Living at the Office

I was tapping away at my computer on a bright summer morning when I first heard, or felt, the sound: a series of distant, muffled explosions, followed by a low rumble that seemed to roll across the ground and rock the foundations of my office.

Were I still living in my apartment on upper Broadway, almost directly above the IRT, I might not even have noticed it. But I’d recently moved to northwestern Connecticut, a hundred miles from the sounds of a subway, and I was at that very moment working in a tiny cabin in the woods behind my house—my home office.

I followed the noise east into the woods and eventually found its source. A contractor was dynamiting ledge rock to make room for a new building at the end of a long dirt road in the middle of nowhere. We got to chatting, and I learned that the building was going to be a trading room. Here in this quiet second-growth forest where I now went to work every day, writing my articles and books, I was about to be joined by a risk arbitrageur from New York City.

In the days to follow I watched as a crew from the phone company unscrolled a new wire along my road (which is dirt for most of its length). The guys on the crew said they were running an ISDN line—a high-speed data connection that would allow the trader to be in constant, real-time contact with Wall Street. It seems that the true currency of risk arbitrage is timely information; even the tiny lag-time it takes news and market data to squeeze through an ordinary twisted-pair phone line would put a trader at an unacceptable competitive disadvantage. But an ISDN line changes all that.

That wire and the rumble that preceded it were auguries of a new world, and a new landscape. In the same way that the Long Island Expressway transformed the lapsed potato field where I grew up into a suburb, the telephone line (along with the computer, modem, fax and Internet) is helping to transform the rural countryside where I now live into something new: an exurb. If the rows of split-levels with their stamps of lawn out front became the architectural embodiment of the postwar bedroom community, the symbol of the new landscape now taking shape out beyond the suburban fringe, in places like Litchfield, Conn., and Sonoma, Calif., and southern New Hampshire, is the on-line home office.

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, the realms of work and family life have been steadily drifting apart. As workers began commuting to their jobs, they reconceived their homes as strictly private spheres from which all traces of economic activity should be banished. Historically this was a novel idea—home had been the site of work for centuries—yet by the time John Cheever wrote his chronicles of postwar suburbia, the new arrangement seemed perfectly natural, even God-given. We will soon recognize it for the aberration it is, for work is rapidly returning to the home, under the spur of economic necessity and technological opportunity.

In recent years, corporate down-sizing and “outsourcing”—the farming out of work once performed within the company—have spawned millions of new home-based businesses: The in-house publicist or systems analyst is now working freelance in her own house, often for the same corporation. At the same time, the computer and modem have made many jobs in the information sector more or less portable.

According to the Regional Plan Association, 98 percent of the work force in the New York metropolitan region commutes to work each day; on any given day in the year 2010, 10 percent will “commute” by wire. Nationwide, 30 million of us are expected to be working at home by the year 2000, more than a fifth of the labor force. Welcome to the Staples economy.

What will the landscape, and the life style, generated by these new forces look like? In the case of the landscape, probably not all that different. That’s the good news about the changes under way around me: Nowadays you can build a trading room in the middle of a New England forest and leave only the faintest of environmental footprints. The new technologies make it possible to draw large stretches of rural America onto the grid of the modern economy without sacrificing its beauty in the way that the highways that drove the last wave of development invariably did. Today the economic centers can release their centrifugal energies without necessarily having to sprawl.

That’s not to say the countryside isn’t changing. As traders and architects, accountants and software developers take to the hills around here, you may not be able to see our offices from the road (and that road may not need to be widened), but we do leave our telltale marks on the land all the same. There’s that new Staples superstore in Torrington, for example, and in Litchfield, a picture-book white-clapboard New England village, the old pharmacy with its zinc soda fountain has given way to a coffee bar where you can pay $3.75 for an iced latte. The new exurb might look a lot like the old countryside, but in truth it is as urban an artifact as Central Park.

But it is the life style, more than the landscape, that the home office economy will transfigure, as the man in the gray flannel suit is replaced by the man (and woman) in the gray flannel sweatshirt and slippers, padding up, or out, to the home office. (Shlubbiness is definitely an occupational hazard: Jackets, skirts, even the morning shave and shower are strictly optional.)

If you’ve visited a model home recently, you know that the American house is changing, as it sprouts new office rooms (often replacing the old “den” or “sewing room”) and sometimes whole outbuildings to accommodate work best done out of range of the kids. And it is the kids who surely stand to benefit: One of the great advantages of working at home is the added time with one’s family it affords, once you realize how much day is left after you’ve lopped off those hours for commuting and water cooler schmoozing.

The loss of this ritual is often cited as a drawback of working at home, and isolation (social and office-political) is certainly a problem. Yet I’ve discovered that the lack of society during the day whets one’s appetite for social activity at night—going out, having people over, even getting involved politically.

The rap on bedroom communities has always been that a society of commuters, with one foot in the city and the other in bed, had no time or energy left for local politics and community activities; the commuter’s sense of attachment to a place was attenuated. I find that after a day spent in the solitude of my hut, the prospect of a P.T.A. or zoning board meeting begins to look pretty exciting. A society of home-office workers could wind up actually revitalizing our communities. What might look like a formula for social atomization could prove precisely the opposite. At least that’s what my own experience suggests. Is it representative? I’d be the last person to tell you a writer’s life is typical of anything. And yet maybe in this one case it is. For in a way, the writer’s existence is a model for the life style now emerging.

Long before the trader and the accountant and the software developer pulled up stakes to move to the woods, the writers were already here, tapping away in the solitude of their attics and cabins. Writers have always had the freedom to live out beyond the reach of the expressway, to map their day, to figure out how to make something of their isolation and the gift of all that time. For better or worse, millions of us are writers now, freelance souls set loose by the American centrifuge, making our own way across territory that only looks familiar, building something new.

 
 
Michael Pollan