5.21: Transportation-Telecommunications Trade-Offs

George Marshall, a friend of mine, once visited Marshall McLuhan. Over lunch, McLuhan said casually "Executives drive to the office to answer the telephone." When George brought this throw-away line back with him, it triggered a four-hour conversation. It conjures up a ridiculous image of the executive burning up precious fuel, polluting the atmosphere, and wearing out his stomach lining with ulcers to commute to an office, when he has a perfectly good telephone at home. Now that that telephone can be used to call computers as well as people, the image is even more ridiculous.

The argument that transportation can be replaced by telecommunications - the transportation-telecommunications trade-off (TTT) - has been expounded for some time. Every journal on transportation or telecommunications has published at least one article on TTT: every organization which has had anything to do with either transportation or telecommunications has commissioned a study on TTT - the former seeing it as a threat and the latter seeing it as an opportunity.11

It is an idea whose time perhaps has finally come. More and more people are trading their cars in for computers. They are tele-commuting - letting their fingers do the commuting. We all know some people who are doing at least some of their work at home, because they now have the means of performing some of their functions without going to an office.

As this trade-off continues, it will produce profound changes in the home. The two major visions of the home of the future can be linked to the two major scenarios of the emerging information society: 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. Those two options are nicely symbolized by the two wires to the telephone receiver and the television set, which link the home to the rest of the world.

The 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 - a window into the outside world - which enables information, goods, and services to be delivered through the umbilical cord of the television cable.

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.

A friend of mine 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.

Advocates of the electronic cottage point to the advantage of saving wear and tear on our internal and external environments. They also point to the fact that it is often paradoxically easier to work at home than to work in the office, ostensibly designed for work. In some offices, the distractions of visitors, in person or by phone, make concentration very difficult.

An editor in the publishing company where I was author-in-residence once said to me "I won't be in the office tomorrow - I've got some work to do." A colleague at GAMMA, when asked for his work schedule, said "I work in the morning and come to the office in the afternoon."

The most frequent criticism of the electronic cottage concept is that it leads to social isolation. Some compromises have been suggested to counter the fact that indeed one is often isolated at home. Some people divide their work time between home and office, either on a time schedule or according to the type of work they are doing. Other people go to suburban work centres, which cuts commuting down if not out.

A second criticism is that it is often difficult to work at home. Women, especially women with small children, are constantly distracted. Some feminists argue that it is a conspiracy to force women back into the home, from which they have so recently escaped. They conjure up visions of electronic sweatshops, in which women are exploited as they work for small wages on a piece-work basis, just as many now work in the garment business.

A third argument is that some people like to commute. The author was expounding to a friend the delights of working in his attic, where he had a six-step commute from his bed to his desk, with an eight-step detour into the kitchen if he wanted a cup of coffee and a twelve-step hike to the shower. The friend was horrified. "I love to commute. It is the only time I have to myself. My home is crowded with people. My office is crowded with people. My car, as I move from one to the other, is the only quiet place I have to be alone. I'm even thinking of moving to the country so that I can have a longer commute - more time to be alone."

The important thing, however, is that it increases options. One can work at home if one wants to. Many want to. Women with small children may find it a godsend. Especially, if the children have their personal computers. The electronic revolution holds out many promises for people confined to one location, whether incarcerated at home because of illness and handicaps or in total institutions (prisons, mental hospitals, etc.).

Many have viewed videotex as the technological means of encouraging the electronic cottage industry. As we saw in Chapter 1, 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 device for using your telephone to talk to computers with the television screen merely a handy monitor to allow the computer to talk back.

In practice, the vision is far from being realized. There seems to be much public resistance to the penetration of this technology - especially its penetration into the home. The introduction of electronic directories in France generated many fears and the favourite antidote to those fears by the participants was to place the terminals in public places.12 They are recommending that the new telephone directory follow the penetration path of the telephone which was installed in corner drug stores before being generally accepted into homes.

Only 15% of the pioneer Prestel terminals in Great Britain are domestic.13 The resistance may have an economic component - the terminals are, as yet, too expensive for the household market. However, the less-studied psychological component is worth exploring. It may be, as argued above, that videotex is viewed, consciously or unconsciously, within the context of enclave theory - that is, a future in which people communicate with the world outside the home largely through the mediation of such devices.

