Tracking Our Techno-Future

By Published on .

Most Popular

We have recently entered an important new phase in the ongoing information technology revolution. Telecommunications, computation, and soon, new satellite technology, are coming together with a speed and potency never before imagined, driven by innovations that will create profound effects not only on how we live our daily lives but on the very fabric of our society and its institutions. What is more, the pace of these changes is just beginning to accelerate.

Who among us hasn't reflected on how some aspect of the new information age is changing our jobs, family lives, communities, or patterns of commerce? And it is precisely because of this all pervasiveness that it is difficult to build a meaningful essay on the potential social implications. Most such discussions tend to whirl off into the never-never-land of social science-fiction, vapid and void of real intellectual content. To make matters worse, we have almost no data on any of the relevant subjects to either shape the discussion or aid or constrain our imaginations. Moreover, there is not a single significant ongoing effort to monitor empirically either the dissemination of information technology or the resulting social changes it may be producing.

Still, to get some purchase on the future, we can home in on areas in which changes are already reflected by fragmentary empirical data and then explore the possible consequences of these changes. Consider, for example, the ongoing metamorphosis in the loci of the workplace-from the office to the home. A massive sociological transformation is already in the making, and it will be further fueled by the coming ubiquity of the Internet, vastly improved connectivity, and fundamental changes in the very nature of work.

I predict that by 2005, at least 25 percent of the American workforce will be telecommuters or home office workers. By this I mean full-time or near full-time workers-including the self-employed and those who work for wages and salaries-operating primarily out of their homes. As noted in this publication last month, estimates of the number and the very definition of current home office workers vary substantially by source; some data are also several years old- this in a world where the speed and cost of computation and connectivity change by the month. Still, one can arrive at a reasonable accounting with which to proceed.

High-end estimates include the one offered by Internet survey company Cyber Dialogue, which claims that there are currently some 15.7 million wage and salary workers (14 percent of the labor force) spending at least part of their work week telecommuting from home-up, they say, from 4 million in 1990. (Such an estimate is arguably too high because of their sampling methodology.) At the other end are numbers offered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The agency's most recent analysis reported that there were 10.1 million telecommuters and home-office workers, or 8 percent of the labor force, in 1997. (But this estimate is likely to be low by as much as 1 million, because of the ambiguity of their telecommuting question.)

Still, given the fact that two years have transpired since the BLS study, it is not unreasonable to estimate that the number in 1999 is approaching 13 million. And the trend will surely continue and accelerate during the next decade. As the BLS reports, the types of jobs likely to grow the fastest in the next five years are those most compatible with telecommuting, including computer software design, engineering, and many other information services jobs. As those of us who have managed these types of employees and companies have learned, it matters little whether the tasks are performed in the office down the hall, on the other side of town, or even halfway across the country. The computer code passes review or it doesn't; the documents are well drafted or they aren't; the customer's problem has been satisfactorily addressed or it hasn't.

When what one builds or processes is digital rather than material, when remote coordination is possible even if not preferable, and when expertise and intellectual resources can be easily shared at a distance, the cost of bringing everyone to a central site to work together overwhelms the remaining benefits.

In the largest part, the explosion of telecommuting will be driven by the self-interests of both the employer and employee. It is substantially less expensive to set up a worker at home than it is to do so in a centralized office. The cost of adequate speed connectivity, which has been the biggest impediment to the growth of telecommuting, has been gradually solved over the past few years. Already new telephony options and cable modems are yielding the same productivity as the office network, and for much less cost per seat, as we say in the computer biz.

And there are other, more significant benefits than the savings on the cost of office rent, furniture, and additional overhead. While studies are by no means definitive, the current wisdom is that up to half the commuting hours saved by telecommuting employees may be given directly back to the company as additional work hours. The Gartner Group estimates that telecommuting improves employee productivity by 10 percent to 40 percent.

By the same token, for the employee it can be a gift of up to several hours a day. Even if he or she ends up working longer hours overall, the number of free hours still increases, offering less stress, less automobile expense, more time for the individual, for family, for life. Sounds terrific, doesn't it? And we haven't even begun to discuss what the economists call the public goods or collective benefits-less traffic, fewer automobile accidents, less pollution-all things that would seem to make a larger telecommuting workforce a benefit to everyone in society.

But any social change so large and pervasive as one modifying the locus of work for a quarter or more of the workforce is likely to carry with it numerous unintended consequences. The history of technology and social change tells us that the unintended outcomes of techno-innovation often overwhelm the desired and predicted changes, and that the picture is not always a positive one. Who, for example, would have imagined at the beginning of the 20th century that the horseless carriage-once an amusement for a Sunday ride in the country -would produce giant megalopolises by the dozens? Of course not all unanticipated consequences are necessarily negative. But commercial interests usually tout the positive ones, often years before they come true.

