The computer revolution -- work, school, play, all in your home
Los Angeles — * The lights dim. A button is pushed. As family members gather around the makeshift stage in the center of their living room, the play begins -- a Broadway smash, three-dimensionally reproduced before their eyes via the latest home entertainment rage: holography.
* Pressed by a demanding schedule, the young advertising executive has little time to spend shopping for clothes. He turns to his home computer, calls up the catalog from his favorite department store, and briefly scans the screen.
He likes what he sees -- European-cut shirts modeled on the screen by store employees -- and punches his order for half-a- dozen shirts into the computer.
* In a suburban neighborhood, school- children set off for their classroom, just a few short blocks from home. Each child sits down at his own two-way cable television and prepares for the day's lessons -- broadcast from a downtown television studio by teachers who also instruct children in similar cable TV schools all over the city without ever leaving their central office.
Pipe dreams of some imaginative computer maven? Hardly. While none of these three scenarios is likely to burst on the scene tomorrow -- or even within a decade -- they are nonetheless examples of what eventually may be commonplace events as the rapidly growing telecommunications industry develops.
Although electronic communication is nothing new, the possibilities for telecommunications have opened up dramatically in recent years with technological breakthroughs such as fiber optics and silicon chips, along with a decrease in communication satellite costs.
"The options opened up by the computer are unbelievable," says Michael Mitchell an urban planner and futurist with Daniel, mann, Johnson, & Mendenhall (DMJM), an international planning, architectural, and engineering firm. "It brings telecommunications into a totally different level of opportunity.
"The real difficulty here," he contineus, "is getting people to accept the fact that these things are possible."
Already, there are some indicators of what may be down the line. In Britain, for example, a two-way cable television experiment in university education has meant that many people have been able to earn fully accredited college degrees by "attending" classes and "talking" with teachers through the two-way system.
Many banks have their electronic feelers out as well. United California Bank is planning to introduce in January an electronic bill-paying system that allows checking-account customers to pay bills simply by pressing a special code on a push-button telephone.
In addition, Security Pacific National Bank recently announced that it has begun negotiating with a cable television company to explore ways to allow customers to bank at home -- "only one of a multitude of potential avenues we are exploring," says a senior vice-president.
And at electronic game centers in Chicago and Marina del Rey, Calif., golfing buffs can "play" Pebble Beach through a computer which simulates the conditions of the famous California course. Each stroke is mathematically assessed by the computer, which then places the imaginary ball where it would have landed were the golfer actually at Pebble Beach.
Despite such innovations, however, a great deal of the attention focused on telecommunications today lies in "teleconferencing" or "video conferencing." Among other things, these complex systems allow business executives on opposite sides of the country to hold meetings in which both sides see each other as they talk, via wall-sized screens.
Such systems have been used on a small scale, and with varying degrees of success, for about a decade. But the energy crunch coupled with rising travel expenses and shrinking telecommunication costs is, as one researcher says, "bringing this whole thing to a head."
The premise is simple: It is increasingly easier and cheaper to move information rather than people.
Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) is investing in this premise to the tune of millions of dollars.
Just three months ago, the oil company announced the kickoff of a two-year project to build a $20 million video-conferencing system that will link eight ARCO offices from Alaska to new York.
ARCO, which will be first company to install such a system on a scale so large, estimates that video conferencing will result in a 20 percent savings in corporate travel costs -- an expense that totaled $50 million in 1979 alone.
For all the grand possibilities opened up by telecommunications, however, many problems remain.
Simply installing a video-conferencing system by no means guarantees that employees will be willing to use it, says Robert Johansen, a senior research fellow with the Institute for the Future, which is assisting ARCO in finding ways to help employees adjust to the new system.
"What we emphasize is that what you're really changing is the way people are communicating," says Mr. Johansen. "Introducing a new technology is only part of that puzzle. . . . It's important to make the technology match the needs of the people who will be using it and not vice versa."
Beyond the immediate issues raised by "teleconferencing," even proponents of the industry admit that the long-range future of the whole telecommunications spectrum poses many serious questions.
They agree there is a possibility that as electronic communications allows the average person to conduct more and more of his affairs, from banking to entertainment, without leaving his home, individuals may grow alienated from society. In addition, they say, computers capable of near-perfect stimulation introduce the possibility of a heightened consumer manipulation.
Still, while acknowledging that such problems must be grappled with, futurists like DMJM's Mitchell and Douglas Moreland point to new ways of living made possible by the developing industry, such as selfcontained neighborhood clusters where telecommunications may bring almost everything -- including work, school, and play -- literally to a person's doorstep.
The two men insist that such life styles must be at least contemplated -- and in their eyes, eventually embraced -- in light of serious shortages, such as energy and housing, which now confront society.
"What we have to get used to," Mitchell says, "is that this is not a temporary crisis period. This is a watershed, a time which is bringing changes in a whole way of life."