Telecommuting: A greater freedom, or a new kind of slavery?

It wasn't that long ago that telecommuting was an idea rooted in science fiction, alongside robot maids and flying cars. Cheap consumer electronics and internet connectivity have transformed the concept into a common practice for workers, though; in fact, the biggest hurdle hasn't been the limits of technology but of employers who are reticent to let workers out of their sight.

But the recession is changing that. As companies focus on the bottom line, the convenience and saved costs of telecommuting have become highly attractive, and as the home office increasingly becomes the only office, shifting product trends are making telecommuting increasingly convenient.
At its consumer products show last month, big-box retailer Best Buy (BBY) highlighted numerous tools designed to expand worker mobility, increase home-office flexibility, and ease the interaction between personal entertainment tools and employment. A combination of wireless office machines and HDMI-equipped electronics lets a worker sit on a living-room couch and use a wireless keyboard to work on a computer across the room -- which can be hooked up to a 48-inch, high-definition, HDMI-equipped TV, serving as a gargantuan monitor. A worker can print wirelessly from another room. In fact, a worker with a wireless router running through a cell phone can stay busy wherever cell reception exists.

When the daily drag is done, the tech-savvy worker of the future can watch DVDs, or stream TV and movies through Hulu and Netflix, routed to that big TV -- eliminating any need for a cable box, antenna, or DVD player. Many of these tools have been around for years. But this season's electronics suggest a tipping point: with very little money, the workspace can be transformed into an endlessly mutable area, blending work and leisure seamlessly.

There's a dark side to this rosy vision of the future. For fans of Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner, or the Alien films, the image of a combined home/work space contains heavy hints of dystopia. Just as Harrison Ford's Deckard couldn't escape from his work, so the employee of the future may be at his employers' beck and call at all times, thorugh cell phones, PDAs, wireless routers and multi-use electronics, permitting a future with no real free time, no escape from the job.

Having worked from home, I'm all too familiar with this problem. I had to set up a workspace that was physically separated from my living space. At the end of the workday, I would draw the curtain on my "office" and retreat to a common area where I could interact with my family.

On the other hand, with technology encouraging users to connect their personal and work spaces, these sorts of separations may become impossible. Jin Chang, Best Buy's senior director of trends, says many of his chain's innovations, including its major push for flexible work/entertainment spaces, have been inspired by requests from its own customers. Many Best Buy products, he says, are designed to help customers "immerse themselves in relaxation," as well as entertain themselves and others.

Still, Chang says he's also concerned about the blurring of the work/home division. "This is a legitimate concern," he says. "As a country, we need to ask where these boundaries lie. We all get so caught up in getting things done, and we need to ask ourselves, what matters to you? What makes you happy?'"

As we pursue those questions, it will be interesting to see if ever-increasing convenience and access to the internet is the solution or the problem.
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