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IDEA: Remote work suffers from a "telephone problem" + Metcalf's Law according to network theory

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1 month 7 hours ago - 1 month 7 hours ago #134 by PABlo

As a general rule of human civilization, we’ve lived where we work. More than 90 percent of Americans drive to work, and their average commute is about 27 minutes. This tether between home and office is the basis of urban economics. But remote work weakens it; in many cases, it severs the link entirely, replacing spatial proximity with cloud-based connectivity. What knock-on changes will this new industrial revolution bring?


The best argument against the remote-work experiment having a durable impact on our lives beyond the pandemic is an appeal to human inertia: For decades, the internet was a thing and remote work wasn’t, and after the pandemic, it’ll just feel like 2019 again.

But the impediment to widespread remote work in 2019 and before wasn’t technological. It was social. According to the economist David Autor, remote work suffered from a “telephone problem.” Seven decades after the first telephone was patented in the 1860s, fewer than half of Americans owned one. Behavior dragged behind technology, because most families had no use for a telecom machine as long as none of their friends also owned one. In network theory, this is known as Metcalfe’s Law: The value of a communications network rises exponentially with the number of its users.

The same has been true of remote work. In 2018, it was weird and rude to ask a boss to move a meeting to Skype, or to tell a business partner to fire up a Zoom link because you can’t make lunch. The teleconference tech existed, but it was considered an ersatz substitute for the normal course of business.

“The most important outcome of the pandemic wasn’t that it taught you how to use Zoom, but rather that it forced everybody else to use Zoom,” Autor told me. "We all leapfrogged over the coordination problem at the exact same time.” Meetings, business lunches, work trips—all these things will still happen in the after world. But nobody will forget the lesson we were all just forced to learn: Telecommunications doesn’t have to be the perfect substitute for in-person meetings, as long as it’s mostly good enough. For the most part, remote work just works.

{Source: The Atlantic, Feb. 1, 2021 ]
Last edit: 1 month 7 hours ago by PABlo.

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