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9.24: From Enclave to Electronic Cottage

The two major scenarios of the emerging information society are the telematique, based on television, and the privatique, based on telephony. In the former, a few huge sources beam information at millions of receivers; in the latter, we are all sources and receivers within a complex network of communicating nodes.

One new information technology - videotex - is beginning to penetrate our homes. It is viewed as a combination of television and telephone technology. Some see it as an extension of television technology - as two-way television in which you can talk back to it by selecting what you want to see from a menu. Others see it as an extension of telephone technology - as a device for using your telephone to talk to computers with the television screen merely a handy monitor to allow the computer to talk back. The important element, however, is the computer, since it is the brain behind the screen, whereas the television set and telephone handset are merely peripheral devices for input and output, like eyes and ears and arms and legs. The important issue is whether the computer will making our home one of millions of destinations for information from a few television-like sources or a node in a telephone-like network in which we can be both source and destination.

One dark vision of those who predict the telematique scenario is that of the home as an enclave where the fortress family shelters from an essentially hostile environment. It is a womb for a few with a view. The view is provided by a video screen through which information, goods, and services are delivered from the outside world. In such an enclave, media would be God and intimate relationships could not survive.

Those who argue for the privatique scenario have a more optimistic vision of the home as an electronic cottage, linked to neighbours around a world which has been technology-shrunk to a global village.

The possibility of living in an electronic cottage, where learning and playing and working (which had been sub-contracted out to contractual relationships) could once again take place within the home promises a rosy future for the family. There are, as always, threats bound up with the promises. After millions of years of leaving our caves to hunt and gather in order to earn a living, we suddenly find that we can earn our living without leaving the cave. Such a dramatic transition causes a profound shock to the social system.

New rules will have to be established and new roles learned. The author has a friend who was trying to work at home during his sabbatical leave. After a few months of interruptions, he had to establish the following ritual with his family. After breakfast, he put on his hat and coat, picked up his briefcase, kissed his wife and children good-bye, and walked out the front door and in the back door to his study. Until he repeated this ritual in reverse in the evening, as far as the family was concerned, Daddy was at the office.

This is a trivial illustration of profound shifts in consciousness which the new styles of working will require. As we swell the ranks of the self-employed, we must learn to be our own employer and our own employee, to make contracts with ourselves and keep them, to confront our self-deceptions and procrastinations. It will not be easy but it will be worthwhile. The information revolution will greatly strengthen the family and enhance intimate relationships.

In The Three Boxes of Life, Richard Bolles suggests that we typically lead our lives in three boxes - the childhood box, in which we spend most of our time learning; the adult box, in which we spend most of our time working; and the retirement box, in which we spend most of our time playing.6 His book is subtitled And How to Get Out of Them, since it is mainly devoted to strategies for acquiring a better balance between learning, working, and playing throughout our lives.

We tend to have three sets of space boxes corresponding to this set of three time boxes. Learning is done in the school box, working in the office and factory boxes, and playing in the home box. The various institutions on the Y-axis of the matrix in Figure 4-2 above are defined in terms of those functions - the office-factory is for working, the school is for learning, the home is for playing.

The really important social impact of electronic technology may be not so much within any of the cells in the matrix as on its columns. That is, the sharp lines between the activities in the various traditional institutions may become blurred. Perhaps, for example, the home may be a place where one learns and works as well as plays. Perhaps, too, electronic technology may be a means of escape from the three boxes of life - one can attain a better balance of work, play and learning throughout one's life. This hope is represented visually in Figure 9-1.

6   Richard Bolles, The Three Boxes of Life: And How to Get Out of Them. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press, 1975. The author once attempted to get into Webster's Dictionary by inventing a new word - woplle (from the initial two letters of working, playing, and learning) - to describe the process in which they can not be distinguished. Keep on woplling!