, that I realized the likely reason that we lacked a distinct
computer room was that my parents were not professionals; my dad was a
firefighter and my mom ran the home. Neither of them went to an office, so they
did not need a dedicated version of the office at home. Professionals, on the
other hand, did. I saw this in the houses of kids I babysat for in the
neighborhood; they all had entire rooms set aside for their computers. The dad
of one family said he often worked there
on the weekends. Patton, a professor of media and communications, explains that
this was no accident since professionals were a group of people that, since the
1980s, have been the targets of a campaign to devote portions of their homes to
personal computers. 

But our family home did have its own antecedent to the home
office. Growing up, a massive old hutch loomed over the dining room where my
family ate dinner every night. The hutch’s counter held two distinct piles of
mail on either side. On the left was my mom’s mail, and on the right was my
dad’s. Next to the hutch was a wooden filing cabinet packed with hanging files.
A child, spinning his or her spaghetti in a soup spoon, could just as easily lean
back and flip through the tax records. The hutch established the principle on
which the computer room would build: that a portion of the home should be
devoted to office-like activities.

Over the course of the twentieth century, technological
innovations from the telephone to the typewriter—initially conceived of as
business and office tools—allowed for the public world of work to penetrate
the privacy of home. New technologies tend to swirl leisure and work together,
much like the part-office, part-dining room of my childhood. Most recently,
computer rooms and home offices enabled upper-middle-class professionals to
work from home, and the internet seemed to only further this promise. 

The
utopian hope was that this would usher in a new age of work, but something very
different happened. Many people—welders, hairstylists, bartenders—cannot do
their jobs remotely; even amid Covid-19, when most office workers are
telecommuting, many workers have to leave home for their jobs. Instead, the
effect of this dream of the home office has been to whip work and leisure into
a single blended porridge, in which work became the overwhelmingly dominant
flavor. The result hasn’t been liberation; it’s just been the eradication of
free time.    
 


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.”

So what did it do? For one thing, it made it hard to stop working.
Today, it is normal to hear of consultants crunching spreadsheets over dinner
and start-up employees emailing late into the night. The technology that
enabled the home office has now been made portable, so the office is not just
brought home, it’s anywhere you carry your laptop and phone; all the world’s an
office, and we are all merely workers, always working. It is sometimes
suggested this creates a hyper-productive workforce and that we are more
efficient than ever. If it has, we are not seeing the benefits. Wages have
stagnated for workers across the board since 1973, and workers have also lost
free time: the rise of work-from-anywhere technology has coincided with a stark
increase in the number of hours that employees work. In 2018, one-third of Americans
worked 45 hours a week or more
, and 9.7 million worked more than 60 hours a
week. In total, we work more than 7.8 percent more hours a year than in 1979. If
hyperconnectivity has done anything, it has simply made it easier for bosses to
heap more work on their employees, knowing that they can so easily continue
their office work during unpaid hours at home. After the economic crisis of
2008 caused massive layoffs, this trend only increased.


Knowledge-working professionals float through lives that are never
simply work or home, lives in which they struggle to clock out or log off. How
did we get here? For one thing, the breathless promise of telecommuting happened
alongside the abandonment of working-class people to the downsides of
globalization and outsourcing. Affluent, neoliberal governments of the 1980s
were essentially converting manufacturing jobs into service ones—brickmakers
into baristas—but they didn’t make those jobs steady and well paying. 

Instead, politicians like Gingrich hoped a very limited group of the upper-middle-class
knowledge workers would, alone, lead the country to prosperity. They egged on
this future by continuously loosening restrictions on finance, which not only
supercharged the banking industry itself (a bastion of “creative” work) but
subsequently allowed torrents of venture capital to rush into largely
unregulated tech firms. Apple cashed in on and stoked the enthusiasm for an upper-middle
class, technologically networked life. It continued to make products that ever
more seamlessly integrated our private lives with our public work lives, first
with the personal computer, then the laptop, and finally the smartphone (which,
you’ll notice, is just the combination of the computer and that old privacy
destroying technology, the telephone). They’ve successfully mashed work and
leisure into one constant stream; a work message on Slack or a text message
from your spouse look almost identical.

The much-vaunted benefits of working from home were elusive. Most
people today still have to go to work outside the home; the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that in 2018 only three
percent of workers with less than a high school degree worked remotely,
compared to the 47 percent who have a bachelor’s. And in total, only about 25
percent of all workers worked from home. The pandemic has revealed that most
offices that could have had their employees
work from home prior to the crisis didn’t. They did not have systems in place
to let their employees work remotely. One friend who works for the city of New
York simply didn’t work for a month because there was no server in place to let
him do his work from his home laptop. And on the eve of the pandemic, video
conferencing apps like Zoom were plagued with problems, clearly not road
tested on a mass scale. 


Today, I type this from a desktop computer I have set up in my
bedroom, which enables my occasional knowledge work as a journalist. During the
pandemic, I have been able to keep myself busy, though I wait to get called back
to my primary job. My situation mirrors that of the United States economy in general. Many
people who are currently working from home will be called back to an office.
The fact that many people could work from home was useful, but it was not
enough to save the economy from collapse. It is just enough to keep the wheels
spinning. To date, tens of millions of people have been
thrown out of work. Working from home may have insulated professional-class
workers from the worst of the crisis, keeping them in work while out of the
office, but in many cases, only barely. Scores of digital media workers are
being laid off as we speak. And for many who have held on to their
jobs, home is not a place where a lot of work can be done. If you have
children—whether infants, who need constant attention, or older children, whose
online learning needs supervision—it can be almost impossible to complete the
usual workload.

The flexible freelancers and other assorted professionals that
Toffler, Apple, and Gingrich championed are better off than low wage workers
who must venture out of their homes every day to earn a living, but who knows
for how long. And Toffler conveniently forgot to account for the fact that any
electronic cottage would still rely on a massive class of service and care
workers to function. Work-from-home parents need childcare or else, as the
pandemic has revealed, working from home might be impossible. Remote workers
also rely on the predominantly low-paid global supply chains of workers to
deliver their communities’ groceries, consumer goods, and utilities. This was
true before the crisis but made obvious now.

Benefits like remote working, Patton observes,
have tended to make knowledge workers “forget that they are in solidarity with
the working class.” But flexible and creative labor is, after all, still labor.
More importantly, the two are inextricably connected. The “work-life balance”
afforded by the home office, Patton writes, is nothing more than “a myth that
keeps workers from recognizing the exploitation of their labor and the
dependence on service workers to support work-life balance.” If the pandemic
has revealed that most work is facilitated by other work, and thus fiercely
interwoven, then it follows that our society needs to prioritize the
development of an egalitarian economic system that acknowledges this fact. One
that knows utopia isn’t a sleek, Tron-like world of electronic cottages. It is much simpler. It is when work is humane and lucrative for everyone.

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