THE PICTURE in Newsweek shows a man named Terrence Howard of San Rafael, Calif., sitting before his very own computer terminal in his very own house, doing his stockbroker chores for his company -- whoever and wherever they may be. He sits, Howard does, in living refutation of John Donne: No man is an island -- unless he has his own computer terminal.
There is little of the poet in Newsweek. Instead, in a decidedly upbeat piece, the magazine tells us that more and more people are able to do their work and stay at home through what is sometimes called the magic of computers. These people include the likes of Terrence Howard and also Pat Kelly, a 43-year-old Chicago-area mother of three who takes dictation from Continental Illinois over the phone and then types it back over her computer terminal. She, too, never has to leave home. She, too, is not the future, but the past -- a return to the cottage industries of old.
I say this not because I don't have the proper appreciation for technological innovations and not because I cannot figure out that both Howard and Kelly are saving both time and gasoline staying at home instead of fouling the air commuting to the office. I say it because this is just the latest example of people moving off to be by themselves, becoming isolated units, cutting themselves off from other people. This trend will not produce a great civilization.
And it is a trend. People walk on the street wearing those little earphones stuck into their little ears, listening to their little radios or their little tape recorders. They jog that way, too, sometimes with radios that look like towels slung over their shoulders, and they sit in the office that way, also. They are wired to radio stations or to tapes, but not to other people.
You can understand the reasons for all this. The streets can be pits -- loud, threatening -- and the office environment of the large contemporary organization can be uncomfortable, hard to get to and people with suspicious supervisors and jealous colleagues who play a kind of hardball office politics that would do justice to the court of the Borgias. Little wonder that people want to escape that. Little wonder that they see the home computer terminal as liberating -- a chance to spend more time at home with the people they love.
The trouble with it is that the home computer terminal does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a trend in which people are pulling away from one another. A good part of the country already drives individual cars to individual jobs, listening to no one but the radio and then coming home at night to spend it before the television set. It is either too cold or too hot go out, to sit on a stoop or gossip over the back fence. What gets lost is a sense of community. What we have in common is not mutual experiences, but mutual media experiences. We watch the same television programs.
In some sense, this atomization of society is like a drug experience that produces withdrawal -- a trip into yourself. What it does not produce is the kind of friction among peoples that generates ideas or controversies. It is easy, not challenging, and it would be totally harmless except that it results in a society that lacks community, where ideas can't cross-fertilize, where people function like one of those poor kids forced to live in a glass bubble so as to not get any disease. In this case, the disease is ideas.
I doubt that Mr. Howard, nice guy that he appears to be, will be of much use to his company in a couple of years. He will not hear something from a desk mate that will trigger an idea. He will not get into a conversation at the water cooler that will produce a better way of doing things. He will not have lunch with someone who will, with an idea or a suggestion or even a flirtation, change his life. In several short years, the difference between him and his computer terminal will be negligible.
After all, it took communities to produce civilization. It took towns and villages and later cities. It took interaction, people being among people -- not people being among machines. Get up, Terrence Howard. Get up, Pat Kelly. Get up, both of you, and go downtown. Civilization is depending on you.