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If more and more offices do most of their work on computers, and if a personal computer can be put in a living room, why should anyone have to go to work in an office at all? The question can bring a stab of hope to anybody who spends hours every day on the San Diego Freeway or the Long Island Rail Road. Nor is "telecommuting" as unrealistic as it sounds. Futurist Jack Nilles of the University of Southern California has estimated that any home computer cardio-would soon pay for itself from savings in commuting expenses and in city office rentals.
Is the great megalopolis, the marketplace of information, about to be doomed by the new technology? Another futurist, Alvin Toffler, suggests at least a trend in that direction. In his 1980 book, The Third Wave, he portrays a 21st century world in which the computer revolution has canceled out many of the fundamental changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution: the centralization and standardization of work in the factory, the office, the assembly line. These changes may seem eternal, but they are less than two centuries old. Instead, Toffler imagines a revived version of pre-industrial life in what he has named "the electronic cottage," a Utopian abode where all members of the family work, learn and enjoy their leisure around the electronic hearth, the computer. Says Vice President Louis H. Mertes of the Continental Illinois Bank and Trust Co. of Chicago, who is such a computer enthusiast that he allows no paper to be seen in his office (though he does admit to keeping a few files in the drawer of an end table): "We're talking when—not if—the electronic cottage will emerge."
Continental Illinois has experimented with such electronic cottages by providing half a dozen workers with word processors so they could stay at home. Control Data tried a similar experiment and ran into a problem: some of its 50 "alternate site workers" felt isolated, deprived of their social life around the water cooler. The company decided to ask them to the office for lunch and meetings every week. "People are like ants, they're communal creatures," says Dean Scheff, chairman and founder of CPT Corp., a word-processing firm near Minneapolis. "They need to interact to get the creative juices , flowing. Very few of us are » hermits."
TIME'S Yankelovich poll underlines the point. Some 73% of the respondents believed that the computer revolution would enable more people to work at home. But only 31 % said they would prefer to do so themselves. Most work no longer involves a hay field, a coal mine or a sweatshop, but a field for social intercourse. Psychologist Abraham Maslow defined work as a hierarchy of functions: it first provides food and shelter, the basics, but then it offers security, friendship, "belongingness." This is not just a matter of trading gossip in the corridors; work itself, particularly in the information industries, requires the stimulation of personal contact in the exchange of ideas: sometimes organized conferences, sometimes simply what is called "the schmooze factor." Says Sociologist Robert Schrank: "The workplace performs the function of community."
But is this a basic psychological reality or simply another