PHYSICAL PROXIMITY

The most plausible argument for growing demand for travel and transportation lies in the simple observation that the closeness of physical presence often provides a better method of interaction than telecommunications-dependent remote access. The superiority of being "on the scene" applies across many circumstances in the social, entertainment, leisure, and work domains.

For example, telecommuting is not for every job, every employee, every work group, or every company, as detailed in the USDOT Telecommuting Study (1993, p. 57) and in other telecommuting literature. Indeed, the USDOT study forecasts that telecommuters will be only in the range of 5-10% of the work force in the year 2002 (1993, p. 59, Table 6). Furthermore, telecommuting is almost universally established as a pattern that works best when practiced on some work days but not on all of them. Even half-time telecommuting is at the high end of telecommuting practice, which means that at least the other half of normal commuting is still occurring.

Physical proximity of workers in an office usually yields a high level of casual, serendipitous, spontaneous, nonintrusive communications among office staff. Communications between people who are nearby can be more easily synchronized to times when all parties are mentally ready to focus on the communications. The process of synchronization is much easier in an environment where people can see each other peripherally. Staff located in separate places must be much more intentional in their efforts to communicate. Appointments and interruptions are necessary for communications to take place successfully when people cannot see each other before beginning to communicate.

In office technology, despite the trend toward rapidly growing cost-effectiveness in home office electronics, shared equipment in corporate commercial office space will always be able to provide powerful, heavy-duty capabilities that are too expensive or too large for most home offices. This is another reason for the importance of central offices.

There is work underway in Xerox Palo Alto's Research Center and other research labs to develop telematic tools that permit closer working collaboration among colleagues who are geographically separated. These include networked computer applications that permit workers to control and easily display on remote screens their willingness to be interrupted by colleagues. The different icons on a computer monitor are the telematic equivalent of leaving one's office door fully open, slightly ajar, closed, or closed and marked "unavailable." Other video communications arrangements have been designed to provide the equivalent of a casual, peripheral glance that offers little more than awareness of the presence of somebody in the remote location, equivalent to seeing somebody down the corridor on the way to lunch. Those researchers who study such environments report, however, that software and video tools for collaboration across multiple geographically separate offices provide a qualitatively different working experience than the face-to-face environment of proximity in a single office (Bly, 1993; Nakamura, 1994). One other conclusion is that remote collaboration through telecommunications is sometimes, but not always, "better than being there" (Hollan, 1992).

We turn now from telework to teleservices. Shopping malls provide customers with a variety of sensate experiences that are hard to duplicate through remote teleshopping: eating experiences, entertainment, changing exhibits, and opportunities to interact face to face with attractive and interesting people. Grocery stores are gradually moving toward the deployment of a variety of telecommunications-based systems, such as talking shelves and video displays on shopping carts (Grover, 1993), designed to motivate impulse buying by consumers. These features are not easily duplicated in a shop-from-home environment.

In health care service delivery, face-to-face interactions will be sought by people who want more than medical diagnoses and treatments from their doctor. These patients may want expressions of caring and concern in personal interactions (Nyberg, 1993, p. 99).

On the personal side, traveling to meet a friend or colleague for an enjoyable meal together is at the moment (and perhaps always) not satisfactorily achieved via telecommunications.

There are some circumstances where using telecommunications to avoid travel is controversial:

There is also a human need for the sensate experience of traveling. Travel satisfies an innate psychological need in some people. People enjoy the pleasure of driving, which is sold by auto companies like beer and soda pop. Travel relieves boredom and provides a changing visual input as scenery passes. A small portion of personal travel is without a functional purpose related to the destination: cruising, wandering aimlessly, looking for excitement, and so on.

In summary, human preference for management by walking around, eye-balling, and touching yields an emphasis on transportation over telecommunications that shows up in the allocation of resources across all of human life, both personal and organizational. Household and organizational budgets in support of travel and proximity (transportation, events, buildings, and other expenditures that bring people together) are much higher than those for telecommunications.

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