History will judge Frances Cairncross’s predicted “death of distance” correct

The irony of America’s tech-fueled brain drain is that the internet should have freed us from location-based employment and helped disperse high-skilled tech workers. In her 1997 book The Death of Distance, British economist Frances Cairncross heralded the ways that digital technologies, particularly the internet and mobile phones, were “killing location” and “loosening the grip of geography.” For Cairncross, one of the many implications of ubiquitous internet access was that “companies will have more freedom to locate a service where their key staff want to live, rather than near its market” and employees “will gain more freedom to live far from their employers.” Reality proved far messier.

Cairncross says she “misjudged” the extent to which concentrated labor markets matter in the knowledge economy, because they provide an available pool of specialized skills and other agglomeration benefits. So rather than decentralizing the American labor pool, the rise of the internet and digital technologies had the opposite effect: It accelerated its concentration. The face of this change is the San Francisco Bay Area, which consistently ranks as one of the most congested and expensive regions in the US. But a similar scenario is playing out in Denver, Boston, Seattle, and other major tech-driven metro areas.

Source: How Smaller Cities Are Luring High-Tech Talent | WIRED

Despite her misgivings, I believe history will ultimately prove Cairncross correct. Knowledge work is currently in transition between the centralized Industrial Age when the automobile and high speed highways made it possible for office workers to work daily in communities far from their homes to an emerging decentralized “work anywhere” mode.

The trouble in the San Francisco Bay Area and other metro centers the high speed highways that made commuting a breeze in the 1950s and 1960s aren’t so speedy anymore and overcrowded with too many knowledge workers during the morning and evening commutes. Building more highway lanes only induces more commute trips. Autonomous vehicles can’t solve the congestion because there will always be a limited amount of pavement over which they can travel. Mass transit isn’t the answer either given the differing schedule and location circumstances of knowledge workers and limited practical range that has served as a perpetual disincentive.

Of course, there is nothing that beats the natural inclination of humans to socialize and exchange ideas that drive the information economy co-located, face to face. The question is whether doing that every work day remains practical in congested and expensive metro areas given the personal time and economic costs extracted by daily vehicular commute trips. These trips are lengthened by housing market dynamics. Affordable homes are often located at the periphery of metro areas.

Information and communications technology provides the best alternative means to perform knowledge work. And yes, there still needs to be old style in person social interaction. But that can be obtained at training sessions, symposia and social gatherings. Commuting should be confined to getting to and from these events and not daily to a centralized, commute in office.

ICT poised to revolutionize knowledge work as profoundly as the automobile and freeways did in the 1950s.

Gov, like an increasing number of Californians, has an extreme commute to her job. She works in communications at a non-profit organization about 30 miles away, up the notorious 405 to Santa Monica. On good days it takes an hour and a half each way, on the worst days it’s two and a half hours each way.“It’s literally like a part-time job,” she said. Gov’s boyfriend has a similarly long commute into Los Angeles. They wish they could live closer in, but homes closer to their jobs were way out of their price range. To afford to buy here a lot more people are living like Jenny Gov – spending more of their day in ever worsening traffic, leaving little time to spend with family and neighbors, coaching little league or exploring the wonders of California.

Brian Taylor, an urban planning professor who directs the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles said the housing crisis has exacerbated the dilemma in recent years, as new housing construction has lagged in parts of the state where well-paid employment in our more knowledge-based economy has multiplied.

Source: High Home Prices And Congestion Shrink The California Dream – capradio.org

Image result for los angeles traffic congestionChances are Ms. Gov is a knowledge worker and perhaps her boyfriend is as well. When Los Angeles freeways first opened in the 1950s, it was possible to get anywhere in the basin in about 20 minutes. Now they are so clogged daily commuting has become unbearable. It’s no longer as feasible to live in one community and work in another as it was in the golden age of the California freeway, the L.A. car culture and cheap fuel. Nor does it any longer make sense to spend hours commuting to use a computer in a centralized commute-in office.

Now on the threshold to the 2020s and beyond, a shift as profound as how the automobile and the freeway defined daily work life is at hand. It’s Internet-fueled information and communications technology (ICT) that makes it possible to do knowledge work in the communities where knowledge workers live. That gets them off the freeways on work days and would likely make a sizable contribution to improving the region’s notoriously poor air quality. Not to mention the quality of life of lots of Californians who as this story reports find the California dream elusive as they spend much of their lives engaged in long commutes.

Why Do We Still Commute? – Pacific Standard

Over the last year, many companies have ended their liberal work-from-home policies. Firms like IBM, Honeywell, and Aetna joined a long list of others that have deemed it more profitable to force employees to commute to the city and work in a central office than give them the flexibility to work where they want. It wasn’t supposed to be this way—at least according to Norman Macrae.

Macrae foretold the exact path and timeline that computers would take over the business world and then become a fixture of every American home. But he didn’t stop there. The spread of this machine, he argued, would fundamentally change the economics of how most of us work. Once workers could communicate with their colleagues through instant messages and video chat, he reasoned, there would be little coherent purpose to trudge long distances to work side by side in centrally located office spaces. As companies recognized how much cheaper remote employees would be, the computer would, in effect, kill the office—and with that our whole way of living would change.