So what are likely to be some of the unintended consequences of all those people working at home without colleagues around them? Consider, first, that the workplace currently represents one of the major centers for friendship in contemporary American society, and has grown steadily in this regard throughout much of this century, as other arenas have declined. In fact, much of the human story of modernity can be told in terms of the decline of highly supportive, if restricting, face-to-face social venues, replaced by more rationalistic as well atomistic environments. The small towns where everyone knew one another have been largely replaced by the anonymity of big cities and bedroom suburbs. Modern economies have also lead to geographic dispersion, reducing the supporting ligatures of the extended family and networks of friendship once based on enduring residence and the neighborhood school. In the last generation we have witnessed the substantial "weekending" of the nuclear family itself.

As a result, the workplace has actually been elevated to one of the few remaining predictable sources of personal contact, collegiality, and community in an increasingly isolated society, a place where people make friends, frequently find mates, and almost always share gossip and news. A chat by the water cooler or coffee machine, a business social gathering, a beer after work-all have become important aspects of our social world. The rediscovery of the primary friendship group inside the modern workplace and its importance to workers after hours, as revealed by the Western Electric Studies in the 1930s, is one of the seminal findings of 20th century social science.

Thus it is one of the stunning developments of the post-industrial information economy that we are now facing the removal or substantial reduction of this crucial arena of social engagement and, if I am correct, for a quarter or more of the workforce by 2005. That it comes on the heels of other changes that have already weakened so many of the outlets that provide us with the sociability and support only adds insult to injury.

As a social scientist who has spent much of his career studying social change, my gravest concern is for the few rather than the many. To be sure, humans are by nature institution builders. When one type of institution fails to meet some deep-seated human need, another is often (but not inevitably) invented to take up at the slack. Moreover, most of us live in fairly rich social worlds and certain alternatives exist, even if the situation is sub-optimal. But I fear there will be many casualties in the social change I am describing. The darkest side of the modern world seems to be that it has provided new and special kinds of hiding places for the alone, the isolated, and the depressed. Telecommuting, not to mention the rise of e-commerce on the Internet, may serve to magnify this problem manyfold, as human contact is minimized and near total isolation becomes a real option rather than an oddity.

And there are other long-term effects to consider. Ongoing, face-to-face connections foster trust and personal integrity in people's business dealings. This is so because people involved in multifaceted relationships -particularly those that are visible across the various spheres of their lives -pay a high price when they fail to behave in an ethical manner. Statements like "We never had written contracts. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and gave me his word" speak of a relationship that can only exist in an environment in which reputations extend beyond a single transaction, and clearly beyond anonymity.

But the more isolated work is from other parts of one's social world, the more business ethics suffer. Anonymity can lead people to believe they can get away with the shoddiest behavior. In fact, growing complaints about business ethics are, I believe, largely traceable to this decline in our face-to-face world: "It's okay, I'll never see that guy again, anyway." Now add this to an additional layer of protective anonymity, the Internet, and it becomes: "Hell, what's the difference? I've never even met him." As Americans migrate further from a central workplace, the erosion of our relationships with colleagues as well as with customers, suppliers, and competitors is inevitable, another unintended consequence of telecommuting, not to be welcomed with open arms.

Of course, not all of the predictions here must be negative. Telecommuting may be the first social transformation in centuries that pulls working fathers and mothers back into the home rather than pushing them out for longer and longer periods of time. As such, it has the possibility to strengthen the nuclear family. But the strong bonds of the agricultural family were based on mutual involvement in common work from an early age until the end of life. In the pending world of telecommuters, it would not surprise me to find, at the end of the day, mother in her study and father in his, both connected to the office servers, while a caregiver is with the children in another part of the house. So the net gain for parents and children may be small, beyond some additional "quality time" from what is saved by commuting. But let's not be greedy: The family cannot help but be a beneficiary of part of the time saving.

Whether the most important changes resulting from telecommuting will be the reduction of gridlock and further urban sprawl, or the production of work and careers without meaningful collegial relations, nothing is preordained. We are conscious social animals who have created all of this technology through the application of scientific methodology. If we apply the same rigor to investigate the impact of these and other innovations, we will have the time to react, reinforcing the good and mitigating the bad. That is our core mission at the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society. However, this kind of social monitoring requires far more than any single organization can provide: It calls for the determination and the resources of a wide range of public and private institutions. But it is in the interest of all of us-including those in Silicon Valley and other high-tech centers who have made their fortunes on techno-innovation-to understand the social consequences of what we have created.

In this article: