Wow. It is happening. Finally. As seen in normal news headlines:

Coronavirus: Twitter allows staff to work from home forever

Or how about this one…

It is just what the headline says. Wow.

You might be just shrugging and impatient to move on to something you care about, but let’s just take a moment to watch the sea recede before the tsunami. If you’re living in the Bay Area, you may want to seek higher ground.

A long time ago, mid 1990s, I realized that new technology rendered contemporary dating customs utterly obsolete. I signed up for some dating thing (on Compuserve - before www-based dating existed) when the ratios were easily 100 to 1. And I actually was able to go out on a date with a bona fide female! This was a disaster — both the date and my prescience.

Today, I’m getting the impression that using computers and software is by far " the most popular way U.S. couples connect".

The article says…

Meeting a significant other online has replaced meeting through friends. People trust the new dating technology more and more, and the stigma of meeting online seems to have worn off.

But to me, in 1994, I had already understood the inherent possibilities of this and there was no stigma. Though I ultimately had to meet my wife in real life decades later (she was reading an interesting paper book no less), the important point here is that I am very weird and my opinions and prognostications are quite likely to be very wrong, even when my facts are correct and history eventually vindicates my beliefs.

We are at the dawn of another such change that I see clearly and yet many others, apparently do not. I see it so clearly that I’m horrified and shocked because it, like rational dating, is happening about 20 years later than I expected. Working from home is suddenly a big deal.

Frist let’s review the fact that not working from home is weird. Very weird. Historically we’ve "gone to work" only for a couple hundred years. Formerly "going to work" entailed tasks like resource extraction (going to a mine or a forest to get wood). People would also farm land between villages. There were ship crews and courriers and soldiers on the march. But mainly people lived and worked in pretty much an area smaller than Google’s Mountainview campus. So returning to that is not a shocking unnatural thing for humans to do.

For decades, my rhetorical question to large Silicon Valley companies has been this: Do you really think that the smartest people — who graduated at the top of their high school class — want to be "rewarded" by being separated from their home and family? You can say that these smart people like making far more money than they would otherwise make if they were able to stay connected with their families but this isn’t entirely right. Just like you may not find the optimal sex partners by hiring people who will have sex with you for money.

And the irony is this: if you’re a tradesman or a nurse or a some other "essential" skilled labor, you can work anywhere, including your hometown if you like. If however, you appease the STEM gods with offerings of pointless homework and masochistic isolation, you get to live in an 800 sqft apartment with some guys from the other side of the earth who are living without servants for the first time in their lives. And you would think that being a plumber would preclude working from home, but it only precludes you from working from your own house. Your kids still get to visit their grandparents.

The more brutal irony was hopefully belabored in my post about the sign painter problem: How the fuck can tech companies repudiate tech when it comes to the most important quality of life issues of their own constituents? But they do.

The fact that this willful stupidity was so stupid meant it could not last. There was some sticky cultural inertia that prevented modern people from engaging with modernity. The conronavirus, bless its black little heart, has smashed that inertia. Consider the ramifications.

If FAANG competes with Twitter for warm bodies to fill their tech bro mosh pits, how competitive will they be if Twitter is saying they’ve done away with the humiliation of the tech bro mosh pits entirely? You don’t even have to come live in the stupidest, least affordable place on earth! That’s going to have some ripples. Among smart people anyway. The only way those companies previously got away with such stupid practices is by aping each other in the first place. If this sticks, the other big tech companies will have to follow. If the big companies are all doing it, all wannabe companies will likewise do so as part of their normal cargo cult rituals.

With the miraculous speed of an email crossing the globe, things could change very quickly.

If this sticks, Silicon Valley real estate is about to get a lot less stupid. Read this Bloomberg headline: Tech Workers Consider Escaping Silicon Valley’s Sky-High Rents. That article talks about fancy tech people fleeing Silicon Valley for places like Lake Tahoe and Hawaii. Why the hell not?!

Let’s think about small towns. What if our valedictorian nerd protagonist hero stayed around and brought some income and, frankly, Blue State intellectual diversity to rural nowheresville? It could happen. What about small towns that are more nice than convenient. Sure there’s intertia to stay in the small town you’ve always been in, but Silicon Valley slaves will be delighted to actually have an opportunity to get the hell out and spend their loot in the real world. I can imagine them overrunning tourist towns to live permanently. After all one of the defining properties of people who can comfortably work from anywhere are workers who have been asked to do work while on vacation.

Now imagine that the talented tech nerds are not self-segregated in the Bay Area, but driving around in the most fancy trucks in their hick country neighborhoods. Of course they will be cruelly mocked and shamed, like always, but they will also be more readily inspirational to latent closeted tech nerds. And owning the biggest property, they shouldn’t care too much what the neighbors think anyway — when they come to service the estate.

Of course the down side is that like minded tech people can not get together and do nerdy things so easily…. Stop. That was a test… Do you believe that? Listen to my message — tech people, of all people, do not need to be in the same physical place to interact! In fact, this potential for dissolving the clot of tech nerds in the Bay Area could strengthen true tech’s ability to communicate like proper true nerds should. If you don’t know where the Linux kernel development headquarters main building has historically been you may not be a part of the club.

But hicktowns in the rural USA are really just the beginning. Did you know that you can save 80% on rent in San Diego by moving 50km south? Sí, se puede. And that’s just an example I know about. I have no idea how this will shake out in the labor market globally. On one hand, a bezillion people from certain large populous nations will statistically produce some very smart people; on the other hand, a lot of them seem to be in the USA already. How might that change?

One thing tech nerds require that is sometimes deficient in the middle of nowhere is superb internet coverage. But consider that places packed with massive population densities aren’t exactly enjoying top quality network access. Moving from a crowded coastal California mega-city to a modest sensible typical mid-west town got me a 15x improvement in download speeds and about double that for uploads. I’m guessing this work from home stuff will actually smooth out some rural access issues (see also the history of paved roads).

That’s going to give tech people even greater freedom. And tech itself will be more plausible out on the farm. And if I don’t have to slave away in a sweatshop, there will also be less economic pressure for my neighbor to do so. Good times!

I’m excited by the prospect of tech people getting out into the real world and engaging with real problems. Not made up nonsense which "help" tech people navigate their own self-inflicted purgatory. There are unironic apps "to help you organize your apps". Get a life, Silicon Valley! You’ve got no excuse now!

I have always resisted. By choice and necessity. Not being able to live where exotic computer nerds must live to earn full exotic computer nerd compensation has cost me around roughly a million dollars over my career. Worth every penny! (And not that much when spent on CA real estate.) I’m hoping my career-long ability to do all of my work from literally any place on earth (with an internet connection) becomes less irrelevant.

You know what skill is relevant for normal salarymen in tech? Showing up to a very inconvenient place every day. Will we see some better performance metrics emerge? I think we have reason to be hopeful. Will people adapt to smarter communications? Value practical applied literacy more? I think we have reason to be hopeful. Will there be less carnage and pollution because of fewer cars needlessly clogging the roads to The Office? I think we have reason to be hopeful.

I know this happens already a bit, but why not put servers in even smarter places? I know that example seems like one where people need to do a lot of on-site work, but not so much the engineering nerds really. Oh and if you ever get the chance to see this quirky Mexican science fiction movie: "Sleep Dealer" aka "Traficantes de sueños", you should check that out. For a very cheap movie it is filled with sensible practical science fiction. The important bit is the obvious rise of teleoperation using cheap labor as the brains of things like skyscraper welding robots. It is time for tech to really deliver on its promises and this has been a blindspot in my opinion. Is there really any reason why a backhoe operator should be on site with the backhoe? ( Hint : local small business equipment rental drops it off at job site.) Working from home is for more people than you think.

Are secretive companies (e.g. Apple) going to balk at letting their tech leak out of their fortresses and into their serfs' living rooms? Sure they will. But by the axiom of being able to move data around effortlessly generally, security problems and leaks are not magically precluded — that fortress was just a prop. Issue everyone separate work computers for working on work if new props are needed. There are ways to do it right. For grandmaster level intelligence agencies, the work-from-home show is a delightful honeypot opportunity.

And think of the women. If you’re a tech bro in Silicon Valley the ratios can’t be good. If you’re a woman you’ve got a whole different set of problems. How will this new remote thinking affect couples who both genuflected before the STEM alter and who therefore are likely to have mutually exclusive rigid career tracks? Will the flexibility of being at home help with child care? How could it not?


So there you go. That’s my speculative take on new work from home cultural shifts. Remember, I’m probably wrong. This proably will not happen. Once the Virus That Broke The World mysteriously departs, there may be a mad rush of the sheep dogs to herd the flocks back into their open plan pens. I am confident that my son’s generation won’t tolerate this rote nonsense about going to the office merely for ritual status displays but that could be 20+ years away.

