Many years ago I came to the conclusion that telecommuting was entirely feasible for a substantial fraction of the U.S. workforce. Technology wasn’t a problem, even in 1973 when we started formal tests on telecommuting in a live corporation. There were two main reasons for this at the time. First, most of the telecommutable jobs dealt mostly with routine information transfer: data entry, text processing and the like. In our original tests this was done with “dumb” terminals connected to local minicomputers in what we called satellite offices. The minicomputers collected all the keystrokes during the work day and uploaded them to a downtown mainframe at night. The point here was that much information work comprised routine information transfer; the more exotic information activities, those that required similarly exotic computing or communications capabilities, were done by a relatively smaller number of workers.

There was a second reason for my conclusion that 1970s-level technology was not a barrier to telecommuting, that exotic and expensive communications like video conferencing weren’t really necessary for most forms of telecommuting. This was a report from a lab at MIT on a project that investigated the utility of various forms of communication, including video conferencing, on business decision-making. One of the research team’s conclusions was that video conferencing (versus computer conferencing) had no effect on the decision outcomes of the groups studied—although the groups felt more comfortable with the decision reached via video. Certainly video was cool but, at several thousand dollars per hour for a point-to-point hookup that had no effect on the outcome, it wasn’t justified for most business activities below the presidential level.

Now, almost two score years later, the technology situation has changed dramatically. Personal computers arrived on the scene and took over many of the routine information processing tasks. The Internet evolved and broadband telecommunications became routine over much of the world, at least in urban areas. Now we even have:


Continue reading Robocommuting