Anywhere Is Everywhere

The Internet is transforming how we work, and not just within the tech industry. Kogi BBQ led a food-truck renassaince, making innovative use of social media to drive demand. The result: lines around the block. (Photo credit: Wikipedia.)

The following is an excerpt from our upcoming book about remote work, The Global Office.


Success stories for remote work are common in the software business. The Linux operating system was developed via remote collaboration, along with all its various distributions, and thousands of other open source software libraries. There's GitHub and Basecamp (formerly 37Signals) and dozens of lesser known but successful software companies, all of whom work remotely.

These are not curious outliers, nor is our industry unique in being transformed by the technology we've created. The Internet is changing work for everyone. Surgeries are being performed by remote control robots. Restaurants are going mobile in the form of food trucks. Just-in-time concert tours are happening in our homes. And during the next decade, millions of knowledge workers will earn their degrees online.

They won't call it remote work. They'll just call it work.

She Was In Strasbourg

Remote surgeons go into hospitals just like other doctors do and they wear the usual garments. But the surgery is performed via remotely controlled robot. The robot—and the patient—is in another hospital.

The first robot-assisted surgery took place in Vancouver in 1984. The first fully remote robot-assisted surgery was performed in 2001, dubbed the Lindbergh Operation, after aviator Charles Lindbergh, the first person to complete a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The Lindbergh Operation was a collaboration between University Hospital, Strasbourg (in France), France Telecom, which provided the broadband connection, and Computer Motion, an American robotics corporation (which has since become Intuitive Surgical) provided the robot. Dr. Jacques Marescaux, a head of surgery at University Hospital, Strasbourg, performed the surgery. He removed the gall bladder from a 68-year-old patient.

He was in New York. She was in Strasbourg.

Today, remote surgery can be done over the Internet. The Nicholson Center in Florida simulated a robot-assisted surgery in which the surgeon was 1,200 miles away, connected via an ordinary high-speed Internet Connection. Every surgeon in the world can suddenly operate remotely. Doctors Without Borders takes on a whole new meaning.

The Food Truck Renaissance

If you live in a big city, you've probably noticed that food trucks have gotten a lot better recently. One of the pioneers of this trend, the LA-based Kogi Korean BBQ, even won a Bon Appetite award in 2009. At the time, they had just one truck. They used Twitter to tell people where that truck would be. And people loved it. Kogi bought more trucks, built two sister restaurants, and a kiosk in LA’s biggest airport.

Kogi pioneered social media marketing tactics for food trucks, starting in 2008, and became a darling of the marketing world. Others, like Chi’Lantro BBQ and Don Chow Tacos, either copied these tactics, or discovered them independently. Today, food trucks with Twitter accounts are commonplace, and the successful ones have thousands of followers.

In 2008, when the mortgage crisis devastated the economy, food trucks emerged as a appealing alternative to starting a restaurant. And, as economists Elliot Anenberg and Edward Kung have argued, social media made it easy for gourmet food trucks to capitalize on consumer demand. And capitalize they did. The demand for food trucks is now expected to at least quadruple in size, from barely $600M in 2010 to $2.7B in 2017.

Picking a location used to be a major source of both cost and risk when starting a new restaurant. What if you pick the wrong location? What if you can't secure a lease? What if you miss a rent payment? Today, launching a restaurant is just about finding out if your food is as good as you think it is. Kogi Korean BBQ proved that with their first truck. Then they added more trucks, and only expanded into physical locations after they knew their recipes and marketing were proven winners.

The Return Of The Troubadour

Meet Shannon Curtis, modern troubadour. Curtis is a singer-songwriter, based in Los Angeles, who describes her music as “Sarah McLachlan meets Massive Attack.” In 2011, she got a Facebook message from a fan in San Diego. Curtis hadn’t performed in San Diego in a while, so the fan offered their living room as a performance venue. It’s a short drive, so Curtis did the show, thinking she’d make enough gas money to cover driving to San Diego and back. But she ended up making a lot more than that. Perhaps more importantly, she also found an absolutely captivated audience, hanging on her every word, which was much more fulfilling than playing at clubs.

Soon after, Curtis embarked on a standard tour, playing nightclubs and concert halls in several cities in the Western half of the United States. She’d had a good time playing that one living room concert, and it had made business sense as well, so she decided to book a few more living room shows just as filler dates, in between her tour dates. She made more money and had more fun at the living room shows.

In the process, she collected contact information directly from her fans. This type of data is extremely valuable to artists like Shannon, since it empowers them to market themselves directly to their audience. In a conventional tour, that data is collected by promoters and venues. This makes up a kind of hidden commission, which, in turn, bolsters their role as necessary intermediaries.

The house tours did away with all that.

As she later told the DIY Musician Podcast, the living room shows outperformed the club dates on “every measurable metric.”

Listening to her describe it, or reading her book, it’s clear they outperformed the club dates on more ephemeral factors as well. Where she found herself trying to win over club audiences, the audiences at her house shows came expressly to hear her. And if you go to hear somebody perform at your friend’s house, you take your phone calls outside. In the home tours, Curtis found a more personal and emotionally connected atmosphere.

Curtis’s next tour was entirely hosted by her fans. Curtis made $25K in two months, which is terrific for an indie artist. Contrast this with the complaints from giant record companies that the Internet is destroying the music industry. If so, it's creating another one in its wake. Curtis reports that these tours turned her fan base into a community. Fans in different cities are getting to know each other, because experienced hosts are mentoring newbie hosts. Curtis even produced a 7-page PDF guide to putting on a living room show, with the help of some of her prior hosts.

In the Middle Ages, troubadours would travel from castle to castle, playing music and telling stories for the royalty of each region in turn. Variations on this tradition survived all the way up to the dawn of recorded music, at which point it went underground but never entirely disappeared. Curtis is reviving the tradition once more in the cities and suburbs of America’s west coast states. As with the food truck renaissance, Social media is driving this transformation, empowering artists to connect more directly with fans and for fans to connect directly with one another.

The Global Village Office

In the late twentieth century, the human race created a ubiquitous computer network which was literally designed to survive a nuclear apocalypse. On top of that network, we created a mesh that allows anyone in the world to connect and collaborate with anyone else, virtually instantaneously.

Wouldn't it be surprising to find that such a creation didn't radically transform the way we work? Not just within the software industry, but pervasively, across every realm of human endeavor, just like the Agricultural and Industrial Revoluion, or the invention of writing or the printing press?

And, in fact, that is exactly what we see happening. The Internet and social media are transforming our sense of place. Shannon Curtis is performing in our living room, the Kogi BBQ truck is parked down the block, and the surgeon we met after the last set finished an operation in West Africa only hours ago.

And Marshall McLuhan is whispering in our ear, a voice crackling from the decades before the Internet, the decades of radio and television, and he's saying, the medium is the message…


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