ONLINE NO SUBSTITUTE FOR F2F OVER A BEER

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When Prodigy decides it needs to relocate half of its staff to lower Manhattan, it's time to revisit the whole notion of the virtual office and whether big cities are destined to dry up and blow away.

Conventional wisdom holds that online computer services could program their ethereal offerings from anywhere. We have visions of solitary program providers feeding stuff into an online service subscribed to by solitary people.

Social critics are concerned the Internet has the capacity of isolating us as a nation by taking away our shared experiences. It's hard to talk about the NBA playoffs if most people are cruising the Internet.

I went out to Cranford, N.J., last winter to visit IBM's year-old virtual office. My first impression was that it was big, and it was almost empty.

And that was the idea. Most IBM reps, equipped with IBM ThinkPads, mobile phones and beepers, were on the road or at home.

If this trend continues, and people don't need to congregate in any one place to do their jobs, what will happen to all the high-rise office buildings in cities across the country? Will virtual offices lead to virtual cities?

When I wrote those sentiments in February, I received a letter from David Peterson, a New York-based business adviser, who, by the way, has just put up a web site on teleworking and alternate officing. "Yes," he said, "virtual offices are leading, faster than many people suspect (or will admit), to virtual cities, or at least to a very rapid unbundling of urban activities to and beyond `edge cities."'

Some of this shift, Mr. Peterson wrote me, is technology-driven, "but some involves a re-definition of corporate macho. `Tallest building' doesn't do it anymore. (Too easy to bomb.) Biggest and most flexible global network is what they brag about on the links today."

The Prodigy move is a watershed event because it slows that trend. New President Edward A. Bennett said Prodigy programmers and marketers need to rub elbows with clusters of other high-tech people who are coming together in an area of lower Manhattan dubbed "Silicon Alley."

As noted in last week's Crain's New York Business: "Here in Soho, home to a budding multimedia business that's taking New York by storm, business is not always conducted in cyberspace. More than anything, it's done face-to-face-F2F in computerese-at parties, over a beer, in elevators." As one studio operator put it: "This is a people business. The Internet is great, but it will never replace personal relationships."

Creative energy is still the engine that drives the economy, and it's hard to sustain a high creative level doing business on a mountaintop.

The same goes on the receiving end. Right now, cyberspace hasn't provided many common experiences. But I've got to believe that all the creative talent coming together on the input side will produce cyber-material that will touch all of us the way "I Love Lucy" did in the glory days of television.

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