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No Space Like Shared Space

January 15, 1996
No Space Like Shared Space
By Rose Moss

In the Northeast we had a test last week of whether people really wanted to stay home to get work done or to come to the office. In most cases, the office won.

But not immediately. On the first snow day, last Monday, many people stayed at home doing paperwork and reading, and ended the day with a feeling of accomplishment. A vice president with Lotus spoke on the radio about how he had given lunch to his daughters and then went back to his study. It sounded idyllic. No commute. The virtual workplace could be efficient, comfortable and satisfying.

Technology helped tens of thousands of others to simulate at home what they have at the office. They called and logged on, and telephone companies did a booming business. But even the Lotus executive talked about wanting to get back to conversations in hallways. Something happens in hallways that he couldn't accomplish through technology.

We are gregarious animals. We want to see what other people look like when we talk to them. Sometimes technology gives clues: we can sometimes tell when someone we're talking to on the phone is smiling. But in hallways we pick up nuances like eye contact, closeness or withdrawal. We hear jokes, stories and gossip. We get the changing play of agreement and disagreement that holds us in conversation.

Companies are already working to expand the bandwidth of technology to transmit some of what we're missing. In the meantime, the placeless workplace is probably as far off as the paperless office.

What will always be absent from cyberspace is space where we meet people we did not necessarily plan to meet. A laptop does not provide a place for chance encounters in which you do not actually talk to someone else, where a glance is enough. At a basic level, space keeps us together.

A few years ago, the president of Haverford College lived for a few months as a homeless man. Afterward, he described the shock of seeing that people he knew didn't recognize him. In the workplace, recognized by familiar faces, we know ourselves as a member of a group. And membership in multiple groups that do not necessarily overlap has enormous liberating power. It attracts people to cities and free societies. It promotes tolerance. It simulates cross-pollination of ideas.

In cyberspace, we lose a sense of membership in multiple communities. One effect is "flaming" -- hurling insults. No one need look anyone in the eye. Like people in isolated communities, regulars in cyberspace can reinforce one another without jostling. It is no accident that hate groups rely on on the Internet.

Perhaps new technology will strengthen our sense of physical presence in cyberspace. In the meantime, it is becoming more urgent for us to use the time we share in real space to create the equivalent of hallway conversations.

In the blizzard of '96, first exhilaration, then our shared difficulties and irritation forced most of us to notice physical space as we rarely do. We talked with our neighbors as we shoveled and trudged. The weather became a costly nuisance, but perhaps it was a bargain.

© 1996 New York Times