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Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2002 / 8 Shevat, 5762

Bob Greene

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Knowing your place is getting sort of hard -- MAYBE all of this was just waiting to happen anyway.

Maybe the events in the United States, and around the world, since September are just being used as a justification -- maybe the changes that are occurring were inevitable, were already well on their way, and we are missing the point by connecting them to the nation's wariness about terror.

Maybe -- had Sept. 11 passed calmly, with no extraordinary news at all -- this would have transpired all the same.

Considered individually, these just seem like news stories, each related to an America under transformation since the nation was attacked:

  • Corporate travel departments, the business press has reported, have begun to rethink old assumptions. The traditional business trip is being questioned. Is it truly necessary to send this employee into the air on this plane for this specific task -- or could the task be handled another way, from the office? Business travel, since September, must be justified, in ways not seen before

  • Telecommuting -- not so very long ago the stuff of science-fiction speculation, sort of like the promise of robots doing housework--has taken on a new urgency. The idea of employees working from home via computers is now seen not just as technically feasible, but strategically sound, in case of catastrophic attack. Even if the corporate headquarters are in flames, the employees--decentralized--can carry on.

  • Annual meetings need not be held in person -- they can be conducted via computer modems and audiovisual hookups. They are less expensive this way, and do not require all of a corporation's officers and heaviest shareholders to be gathered -- and vulnerable -- in one room. Business analysts point out that laws in many states would seem to mandate that stockholder meetings be, in fact, meetings, with the parties physically present. But those laws may be changing.

  • More and more Americans, according to news reports, are electing to make their cellular phones their only phones. Just a few years ago, cell phones were widely considered to be either a luxury or a gimmick -- you might carry one, but it wasn't your real phone. Your real phone, it went without saying, was the one at home, plugged into the wall. But now, with cell phone service becoming cheaper, and with hard-line phone installation and service becoming undependable, many people, especially younger people, are deciding that the line that is expendable--the frill--is the land line.

The common thread in all these stories -- in all these changes -- is this:

The value of being somewhere -- the very notion of being somewhere -- is no longer absolute. Since Sept. 11, Americans have been using their skittishness about that day to explain away some already strongly felt preferences.

The altered attitude about business travel fits into that category. And a desire to -- here's that terrible word -- cocoon in uncertain times makes the lure of telecommuting attractive to some. You have to make a living, but you want to be close to your family. It used to be all but impossible -- you had to choose. Now the technology permits a person to have both -- and the national mood of the last four months makes having both seem acceptable in a way it never has before.

But this was coming well before September -- this profound change in the way people feel about the concept of place was under way and picking up steam. Sept. 11 served to provide a rationale, when in fact the change had already begun and could not be stopped. Americans, who historically had resisted the constrictions of being tied to one place, were extending that resentment to having to be any place. Place, bit by bit, became moveable; place -- once the most unequivocal and solid of concepts -- became fluid. It used to be like granite; now it was like mercury.

Slippery, slithery, here and gone -- place was outfitted with running shoes. How can a cell phone also be a home phone? Only in a world where home is a relative term. You can't be out when you're never in -- "I'm not here right now" rings false. Of course you are. Where's here? Everywhere. You're there, all right.

This is just the beginning. Whoever said no man is an island was thinking of a different kind of island -- the kind that stayed put.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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