Source: Why Do We Still Commute? – Pacific Standard

As readers of this blog know, I am firmly in Macrae’s camp. I have a couple of issues with this analysis by Greg Rosalsky. It contains the implicit assumption that knowledge workers commute in order to have real time, face to face conversations with their colleagues every Monday through Friday. The value of these co-located daily discussions is cited to justify the daily commute.

That might hold true for those working in intense think tank work environments like Google’s Moonshot Factory where the job is a group exercise of spitballing and deeply analyzing concepts for their practicality and most importantly, their potential monetization. That’s more akin to a live-in academic residential fellowship than the usual type of work most knowledge workers perform with most of its components and deliverables in digital form accessible from most anywhere. In fact, many of them find they are more able to think and concentrate outside of centralized, commute-in office spaces such as in quiet home offices and communicate quite easily with colleagues using online collaboration tools.

Rosalsky’s article also repeats the “urban centers are cool and people want to live there” to partly explain why we continue to commute to centralized offices in metro areas. But as Rosalsky also notes, the cost of living there is quite high. It’s often out of reach for all but the highest paid knowledge workers and is itself a factor driving lengthening commutes to distant locales where housing is affordable.

To Rosalsky’s credit, he does mention the personal costs of commuting borne by knowledge workers — and indirectly by their organizations due to the adverse health and wellness impacts of daily commuting. I would argue that the maturation and proliferation of information and communications technology has brought us to the point predicted by Macrae where for the vast majority of knowledge workers, the costs of daily commuting can no longer be justified nor the expense of maintaining centralized, commute-in office space for their organizations.

One Thing Silicon Valley Can’t Seem to Fix – The New York Times

The built environment of the Valley does not reflect the innovation that’s driving the region’s stratospheric growth; it looks instead like the 1950s. Looking at aerial views of midcentury campuses like the Eero Saarinen-designed Bell Labs next to contemporary ones like Apple, it’s nearly impossible to tell the midcentury structures from the 21st-century ones. Designing job centers this way contributes mightily to the region’s ever-worsening traffic. If you found yourself stuck on Highway 101 between San Francisco and San Jose, you’d really see what Silicon Valley looks like for many. Building campuses on isolated suburban tracts guarantees long commutes, and this is one of the worst in the country.

Source: One Thing Silicon Valley Can’t Seem to Fix – The New York Times

Kudos to Allison Arieff of The New York Times for raising this issue as I have many times in this space. I’ve also noted the irony that Silicon Valley’s legendary information and communications technology (ICT) innovation has effectively obsoleted the 1950s centralized, commute-in office (CCO), yet the region remains mired in commute traffic.

As Silicon Valley tech pioneer Bill Davidow pointed out in his 2011 book Overconnected, those office complexes came about because the “killer app” of the 1950s was a combination of pavement (freeways), cheap gasoline and the automobile that made it possible to work in another location far from home. Now ICT allows knowledge work to be done anywhere, eliminating the need to move bodies over highways every work day to CCOs. That’s a real killer app for our time to slay commute traffic congestion — in Silicon Valley and other metro areas.

The centralized commuter office as tech corporate edifice

It is not the only technology company erecting a shrine to itself. Apple’s employees have just begun moving into their new headquarters in Cupertino, some 70 kilometres away, which was conceived by the firm’s late founder, Steve Jobs. The four-storey, circular building looks like the dial of an iPod (or a doughnut) and is the same size as the Pentagon. At a price tag of around $5bn, it will be the most expensive corporate headquarters ever constructed. Throughout San Francisco and Silicon Valley, cash-rich technology firms have built or are erecting bold, futuristic headquarters that convey their brands to employees and customers.

Source: Technology firms and the office of the future

This is richly ironic. These tech firms have decentralized knowledge work and obsoleted the daily commute to the office with hardware, software and apps that make performing knowledge work location independent. Yet they continue to build gleaming office complexes as corporate edifices that communicate economic power and success like their 20th century Industrial Age predecessors. Consequently, it’s no coincidence that the San Francisco-Silicon Valley area needlessly suffers from a 20th century malady — horrible commute traffic congestion — that grows worse in the 21st.

ICT, declining role of CCO forcing redefinition of knowledge work

The maturation and proliferation of information and communications technology (ICT) is upending the concept of knowledge work. During the late Industrial Age, knowledge work meant working Monday through Friday 8-5 in a commute-in office. If a knowledge worker made the commute and showed up every workday, 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week — ipso facto they were performing knowledge work. As Dave Rolston wrote in his 2013 eBook Four Dead Kings at Work, these strictures of time and place are breaking down.

In the process, that collapse is forcing a redefinition of knowledge work to mean, well, work and specifically the work product — and not a daily trip to appear at a centralized commuter office (CCO). After all, that daily commute adds no intrinsic value and in fact extracts significant personal cost from knowledge workers that can reduce their morale and interest in what really counts – their work projects.

