"The city of man, for all the width of its
expansion throughout the world and for all the depth of its differences in this
place and that, is a single community. The simple truth is that the bond of a
common nature makes all human beings one. Nevertheless, each individual in this
community is driven by his passions to pursue his private purposes.
Unfortunately, the objects of these purposes are such that no one person (let
alone, the world community) can ever be wholly satisfied."
-- Augustine of Hippo --
Monday mornings are not quite so grim in a civilization in
which one can work unshaven in pajamas.
In the old days I used to waste two hours of my day getting
to the office downtown and returning home in the evening. So the corporation
and I cut a deal. In return for their spending some bucks on fancy equipment,
an extra phone line, and an ISDN connection to my home office, I donate those 2
hours -- an extra 10 hours a week -- to the Empire. They get an employee who
works 50 hours a week for the same salary, their insurance costs go down, and
they don't have to lease office space anymore. I get to work unshaven in my
pajamas, and the cats get to maintain their sleep-vigil on the coffee table
next to me. Everyone wins. This public service announcement brought to you by
the Internetworking Industries Association of North America.
"Telecommuting" was an alloy and not pure gold. Quite a few
people discovered that they liked the routine of going someplace else --
away from the house, where they could often be sidetracked by mundane
problems of child care, taking out the garbage, and the everpresent snacks
lurking in the refrigerator. For the undisciplined, such productivity sinks
could wipe out any gains.
In the decade from 1992-2002, corporations and governments
did study after study and in the end, after dispensing many millions of dollars
to needy consultants everywhere, determined that life contained tradeoffs. Yes,
people dicked off at home. But people also goofed off at work, too. Yes,
institutions could create elaborate infrastructures to monitor employee
behavior and carrot/stick them into higher productivity. No, it didn't matter,
because there is nothing more ingenious than the human mind attempting to avoid
work it does not wish to do. Resistance acts as an air bubble; press down on
it, and it will move somewhere else.
All of this was irrelevant, however, to the larger concern
over how "telecommuting" affected the economy. Local, state, and federal
governments everywhere were very interested in determining what it all meant.
More millions of dollars were distributed -- presumably to those consultants
who hadn't yet received grants or contracts -- and the results conclusively
proved that change causes winners and losers. No one was wiped clean off the
map; "telecommuting" merely caused a redistribution of revenue flow, as if a
minor earthquake had caused a river to alter its course, ultimately draining
some swamps and flooding a few fields.
Commercial real estate, for example, dropped some in value.
Whether this is because it had been oversupplied in the 1980s and 1990s or
because demand for traditional office space really did fade is difficult to
say. The hardest hit sectors were the classic city centers stuffed with
commercial property -- the so-called 'miracle mile' of many a metropolis -- and
little else. Parking lots and "9 to 5" delicatessens catering to the
suit-and-tie crowd lost business. Caterers, building maintenance services,
florists, shoe-shines -- they all lost business.
Bankers, investors, owners, and revenue agents began to get
edgy, but very few panicked. The reason why is that they had time to adjust. In
the marketplace of money and ideas, technical and social innovation more often
produces dents than holes. "Telecommuting" was a powerful reality, but it was
not the sledge-hammer that some had predicted it would be. Rather, it was
millions of ball peen hammers capable of sculpting a new form out of the
steel-reinforced concrete of urban civilization.
Most real estate companies were invested in residential and
"mixed" zoning estate, so the effects of a deflation in commercial value proved
to be negligible. Construction workers and architects who specialized in
commercial high-risers moved to different projects. There was still a market
for refurbishing older, existing buildings. As for lost revenue to city
governments, a simple zoning change allowed commercial property to become a
hybrid of commercial and residential, so that people could work and live in the
same building. That dampened enthusiasm for telecommuting, since some of its
benefits relative to traditional commuting evaporated when the latter itself
The biggest winners were those companies who specialized in
providing telecommuting services. Why this should have come as a surprise is
beyond the ken of any rational observer. Some people overlook the obvious in
their search for the obscure, I suppose. What was not clearly stated
(nor generally predicted), however, was that the capital for the telecommuting
industry came from the same banks, investors, and owners who previously had a
stake in the traditional commuting industry.
