Feedback on Alice
I’ve got a modest postbag on Alice in Business (see also here). Three comments published there comment on telecommuting, with two in favour and one not. For myself, I’ve worked for myself since 1997 (though with 7 months on-site in 1998, so only really from home since then), and find it hugely preferable to the Dilbertian office.
I got some more interesting comment in email. I’ll quote from them here, and let the authors either identify themselves or preserve their anonymity:
- By improving communication, making possible email, video-conferencing etc we make possible global distributed teams (think Open Source/Free Software but also outsourcing to India). And what’s the first thing that all these globally distributed teams do? Get together in person.
- I enjoyed “Alice in Business”. On the other hand, you must be careful not to wind up with a world like the one depicted by E.M. Forster in his short story “The Machine Stops”. Everyone lives in a cubicle-like flat, with all services piped in. There is no need ever to travel or even leave one’s own flat, and as time goes by it becomes unthinkable to do so.
Both are interesting points. The first is, I think, in part “Because we can” and because it’s the done thing. Although I have met my most important client in person (once, in 2005), I have many clients I’ve only ever met online, and the last time I worked for someone I’d met before signing the contract was that onsite job in 1997/8. On the other hand, I do travel (within Europe) to various conferences, where I meet up with fellow techies.
The second is paradoxically something brought about by cheap and ubiquitous travel. It’s car ownership more than anything that has killed off local facilities (village schools, post offices, shops, etc), and so destroyed communities. With the car now seen as a necessity by many, the carless (the poor and the disabled, who are not carless by choice) are driven into their little isolated containers. The life they’d have had a couple of generations ago has gone.
But it’s not just the obviously-excluded: just look at commuters in their cars or on the tube, each in their own little bubble. Community on the roads is actually rather easy to estimate: stand by the roadside on an obvious route with your thumb in the air. Every driver who passes with a spare seat has rejected your company. Oh, and I speak as someone who does hitchhike, and who always stopped for hitchhikers (except smokers) when I had a car.
What I’m advocating is diametrically opposite to Forster’s story. We dispense with (most) travel as a disruptive chore, but that doesn’t mean abandoning a day or night out, or a holiday. On the contrary, with more time and less stress, we can enjoy a much fuller social life.
A final thought on The Machine: just look at the panic buying of food when a few thugs blockaded fuel depots and the authorities did nothing to stop them. That was just the threat of the machine stopping. And the more it relies on transport (sometimes obscene amounts of it), the more dependent we all are on The Machine.
If you’re still reading, I’ll leave you with my editor’s comment, to which I have no answer:
Best way to kill a VC project – [techie minion to boss] “You know that expensive trip to Europe last year, when your wife hit the Pariis shops and you got to Twickenham for the Rugby, and it all came out of the relations-building budget? Well, great news, we now have technology which means you can stay in your office in Poughkeepsie all year, although the time difference means you’ll be working nights as well as days, and we’ll save a fortune…” [exuant minion carrying cards]