A more precise where question arises once the videotex terminal does penetrate the portals of the home - where, within the house, will it be used?

It is not obvious that it will be the living room (or wherever the television set is located). If its potential is fully realized, it will not be simply yet another channel on the television set, albeit with interactive potential.

It may be where the telephone is located, since people seem to prefer to use it to take action (make reservations at a restaurant, order groceries, make withdrawal from bank accounts, and so on) rather than to acquire information. Peter Desbarats suggests that academics, who conduct research on field trials of videotex, are the only group which has so far made money in the industry.14 They tend to overemphasize the information needs of the lay-person. As John Carey points out, most people read their morning newspaper as a comforting habit rather than as a means of acquiring information.15 Marshall McLuhan used to describe the reading of one's regular newspaper as stepping into a warm bath.

It is even more likely to be wherever the home computer is. The linking of the telephone with the television set was an ingenious initial step toward the domestic penetration of the videotex technology, since such ubiquitous devices had already penetrated the home. However, those devices are so ubiquitous because they are so popular. A device which commandeers both the telephone and the television set is not welcome in many homes. A personal computer, equipped with software and/or firmware to receive the videotex signal, will spare much domestic strife.

Some people have even argued that the window on the world be located in the bathroom. A likely candidate for this window is a large thin plasma screen on a wall and the wall which is stared at for the longest time is the one facing the toilet. The author looks forward to the Ph. D. theses explaining why women have suddenly become better-informed than men.

11   For example:
Albertson, A. Telecommunications as a travel substitute: Some psychological, organizational, and social aspects. Journal of Communications, Spring 1977, Pages 32-42.

Cordell, A. J. & J. Stinson. Travel and telecommunications: Survey results to date and future possibilities. Ottawa: Science Council of Canada, November 1979.

Darwin, E. S. The potential effect of telecommunication innovation on intercity passenger transportation in Canada. Transportation and telecommunications, Volume 1. Ottawa: Strategic Planning, Transport Canada, January 1982.

Day, L. H. An assessment of travel/communications substitutability. Futures, December 1973, 5(6), Pages 559-573.

Feldman, J. M. Telecommunications: A threat to airlines or a new opportunity? Air Transport World, June 1981, Pages 18-23.

Fordyce, Samuel W. NASA experience in "telecommunications as a substitute for transportation". Washington, D.C.: NASA Headquarters, April 1974.

Gassend, Max. Transportation and telecommunications. Volumes 2 and 3. Ottawa: Transport Canada, April-May 1982.

Holbrook, G. W. Highly developed telecommunications systems can replace business travel. Engineering Journal. April 1979, Pages 8-12.

Holbrook, G. W. & W. T. Windeler. Teleconferencing as a viable communications alternative: An economic and statistical analysis. Ottawa: Department of Communications, March 1981.

Kahn, A. H. Transportation and telecommunications: A study of substitution and their implications. Report No. 121, 1706. Hull: Canadian Transport Commission, June 1974.

Kollen, James H. & John Garwood. Travel/communication trade-offs: The potential for substitution among business travellers. Montreal: The Business Planning Group, Bell Canada, April 1975.

Memmott, Frederick, The substitutability of communications for transportation. Traffic Engineering. February 1963.

Nilles, Jack M. et al., The Telecommunications-transportation Tradeoff: Options for Tomorrow. New York: Wiley, 1976.

12   Jean de Legge & Bernard Marquet, L'experimentation de Teletel aupres du grand public: Pourquoi et comment? Bulletin de L'INDATE, 11, Octobre 1982, Pages 93-102.

13   Ian Reinecke, Electronic Illusions: A Sceptic's View of our High-Tech Future. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1984.

14   Peter Desbarats, Newspapers and Computers: An Industry in Transition. Royal Commissions on Newspapers, Research Studies on the Newspaper Industry, Volume 8. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1981.

15   John Carey, Videotex: The past as prologue, Journal of Communication, Spring 1982, 32(2), Pages 80-87.