Note - This is a faithful copy of my article in The Reader's Forum,
Datamation Magazine of 1984 Sep 15. Some things have changed very
much in the 16 years since this was first published. Some remain
much the same. Certainly this vignette could be a basis for an analysis
of the effect of PCs on the workplace. Students!
It was shortly after I took early retirement from Honeywell, so it
must have been September 1982 when Paolo Soleri, the noted architect,
brought a group of his disciples and workers to Phoenix for discussions
with several HIS people. The topic was the proper integration of
computers into the house and office architecture of the future. For
Soleri is a futurist in action, in the process of building a city
called Arcosanti, in the desert north of Phoenix. I was invited
because I had been involved in using a computer from home since 1972
[Note: actually 1966, via a Model 33 Teletype].
I had considered the matter before that, however. At the first
Software Engineering Conference in Garmisch, Germany, in October
1968, I had met Dr. Edward David, then in charge of the Picturephone
project at Bell Laboratories. I was planning to build a house atop
an old volcano in Phoenix, and wanted to plan it as much as possible
for future computer work. Even then we sensed the tremendous potential
of integrating computers and communications. The house would be sited
clear of interference for microwave, if that option should open. A
wall would be reserved for a holographic screen, if that science fiction
should come true.
Ed said he would try to get me the first Picturephone in Arizona as a
test bed, and recommended bringing in 25 telephone lines to the house
as a precaution for high bandwidth requirements. I had to go quite high
in the hierarchy of Mountain Bell to get that done. Everyone thought
I was out of my mind to want 25 telephones! Finally they agreed, and
put in quite a fancy switchbox, at no particular cost to me at that
time, with AT&T still integral.
The Picturephone project did not fare well in the original two cities
chosen for test marketing. In addition, Dr. David left the project to
become President Nixon's Science Advisor. I did have a need for the
lines, however. In 1972, I became editor of the Honeywell Computer
Journal, a now-defunct magazine that we nevertheless published
well enough at that time to win over Scientific American in a
contest sponsored by the Printing Industries of America.
Writing and creative work is not called up by opening the tap between
8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Inspirations really do come at odd hours. I convinced
Honeywell to tie one of my lines to its telephone switching network, and
brought home one of their Terminet 300s -- a hardcopy terminal, since
there were few video screen terminals in existence at that time, and
they were not fitted out for word processing. That term, you may recall,
was unknown then. I was setting out to do it, however, because we were
going to put on magnetic tape the files we created on a Honeywell computer,
to take to Datagraphics, a Phoenix firm, for photocomposition directly
from our own copy. But that is a different story, and has nothing to
do with working at home.
Although the journal ceased publication in 1974, whereupon I returned to
more of a programmer status, I discovered (rediscovered?) that programming,
too, is creative work. From then until this day, I apparently program
during my sleep, and cannot wait to get it into a permfile on the computer.
What with showering, dressing, breakfasting, and driving to work -- I
could possibly lose the most important parts of my new code.
So I have worked at home for over a decade. This qualifies me, I believe,
to assert some of the advantages and disadvantages of this mode of
operation, perhaps in a manner that will amuse as well as instruct.
First, are you married? If so, your spouse is obviously the key element
in the way you work, Mine, a woman, knew little of the technical details
of the computer profession despite having been the receptionist for IBM
World Headquarters. Her most pressing concern was why didn't I go to
the office more? Wouldn't Honeywell fire me for not being there so
someone could check on whether I was actually producing something
useful? Eventually she began to see articles in periodicals and
newspapers about this mode of working and became more comfortable with it.
I got no pioneering credits, however.
Here are some of the advantages of this mode of work:
There are, however, some disadvantages:
- You're on hand for emergencies like a broken water line. A call to
the office and a (perhaps long) trip home are saved.
- You have more flexibility in planning the work of the day, to
interleave it with other activities such as shopping. Or if a movie
is less crowded in the afternoon, why not see it then and do your
computer work in the evening?
- If your spouse also works with computers, then you need not worry
about the distance between your two offices.
Now we discuss the relative physical comforts of the home office vs. the
office office. You may think I am going to discuss the square footage and
the desk available. I am not.
- You're on hand for more than emergencies, like walking the dog if
it whines. There may well come a time when you will have to bang
the door shut and yell "@!*$% - I am at the office!"
- Speaking of those dogs, when you get up at 3 a.m. so as to not lose
your latest gem, they are likely to wake up with you, concurrently
(a nice computer word) waking the spouse, who may not wish to be
- If you and your spouse disagree on other matters, and if he is male,
then he may have a job away from home, which avoids friction. If a
female, then long absences from home may be indicated, and your
shopping will include a great many tv dinners.
- The attire required may be informal. A bathrobe can do until the
computer goes down about 10 a.m. Then a shower while they reboot;
you haven't really lost any time.
- The attire may be very informal in climes comparable to that of
Phoenix. I like to put my terminal out by the pool in the summertime.
That way I can get a good tan (all over, which is an advantage of a
mountaintop where nobody can see you) while simultaneously doing
useful work. When it gets unbearably hot, a quick back flip into the
pool does nicely. (Always remember to dry your hands before returning
to the keyboard). When I tell people of this they often ask, "Why don't
you get a light pen and write underwater, so you can just stay
in the pool?"