The most blatant example I can think of was the mass
transit systems of many larger cities in Europe. The Dutch and Belgians
pioneered the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach. Noticing that their
ridership was falling off, no longer able to raid general revenue funding, and
unwilling to raise ridership fees for fear of aggravating their loss in riders,
they simply invested in mass electronic transit instead. In Amsterdam,
for example, the metro is also the single largest stake-holder of
cable-and-fiber connection firms in the city. Far from treating "telecommuting"
as a rising tide to be sandbagged, they have embraced it as a vertical
extension of the transportation industry. By clever use of advertising and
promotional tie-ins -- for example, mailing free metro passes to customers who
sign on with specific Internet access providers -- they have maximized revenue
In the nations of North America, in Australia, in South
Africa, and in Brazil, the positive benefit of "telecommuting" was no so much
economic as it was environmental. People drove less. The amount of driving was
not reduced considerably -- perhaps 10% in all -- but the significant point was
that it was reduced. In a civilization choking on its own addiction to
gasoline-burning automobiles, this was the great unheralded revolution of
fin-de-siècle Earth. It gave everyone connected to the 20th century
transportation industry a little breathing space to redesign and refurbish
their roads, tunnels, bridges, and other capital investments. And it is giving
the EPWV industry time to think things out.
The vCity did not prove any of this out directly, of
course. Just as we went to a significant expense to design a mass transit simm,
we went to even greater expense to design a complete EPWV infrastructure simm.
More on that fantasy some other time. The bottom line is that people didn't
really use that either. It's impossible to force people to use it when
they can beam. We could have arbitrarily prevented beaming, of
course, and forced people to scroll from one part of the city to another via a
transit simm, but what good would that have done except to piss vCitizens and
tourists off? What good is a simulation, if all it does is reproduce what we
insist should happen?
No indeed, it turned out that the anti-medium was
the anti-message. There's a reason people don't spend an hour scrolling in a
vAutomobile to get from one place to another in the vCity. It's a pain in the
tushie. Which is precisely why most people don't want to do it in real life,
My wife knocks on the half-open door and enters. "Are you
at it already?"
"My work is never done," I declare.
"Do you ever sleep?"
"I am the Lidless Eye."
"Every Barad Dur needs its palantir."
"What in God's name are you talking about?"
I sigh exasperatedly. "Literary allusions. Lord of the
"I've heard of it. Wagner."
"No, dammit, Tolkien. You're thinking of the Ring
"Nerd," she says.
"Valley Girl," I reply.
"Well, I didn't come down here to trade compliments."
"Sell what, then?"
"I'm off to work."
"Have a good day at the orifice."
She strokes the sleeping form of our black & white
tabby, Londolozi. "Well, at least some of us have real jobs."
"Electron junkie," she replies absently. The cat stretches
luxuriously under her ministrations. "Don't forget to mow the lawn today."
"Is the nolo battery charged?"
"I don't know."
"Well, how am I supposed to mow the lawn with a dead nolo
"You just get off your ass and push it manually!"
"Chairborg." She leans over and kisses me on the top of the
head. "Don't forget to pick up some more cat food. Adiau, Edzaco."
At the mention of cat food, Londo, already a 16-pound
paperweight who could easily be mistaken for a small puma, looks at me
expectantly. Demonstrable proof that house cats do, in fact, understand
I look back at him. "Eat all you want; we'll make more.
Trademark Frito-Lay, circa 1988."
About that lawn mower, now.
There need for a lawn mower in the vCity is roughly
proportional to the rate at which virtual grass grows -- which, in both cases,
is zero. No one in his or her right mind would want to create a simm with
growing grass; the stuff is enough of an irritation in the real world.
Okay, well, maybe the folks at the Virtual Land Institute studying prairie
development want to watch how virtual grass grows, but what about the rest of
Anyway, what is very strange about this subject is that the
vCity did have a role to play in the development of the nolomower.
Which, as First Citizen, reminds me that sometimes, despite our best
intentions, technology comes back to bite us in the ass.
Backplot. In the early 1990s, the budgets of the combined
military services of the United States were shrinking. In the U.S., where
military expenditure is unique in the sense that it has nothing to do
with actual military effectiveness and everything to do with the
business cycle, this caused a lot of dislocation to the economy -- more, in
fact, than the advent of telecommuting.
Quite a few corporations whose revenue streams were
directly tied to government contracting started to panic. They generally
adopted one of four strategies.
The first was denial, involving a massive amount of
lobbying, advertising, directed campaign spending, and graft and corruption
generally aimed at Congress. For some it worked, but for most it did not, for
the simple reason that people were unelecting their representatives faster than
U.S. corporations and institutions could stockpile them in Washington, D.C.
The second strategy was to merge with or acquire
competitors. For some that worked, but for most it did not. Streamlining means
removing redundant components. In short, it meant firing people. The chairborne
regiment may enjoy jumping with golden parachutes, but generally speaking the
great mass of people in a corporation do not like the idea of leaping
out of a flaming airplane with no parachute. There is no "soft landing" without
The third strategy was to tough it out alone and cut
payroll. Same problem.
The fourth approach was to roll with the punch and look for
new markets in which to leverage old products and services.
