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But technology that takes personal interaction away can also make up for it in new forms. At the New York City office of Chase Manhattan's Private Bank, executive vice president James Zeigon is able, with the click of his computer mouse, to dial his London and San Francisco branches and within five seconds conduct a ``face-to-face'' meeting with two colleagues thousands of miles apart. Using an advanced teleconferencing system from Avistar, the Chase bankers get consistently sharp video images in synch with clear sound and smooth movement. Their system allows for the onscreen display of documents as well as people from up to four locations at the same time. The cost per seat for such systems currently ranges from $2,000 to $5,000, but it could decline, say analysts, to $500 during the next two years.

The combination of plummeting costs and soaring sophistication in communications technology is changing the nature of business competition. Newfound access to vast libraries of digitized data, combined with the means to communicate cheaply and rapidly, has given small firms tools that until recently were available only to big corporations. Properly wired, so-called mom-and-pop enterprises now have the wherewithal to compete without overhead costs to weigh them down. Conversely, many big companies are finding it harder and harder to justify large proprietary staffs. To compete effectively with small rivals, many large companies have begun replacing those staffs with new digital gadgets in a process Bell Labs Nobel laureate Arno Penzias calls ``the hollowing out of corporations.''

``What we're going to see over the coming two decades is the devolution of many large corporations,'' says Peter Schwartz, president of Global Business Network, a cyber-age research and consulting firm. Case in point: IBM. In the same massive restructuring that is bringing virtual offices and high-tech gadgetry to every level of its business, Big Blue has slashed its work force by more than 170,000 jobs since its employment peak in the late 1980s. Many of these erstwhile employees have set up shop on their own, often doing business on a contract basis for IBM itself. Thoroughly armed with the modern weaponry of the road warrior, they, like the telecommuters at Chiat/Day, are among the forerunners of employment in the information age.

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