In the nineteen-sixties, Jack Nilles, a physicist turned engineer, built long-range communications systems at the U.S. Air Force’s Aerial Reconnaissance Laboratory, near Dayton, Ohio. Later, at NASA, in Houston, he helped design space probes that could send messages back to Earth. In the early nineteen-seventies, as the director for interdisciplinary research at the University of Southern California, he became fascinated by a more terrestrial problem: traffic congestion. Suburban sprawl and cheap gas were combining to create traffic jams; more and more people were commuting into the same city centers. In October, 1973, the OPEC oil embargo began, and gas prices quadrupled. America’s car-based work culture seemed suddenly unsustainable.
That year, Nilles published a book, “The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff,” in which he and his co-authors argued that the congestion problem was actually a communications problem. The personal computer hadn’t yet been invented, and there was no easy way to relocate work into the home. But Nilles imagined a system that could ease the traffic crisis: if companies built small satellite offices in city outskirts, then employees could commute to many different, closer locations, perhaps on foot or by bicycle. A system of human messengers and mainframe computers could keep these distributed operations synchronized, replicating the communication that goes on within a single, shared office building. Nilles coined the terms “tele-commuting” and “telework” to describe this hypothetical arrangement.
The satellite-office idea didn’t catch on, but it didn’t matter: over the next decade, advances in computer and network technology leapfrogged it. In 1986, my mother, a COBOL programmer for the Houston Chronicle, became one of the first true remote workers: in a bid to keep her from leaving—she was very good, and had a long commute—the paper set her up with an early-model, monochrome-screen PC, from which she “dialled in” to the paper’s I.B.M. mainframe using a primitive modem, sending screens of code back and forth. “It was very slow,” she told me recently. “You would watch the lines load on the screen, one by one.” The technology wasn’t fast enough for widespread use—hours could pass while the computers synchronized—but the basic template for remote work had been set.
In the following decades, technical advances arrived with increasing frequency. In the nineteen-nineties, during the so-called I.T. revolution, office workers started using networked PCs and teams embraced e-mail and file-sharing. People began spending less time in meetings and on the phone and more time interacting with their computers. As computer prices dropped, many bought comparable machines for their homes, using modems to access the same tools they used at work. In 1994, A.T. & T. held its first “Employee Telecommuting Day”; in 1996, the federal government launched a program to increase remote-work options for its employees. In the early two-thousands, broadband Internet made home connections substantially faster, and, in 2003, a pair of European programmers released Skype, which took advantage of this broadband explosion to enable cheap audio communication. In 2004, they added conference-call capabilities, and, in 2006, video conferencing. By the next year, their program had been downloaded half a billion times.