Take the Hedley Koor corporation as an example. HK
Industries was a California-based firm that earned most of its business from
maintenance contracts on U.S. Air Force Air Bases. One of the things it did was
mow and trim grass around USAF facilities. Now, this may sound like a very
arcane subspecialty, but there is a body of literature -- U.S. government
contract specifications -- on how grass must be cut. Violations can be
punished, especially by contract officers desperate to meet budget cuts and
forego such things as award fees or even invoice payments. So HKI Inc. was very
interested in making sure that USAF lawns were cut exactly to specs.
To cut grass with inhuman precision, one cannot use humans.
HKI Inc. pioneered in the use of robotic lawn mowers. In the beginning, these
were gasoline-powered machines that operated autonomously with laser-range
finders, gyros, a locality positioning system, and a host of AI programming.
They were tremendously expensive to design, program, and build; however, their
life-cycle costs over thirty years were estimated to be cheaper than using
people to the job, considering total costs including human health care,
insurance, benefits, pensions, and work-related "interruptions".
When HKI Inc. tried to market the same technology to the
private sector, however, it was a miserable failure. No one wanted a
Terminator-like lawn mower running around with the spectre of it chasing
down and eliminating Fido in a mistaken object-analysis routine. The
corporation took great pains to assure people that this was not possible; but
the people, in their infinite wisdom, disagreed. I do not know the truth.
At any rate, by 1998 HKI Inc. was desperate to transfer
something -- anything -- of its expertise to the marketplace. That was
when the vCity was in first bloom. Some of the HKI Inc. engineers familiar with
VR programming set up a simmcorp in the vCity just for fun, without permission
from their superiors. Marketing caught on, and began to ask people questions
through the vCity. What kind of lawn mower did the people want, anyway?
vCitizens at that time were predominantly well-to-do,
homeowning, North American males age 35+. This is not a representative
cross-section of the planetary population, however it was precisely the
market which might be interested in something as ridiculous as a robotic lawn
HKI Inc. was thrilled. They learned first of all that
people did not want autonomous technology, but remote-controlled
machinery was okay. From a programming point of view, this was actually easier
to design. They learned that people did not want gasoline-powered lawn mowers
because they were noisy, smelly, required maintenance, violated some local
ordinances, and because most lawns were just not big enough to require the
speed and power afforded by an internal combustion engine. They learned that
electric-powered mowers that needed to be connected to an outlet were unpopular
because the cord tends to wrap around trees or snag on other obstacles. They
learned many other things. And HKI Inc. found a ready group of
The result, to make a long story short, was the
introduction of the nolomower. It is a rechargeable battery (RB) driven device
good for two hours of uninterrupted operation at approximately 8 h.p. Linked by
wireless comm to a special device that connects to the telephone, and from
there to the Internet, it can be remotely operated as if it were a virtual
reality construct by PC or HMD from anywhere on the globe. Operation is, of
course, keyed to an individual personal identification number (PIN) so that no
one can do any unauthorized grass cutting.
You would think that this piece of technology would have
been laughed out of existence the moment it was introduced to the market. That,
however, is pre-vCity thinking. HKI Inc. would never have introduced it in the
first place had they not tested it quite carefully in a VR setting first, and
if they had not established a rapport with their clientele prior to
In fact, it proved enormously popular not only with men,
but also with women. The nolomower was a great success because people could
operate it while doing something else, for example, sorting laundry or watching
television. The thing has a simple "deadman's clutch" that prevents it from
moving when it is not being controlled.
There were, however, some unexpected problems. Lawn mowing
services hated these things; a few unsavory businessmen paid employees to run
around neighborhoods sabotaging them. A few parents who had been careless with
their PINs were appalled at the Jackson Pollack lawn results applied by
children who considered nolomowers as merely another form of toy. In one
celebrated case, a disturbed individual needing serious psychiatric evaluation,
whom police and journalists naturally dubbed "The Lawnmower Man," would chase
neighbors, salespeople, and postal workers off his property by remote control
with his nolomower. He was eventually convicted of assault with a deadly
weapon, but the jury could not decide whether it was assault with intent to
kill or not.
This latter case raised the horrific possibility that at
some future point in time, other "nolo" technologies would be used to execute
all sorts of criminal or terrorist activities at a distance. If the controller
were residing in a foreign country beyond the reach of law enforcement, what
could police do? Or what if the controller was working off of an untraceable
Internet connection? As of this writing, there are several drafts of
legislation pending in the halls of Congress that would require registration of
all "nolo" machinery and farm equipment, treating them as if they were
It's kind of sad, but that's life. Maybe we should follow
the Japanese example, and plant rock gardens instead.