NOW THEY'VE done it. Picture phones. Last week, AT&T announced the opening of a new service between Washington and New York. For a mere $1,300 an hour, businessmen will be able to conduct meetings by a conference call mechanism that will allow the transmission of pictures, in addition to voices, from one city to another. Corporate officers in New York will be able to look field representatives right in the eye and ask why sales have dropped. No more guessing how the boss is taking the bad news; his scowl will be brought right into the room by Ma Bell. And instead of putting the new office manager on the shuttle for an interview with headquarters personnel, he can be grilled, observed and evaluated on the small screen in a few minutes. Corporations willing to pay for this innovation are welcome to it. It's the inevitable extension of the technology that is troubling.

Sooner or later, the phone company will be able to mass produce these devices and make them available at low cost to individual homes. That's when the term "invasion of privacy" will take on new meaning. No one will lift a receiver without running a comb through her hair; rooms will be cleaned before mothers-in-law are called. And some well-worn phrases and familiar excuses will be banished from American life. No more "It's a shame I won't be able to make the 25th reunion, but just tell all the gang that I haven't changed a bit." We'll see the end of "Of course I did the dishes and sent my friends home, Mom" and the familiar "It's a crummy hotel and a dull convention, honey--you're not missing a thing." Think of the set and costume complications of a simple "I'm too sick to get out of bed today, boss." Most traumatic of all, for some, will be the demise of "I'm sorry I won't be able to keep the appointment, doctor, but I've been following the diet carefully and you'll be amazed when you see how much weight I've lost."

Candor has its place, but sometimes a little evasion is a good thing, too. Picture phones may be a boon to the corporate board room but the potential for mischief in personal relationships is too great a risk. The new technology may offer a chance for a peek at a new grandchild or a shared 75th birthday without spending a nickle on airfare. But exaggeration, little white lies and misplaced assurances have saved many a marriage. This kind of "progress" could ruin the American family, and it should be stopped at the boardroom door while there's still time.