Historically the only tepid reason I’ve ever heard why putting the sheep in pens was necessary was the circular argument that it was probably necessary. The sheep might not be able to handle the isolation in some vague way. If there’s one thing that we can say about this topic that is a done deal it is that this uncertainty is now completely removed. Do the self-styled smart people of the world really need to be babysit at a kindergarten? We will now know the answer conclusively. Working from home is optimal for me for reasons that are so obvious that it’s painful — but we’ve also established that I’m weird. Now we’ll know if it works for everyone. Remember, nothing is stopping anyone from renting an office and spending 27 minutes a day driving to it. Uh… have fun with that.

The sheep are out now, and they might have reached escape velocity. If so, many things will not be the same.

UPDATE 2020-05-17

A loyal reader who has worked from home as an engineer for 25 years draws attention to the sad dreary milieux now seen in abundance in video conference backgrounds on a daily basis. Many dining room tables and awkward domestic scenes. But he’s a pro. I’m a pro. Normal office grunts have some catching up to do. But they will! No matter how it turns out, normal people are investing in this and getting better at working from home.

Besides simple cinematic directing, what people working from home need is dedicated space. Nice dedicated space. Is this too much to ask? No.

There are two important reasons. First, people can now leave Manhattan or Menlo Park and live somewhere where their house buying investment can afford a substantial space dedicated to professional activities.

The second reason is macro economic. This is not a zero sum solution — the companies win too! They no longer have to buy astronomically expensive, yet utterly stupid, accommodation for their workers. In theory, this value should be returned to the workers or society or shareholders or, hell, even the bosses. Currently it’s just being lit on fire. Sorry Steve Jobs — your "gorgeous" Apple Park is stupid. Stupid. Was stupid then and is stupid with fireworks spelling S-T-U-P-I-D now. According to wikipedia this thing cost $5e9 and holds 12k densely packed sheep. That’s over $416k per employee. If I gave you $416k you could easily set up your dedicated video conferencing facility in this room with fine visual appeal.


After purchasing this place outright!


That’s an increase in floor space for our hypothetical Apple sheep from 233 to 4612 square feet! And I’m just considering the office accommodations.

And what is the "downside"? You have to live in Erie, PA? Let me tell you as someone pretty familiar with both Erie and Cupertino — even with fewer McLaren dealers, Erie is a damn nice place!

Don’t like the look of that snow? Migrate during the winters! You can do that now! The reader I mentioned migrates to snowy Colorado for ski season each year without skipping a beat professionally. Silicon Valley is geographically okay and known for its anodyne weather but it is crap compared to, say, Mackinac Island in the summer. Some of us prefer such places in the winter!

So give it time. The clumsiness the sheep are going through will resolve itself. They’re still reeling from the struggles of having to live in Silicon Valley in the first place. Once they apply themselves to escaping, we have no reason to expect things will stay the same.

UPDATE 2020-05-21

Paywalled so I didn’t read this article, but the headline is enough: Facebook to Shift Permanently Toward More Remote Work After Coronavirus

UPDATE 2020-05-30

The Economist reiterates pretty much exactly what I’ve been saying.

[The pandemic] has made remote work seem both normal and acceptable. In the past employees who stayed home had to overcome the suspicion that they were bunking off. Now those who insist on being at the office sound self-important. … Yet although offices will not disappear, it is hard to imagine that working life will return to [before coronavirus] ways. For more than a century workers have stuffed themselves onto crowded trains and buses, or endured traffic jams, to get into the office, and back, five days a week. For the past two months they have not had to commute, and will have enjoyed the hiatus.

Employers, for their part, have maintained expensive digs in city centres because they needed to gather staff in one place. The rent is only part of the cost; there is the cleaning, lighting, printers, catering and security on top. When you work at home, you pay for your own utilities and food.

Many businesses and employees may thus have had their “Wizard of Oz” moment: the corporate HQ is shown to be an old man behind the curtain. Faith in the centralised office may never be restored.

UPDATE 2020-06-24

Nationwide CEO Kirt Walker says it’s been a popular decision at the company. "Overwhelming. Hundreds of emails and cards and letters and phone calls. Thank you for doing this.

The punchline of the article is that you should get a good chair — as if that were an automatic feature people could count on in an office. I still want to punch these CEOs who made this a reality — twenty years too late!

UPDATE 2020-08-07

The Atlantic speculates all over the place about the future of remote work. The Workforce Is About to Change Dramatically. Pretty similar to what I wrote — no one knows really, but something pretty substantive is happening right now.