Telework and togetherness on the network

We haven't commuted in years. Instead, we communicatem to work (as communications consultants) via computer from our home office, interacting daily with people around the country and a few folks abroad. We don't have to deal with traffic jams, bad weather, parking, dressing up, or lengthy meetings. And yet we maintain a lively professional and social life . . . electronically.

We can "telecommute" because we are using a computer as a means of communication. We work and play in a computer network, using a computerized conferencing system to send and receive electronic mail, attend ongoing conferences and meetings on a variety of subjects, write and distribute material , play games, and participate in other information- exchange processes. In short, we communicate with other people on many different topics, and we use a computer to organize that communication rather than relying exclusively on mail, telephone, or face-to-face meetings.

The particular system we use is EIES (pronounced "eyes"), the Electronic Information Exchange System, located at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. To use EIES, one needs a computer terminal, a telephone, and an account on the system. From our home office in Lake Oswego, Ore., 3,000 miles away, we can connect with EIES in a few seconds, using an international telecommuncations network that costs much less than a transcontinental telephone call.

Today, we log on the system and find electronic mail waiting from friends and colleagues in Boston, Kansas City, San Francisco, Tucson, and Washington, D.C.

AFter getting our messages, we check on various conferences, where meetings are being held. The computer delivers a brief description of each new item, and then we decide whether to select it to get further information, others' responses, and perhaps to add responses ourselves later on.

In the space of about 20 minutes, then, we are current with new messages, discussions, and business details, all without missing people on the phone, waiting for the mail, or sitting in a meeting. Now we can plan the rest of the day: answering messages, responding to material, and doing other work, all on our own schedule and at home. When we need to walk to errands later, we can do it without interrupting anyone else, and we eat when we're hungry, rather than at a scheduled hour. As "night people" we prefer to work and sleep late; EIES allows us to do that and still be productive.

Yet there are limitations to computerized conferencing.Since only words and simple graphics can be exchanged, noverbal cues like tone of voice and facial expression are lost. Misunderstandings can occur unless one takes the time to communicate nuances of feeling. It's tricky to have humor taken the right way. We type "(chuckle)" sometimes just to make sure.

As a result, EIES is not substitute for other forms of communication, but rather a useful and unique supplement. We use it to make appointments for phone calls and to substitute for all but essential business travel. We usually take a portable terminal with us on trips and connect from hotel or meeting rooms.

Computerized conferencing is a medium for electronic group work, regardless of members' locations. In that sense it is a social medium, and one of the challenges is designing its use for many different kinds of activities. The art is in creating appropriate structures and processes so people can get just the information they want and participate easily, at their own convenience and without getting overloaded with extraneous material -- all in a humane, friendly , and yet effective framework.

Murray Turoff, EIES designer, is fond of saying that one could create a dictatorship in a computerized conferencing system in which all communication had to be approved by one person. At the other extreme, one could program a totally public system in which all communication could be read by anyone.

The programs that tell the computer what to do are called "software." We have coined the term "groupware" to refer to these new electronic social structures which combine a group's needs and procedures with computer software to support and facilitate them. We are particularly interested in groupware that helps people realize their own potential and work together in ways that contribute to positive social change.

We have created a network niche for ourselves by designing groupware and helping people use EIES effectively, but we also participate in others' projects and activities. We have created electronic tours through alternative scenarios of the future in collaboration with Robert Theobald, a wellknown futurist, and worked with small communities exchanging ideas n the problems of rapid growth. We have used EIES to plan workshops, participate from home in "live" conferences in other cities, comment on drafts of papers, write collective stories, and negotiate contracts.

On EIES, we've developed close relationships, coauthored papers, and worked with people we've never met face to face. Some of our best frienships are "electronic" -- with people we've never met in person or whom we see infrequently.

WIll more and more people use systems like this? Already it is cost-effective for people who earn more than $5 an hour to meet via computer, simply because it is so hard to get people together. As fuel costs rise, it will become attractive to have people work electronically from home or neighborhood "telework centers" to save on transportation and energy for large, centrally located office buildings. One study predicts that telework will replace about 50 percent of all business travel by the 2000, while another expert expects that over 40 percent of all white-collar workers will cut their trips to the office to three days a week or less.

As usual, the problem is not the technology itself; it's figuring out when to use it and for what. We believe communications technologies will dramatically affect the ways we work, play, educate, and even govern ourselves. What kinds of electronic social structures are most appropriate for the late 20th century?

Last New Year's Eve we connected to EIES about 11:45 Eastern standard time to join the on-line party and leave a New Year's greeting. We ended up chatting with Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps in suburvan Boston, sharing the dawn of a new decade with these EIES friends.Although we've never met or even exchanged pictures, the four of us feel a strong connection between our two "electronic cottages." We toasted the new year together, a continent apart, and wondered what the future would bring. Like the new year and the new decade, life in this computer network seems full of promise, challenge, and interesting potential -- i n proportion to the care and wisdom we put into it.

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