The current time is one of transition away from Rolston’s dying kings of the traditional workplace. Take, for example, the growing buzz on workplace flexibility and telework or virtual/remote work. It represents a shift away from the CCO and illustrates the tension between the traditional CCO and new, emerging ways of performing knowledge work beyond the CCO.

The CCO took many decades to be established and knowledge organizations have invested enormous sums in them. So even though ICT has effectively obsoleted them by distributing knowledge work outside the CCO, they won’t disappear overnight. But their role will fade as time goes on. In the meantime, a new definition of knowledge work will be formed that is independent of the CCO.

Telecom critical infrastructure for 21st century as knowledge work is decentralized

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But the goal of the “Tri-Gig High Speed” initiative is to offer a broadband infrastructure that is as affordable as possible and will meet the technological needs of businesses, public and educational institutions, and local residents, said Jane Nickles, chief information officer for the city of Greensboro. The Triad is one of several regions across the country striving to offer high-speed gigabit Internet access as a way to attract and retain businesses.“This is really an economic development initiative,” Nickles said. “Businesses are going to want to locate where they can get the high-speed broadband access and where their employees can get it because it opens up those possibilities of things that can be done outside of the office and done from home.”

Source: Triad cities, universities seek contractors to provide high-speed Internet access – Greensboro – Triad Business Journal

Nickles’ comments illustrate the very important role of telecommunications infrastructure in the 21st century. It’s as critical to the 21st century economy as transportation infrastructure was to the previous one. Particularly as performing knowledge work — centralized in metro centers in the 20th century — becomes decentralized and often performed outside the centralized commuter office and at home as Nickles notes. An added benefit is reduced transportation demand at the same time much of the transportation infrastructure is aging and in need of major overhaul.

The self driving vehicle as rolling conference room

4. The Car as Conference Room

Once cars become fully autonomous, they won’t need to take the form they have for more than a century. One concept design is the Mercedes-Benz F 015, which transforms the vehicle into a “digital living space.” Inside, seats swivel to face one another, and a series of displays permit passengers to entertain themselves or work. In other words, cars could double as conference rooms—and employers may begin to demand that people use their commutes productively.

Source: Driverless Cars, Flying Cars, and the Future of Transportation – The Atlantic

Commutes with have been getting so long and congested in major metro areas that the idea of vehicles doubling as as rolling conference rooms was bound to come up. And they may not be far off, according to this item appearing in the current issue of The Altantic.

This is a classic — and ridiculous — example of overlaying advances in digital technology onto a pre-digital, Industrial Age economy where commuting to a centralized office was necessary because that’s where the tools were for knowledge work. Apparently someone hasn’t been read into the future. Information and communications technology is obsoleting the commute itself. But if you love meetings and commuting, this may be for you.

If Work Is Digital, Why Do We Still Go to the Office?

The transformation of our work environments is only just beginning, but it could have a major impact on architects, developers, corporations, and society at large in the years to come. Far from making offices obsolete, as the digital pioneers of the 1990s confidently predicted, technology will transform and revitalize workspaces. We could soon work in a more sociable and productive way, and not from the top of a mountain. The ominous “death of distance” may be reversed with the “birth of a new proximity.”

Source: If Work Is Digital, Why Do We Still Go to the Office?

This analysis ignores what I would term the “tyranny of distance” that comes into play with daily commute trips to centralized office buildings. And that tyranny extracts an enormous and now unnecessary cost from knowledge workers in lost personal time, stress and daily travel expense.

The 1990s visionaries (and for that matter, those that preceded them in the 1960s (Arthur C. Clarke: “Men will no longer commute, they will communicate”) and the 1970s (Alvin Toffler and the “electronic cottage”) were right: information and communications technology disintermediates distance. It has now matured to the point that the daily commute is obsolete and collaboration can be done virtually with the occasional in-person meeting to reinforce social ties.

Conversation with Nicola Millard, head of Customer Insight & Futures, BT Global

Information and communications technology is advancing and proliferating so rapidly that one ICT player, the UK’s BT, has a futurologist on staff with a background in computers and psychology to help it and its large customers gain insight into how ICT will affect organizations and the way we work. In this podcast, BT’s Nicola Millard speaks with Last Rush Hour author Fred Pilot on how ICT makes it possible to work anywhere, anytime, making working more of a state of mind than a being present at a set time and place. However, it’s is also a disruptive force that can conflict with human social needs as well as Industrial Age management practices comfortably ensconced in centralized, commute-in offices. Looking out over the next five years, Millard sees both undergoing continuing redefinition. The office will become more of a “hive” where staff buzz in and out to collaborate as needed with co-workers rather than where work is done 9-5, Monday through Friday. Knowledge workers will work at home and in drop in co-working spaces. This will force management practices to evolve from command and control to leading with purpose and facilitating effective use of ICT-based collaboration tools by dispersed team members.