- The size of your office, and whether it has a door that closes, are
of no consequence. Privacy and pecking order morale are assured.
The last comparison is on the matter of intellectual stimulation and
ongoing education. In the meeting with Paolo Soleri, I was introduced as
an ardent advocate of working alone (they didn't say at home,
which is different). I protested vigorously, saying that there were two
types of information transfer -- directed and broadcast -- and they must
not be confused.
- It is difficult to read a video terminal in bright sunlight. I do
not think the designers have considered this problem yet. One must
build a sort of enclosure and turn the brightness up as far as it
will go. And there will always be somebody who writes programs
using the faint intensity for emphasis.
- Services are distant. You may use up your last red marking pen.
There is no secretary to send to a supply cabinet. If your terminal
has problems you will have to haul it to work and back for repair.
For hardcopy printers you must keep a good supply of paper handy,
always remembering to stock up at the office when supplies are low.
- Services hardly exist on Saturday and Sunday, and you will surely
be working then, so make up a Friday checklist in preparation for the
- If you are the type that goes to many meetings, in contrast to getting
out the work, working at home will be a problem unless your office is
very close to your home. Fortunately the electronic meeting software
is advancing nicely, and this problem will disappear.
- For directed information transfer, working at home is ideal. You are
free from disruptions, such as the casual walk-in to your cubicle.
Such contacts may be deferred until a better time to read and answer
our electronic mail, which is much more efficient and less
time-consuming. Of course, if your motivation is to have fun at the
office, rather than producing, then you should read this memoir no
- They really have to want you at a meeting before an invitation is
sent, and they know it must be planned, not just spur-of-the-moment.
Having the participants come in specially for personal meetings
superimposes a needed structure on work.
- At the office, some offices are closer than others. At home, by
electronic mail, all are equidistant. Zero, that is. I recall a
particular example of what Sperry Rand used to advertise as "synergy",
where the output was greater than the total of the inputs. I was
working, from my home, on System X, about two miles away. Gerry
Despain was at his office on Camelback Road, some 10 miles away,
working on the same mainframe. He modified a program of mine and
asked me, via electronic mail, to try the improved version. I did,
saw how it could be even better, remodified it, sent him mail, and
so forth. Back and forth, until we shortly obtained a joint product
better than either of us would have done individually. Yes, people
can approach this at the office, but the odds are smaller that they
will do so. If you don't believe me, try to get two people to make
the experiment. It is an exciting and stimulating method of working.
Working at home is advantageous in more ways than just cutting transportation
costs, but I think it has been successful only because I have not acted
the hermit as a result of it. Having my own business would be less
effective without my ties to Honeywell -- using new software as it is
tested, reading and following those good mail suggestions, and talking to
people when I go to pick up listings from the page printer. These are my
links to broadcast information. With them I can function effectively at
home, via directed information, without becoming out-of-date.
- One may read journals to keep up with developments in one's field,
but the time lag to publication remains long. It will probably stay
long, even though the obsolescence cycle in the computer field grows
ever shorter. To really keep up you must not only read the trade
papers, but mingle -- in the cafeteria and in conferences -- anywhere
there is broadcast information. Don't depend upon electronic
publishing as it is now. It is a joke. My eye takes in a printed
sheet in a single frame. I may or may not opt to read anything
there. The mechanics of how I scan this way need not be explained.
The fact is that I do it, and there is no way today that I can scan
an electronic page similarly, or as cheaply as a printed one.
- Electronic mail is also directed. There is no easier way to pick
up information than gossip, or talking to friends. Face-to-face
conversation can wander in free form, as electronic mail can never
do (ever try interrupting electronic mail?). One thing sparks
another; then someone mentions having heard from someone else that
Joe Xyz has something that may interest you.
Before sending in this article for publication, I naturally composed it into
a readable draft, and notified a friend or two by electronic mail, to get
their usual good ideas and have them catch mistakes.
One was the Gerry Despain just mentioned. I thought his comments could
add a certain flavor, and validate and augment my own experience:
"Being at Camelback, I sometimes feel left out of 'broadcast' information
myself. There is not a large group of us, and some of the people I would
like to be in closer communication with are at the Deer Valley Plant.
My kudos to the electronic meeting software are endorsed, and the answer is
So even working in an office sometimes requires overt action to involve
oneself in broadcast information. It is partly to satisfy these needs
that I spend time every day in reading the Multics forums. Even for
people at Deer Valley, the forums give access to discussions carried on by
people all over the country (in fact, the world) that is more like
broadcast than directed information.
One of the things I miss at home is easy access to a printer -- or in your
case a high-speed printer. I have only one telephone line. My wife wishes
I had 25.
Working at home you are more susceptible to problems. For example, parity
errors and "RETRANSMIT LAST LINE" for 24 hours every time we have a heavy
rain (or our neighbor waters his garden -- in the middle of which is our
telephone post), or lightning hits on mountaintops.
Is Moon Mountain really of volcanic origin?"
Note: A later and more detailed historical perspective on working with
computers from home is found in
by Tom Van Vleck. If you read my piece this far, you'll love his.
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