Drifting into the future with a new telecommuter


January 10, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

IF COLLEAGUES with computers haven't already convinced you of the wonders of telecommuting, a blizzard will. Why try to drive to the office if you can could do your work just as well at home, on the PC, with the aid of all those on-line information services? Why use the Beltway when you can access the information highway with a few taps on the keyboard?

This is the first time, in its 27 months of existence, that This Just In has been composed on a PC, at my house, and shipped via telephone modem to The Sun. It literally took a blizzard to make this happen. The storm has restricted (an ironic word) my information-gathering to cable television, the radio, my new all-weather radio, magazines and newspapers obtained before the blizzard arrived and a few telephone calls.

Face-to-face contact has been limited to conversations with neighbors. on my street.This week, we saw more people walking, more people stopping to chat, offering to clear a driveway or pick up something at the supermarket. There's nothing like a blowout snowstorm to get us reacquainted with people who live two doors away, is there?

All of which made me wonder, again, about where this information revolution is taking us. It turns out that many of us were housebound before the blizzard hit.

With personal computers in 34 percent of U.S. households and )) 30 million people said to be using the Internet, increasing numbers of professionals and entrepreneurs are finding ways to do their work without ever leaving home. They also entertain themselves there. In a sense, these people already have been "snowed in" -- not by nature, but by the technological revolution.

"We may like our homes so much we won't want to leave them for long," writes Edward Cornish, editor of the Futurist magazine, a publication of the Maryland-based World Future Society. "Snug and safe, we will be able to access the entertainment and information resources of the world. And we may find it increasingly feasible to work at home rather than setting a foot outside, since so many meetings will take place in cyberspace."

The Futurist arrived on my desk just as the blizzard of 1996 moved up the East Coast, eventually forcing millions of Americans to take a couple of days off. But plenty of men and women never were concerned about missing work and being disconnected from their livelihoods. They do their commuting with PCs and telephone lines. They probably experienced little downtime during the storm and its aftermath. To them, Sunday, Monday and yesterday were like any other days.

This might have been an old-fashioned winter storm, forcing everyone to slow down, to stay close to their nests, to actually speak to their neighbors, to bake bread and, as they say, make do.

But cyber time stops for no one. It's out there, a vast and busy space unaffected by blizzards. The postal carriers didn't make it to my house Monday, but e-mail did. By the measure of the futurist, you were stranded only if you weren't signed on to a computer.

As hip and as liberating as all that sounds, there's a clear downside to the cyber future: It isolates us from one another, each otherand focuses our attention on some intangible "global community," rather than the one that lives on our block.

"Working and chatting over the Internet with very distant colleagues and responding to very distant events, people can easily neglect their local friends and family members," Cornish writes in the Futurist. "Unless this trend is compensated for, families and neighborhood institutions will suffer."

While the information revolution will free many people to live wherever they like, unrestricted by commuting concerns, it also will tend to isolate them, desocialize them and maybe even make them more anti-social. "If electronic entertainment continues to gain, we may become a nonsociety -- a poorly integrated mass of electronic hermits, unable to work well together because we no longer play together. Institutions such as the family, community, church and nations will face the challenge of seeking support from people whose loyalty is almost entirely to themselves," he says.

Cornish writes of the "global infomedia" that is alreadyemerging as the springhead of international culture. With computers and telecommunications, we'll all be home, drinking from the same source, absorbing this global culture, developing global lifestyles, enjoying the fruits of a global economy. Local cultures will be obliterated. Ninety percent of the world's languages will disappear; English will dominate. Sometime early in the 21st century, the globalized media will have created "a world of gods and clods."

Says Cornish: "The rich and famous who appear in the media will be the new gods. The rest of us will be the unknown and uninteresting members of the audience. Once, people like us might have earned respect in our communities because people knew our accomplishments and appreciated our qualities. But in the future, we will become increasingly unknown to our neighbors, and this loss of recognition by people around us will probably not be made up by scattered cyber contacts."

Despite that bleak forecast, Cornish is not a doomsayer. He champions the cyber future, especially as a place that will thrive with entrepreneurs, greater convenience and more leisure time. But he sees it transforming human life as we know it. A blizzard can do that for a few days, my friends. Computers and telecommunications are doing it it forever.

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