Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1994 Issue


Hallelujah, I'm A Bum

By Corbin Gwaltney '43
Chronicle of Higher Education

I no longer get dressed in the morning. My razor rusts in the medicine cabinet. My rack of neckties has been untouched for weeks. Having installed in my home a "virtual office," I am on my way to becoming the Compleat Recluse.

A modem and phone line connect my personal computer to the network of computers in my real office downtown [in Washington D.C.]. With a few keystrokes, I can bring up on my home screen a precise clone of what I used to travel to work to obtain: articles to edit, notes to reply to, a timetable of deadlines I have to meet.

A facsimile machine puts me at the drafting tables in my newspaper's art department, where I can check the progress of laying out the next issue.

A telephoneÄan old-fashioned telephoneÄpermits me to hear the occasional human voice. Usually it is a recording of a message left by someone who called me on a rare occasion when I was out.

I have stocked my home office with copies of the same reference books on which I used to rely downtownÄbooks ranging from the O.E.D. to Mencken's New Dictionary of Quotations to The Oxford Companion to Music. One of these days, I suppose, I will dispense even with them, replacing them with their full texts in electronic form.

All of this has changed my life.

I stagger from my bed at any hour I choose, dial up the downtown office computer, and get right to work. No one interrupts me, so I can concentrate wholly on the computer screen. No one drops in for coffee, so I have gained as many as 30 minutes a day that I once squandered on conversation and decaf.

When I tire of the limited offerings of my workday, I log on to the Internet. There, if I choose, I can write messages and join in discussions with scoresÄnay, thousandsÄof like-minded people around the world, many of whom are fast becoming computer-bound recluses on their own.

No longer do I engage in the Great American Lunch Meeting, a daily ritual of which I had long been a devotee. I am not alone in this. As a result of my defection and that of others who have embarked upon this route, certain restaurants are beginning to notice the absence of some of their regulars. Eventually they will suffer more from this cause than they did when the tax deduction for business meals was drastically reduced this year.

The rush-hour Metro trains are not yet running empty, but it is only a matter of time. Telecommuting is taking the place of the other kind. More and more parking spaces will stand unused for days at a time. More and more office buildings will be half-occupied, as more and more people hole up at home with their computers, modems, and fax machines.

What will happen to those office buildings? One can only guess. Perhaps they will be converted to social centers operated by the nation's employersÄplaces where telecommuters who are starved for human companionship can come in search of that which they once found at work, around the drinking fountains and conference tables.

People who have not spoken to another person for days may shave, bathe, dress, and travel to the office, where they will find others who have done the same. They may try out their voices, which, having been unused for long periods, will come out as croaks, at first. They will try joking with one another, seeking a long-lost rapport. They may take walks together, looking for a restaurant that hasn't closed.

Most of all, they will search for inspiration, the kind that they remember coming from face-to-face discussions, person-to-person arguments, and the uplifting of spirits that occurs when people talk with people, laugh with people, and just are with people.

I won't be among them. By then, I suspect, I will be afraid to venture out and take the risks.

Corbin Gwaltney '43, who founded the Chronicle of Higher Education, served as editor of the Johns Hopkins Magazine from 1950-59. Under his leadership the magazine was three times singled out as the nation's best university magazine.

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