Opinion: The "work at home" myth

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Opinion: The "work at home" myth

Sitting by yourself in your home office can be an incredibly lonely experience. Jon Honeyball argues that the "virtual office" is far from perfect.

I know I said if I went on Twitter, then please shoot me. And here I am, sitting on Twitter (@jonhoneyball). No-one has done the decent thing yet, so maybe I’ve been forgiven for my transgressions.

The reason that I’m on there, of course, is that lots of people I talk to, both professionally and socially, are on there too. And yet my fears and concerns about the place haven’t been addressed. The same goes for Facebook, although I manage to keep a pretty low profile on there, and LinkedIn too. 
 
All of these places have their attractions. And all of them have security and privacy policies that are frustrating in the extreme. The level of obfuscation, hiding away and so forth of the security and privacy settings is enough to make you scream. Even Google, that paragon of openness and doing no evil (hah!), manages to join up all of your stuff into a privacy spaghetti that no-one really understands. 
 
This matters, because we’re building social contracts on the back of these services. I recently blogged on the web about two friends whose marriage had collapsed. They had done the modern thing - moving to the countryside, raising their children themselves, and relied heavily on modern technology to work and keep in touch with the world. This is the logical extension of the “work at home” myth that’s propagated by those selling e-conferencing services, or those who want us to believe that you too can be alone but never alone. 
 
You can read the posting, and the heartfelt realisation by the people concerned that technology had been both an enabler for their lifestyle choices and a destructive force. The reality is that we need human contact and interaction. 
 
For many years, I ran a private internet relay chat (IRC) server where close friends could, in effect, have a geographically spread “virtual office”. We used it to complain about the weather, moan about a politician, gripe about the quality of the meals we’d had last night – all of the usual social daily grind that you take for granted when you work in an office or other workplace. Sitting by yourself in your home office can be an incredibly lonely experience.
 
It worked because everyone knew everyone else as good friends, and it was a “trusted space” from which things wouldn’t leak. There was enough shared dirt on each of us that it would be mutually assured destruction if anyone dared try!
 
I have now discovered private groups on Facebook, and a group of my mates have migrated there. Our chats are about really boring blokey things to do with cars. But we know each other, and it’s a space to natter about the inanities of life. Do I trust Facebook as a hosting platform? 
 
No, not at all. 
 
Twitter is the worst offender. Anyone can follow you, and I can’t find a way to stop someone reading what I say without locking down my entire account. We should have private rooms for chats among friends and families. The direct message facility is far too weak, and I always worry that I’ll post something publicly that should have been private. 
 
Of course, even if we had private rooms, I wouldn’t trust them to be truly private. I’d want to have a client that supported shared key encryption, so that only the recognised participants could chat to each other, happy in the knowledge that neither Twitter nor some government agency, or even Google’s indexer, could pry. That these services don’t offer such capabilities brings to light the extraordinary immaturity of the people behind these platforms. They clearly have never used this stuff for real over a long period, or thought through the needs of their users in a proper, planned and coherent manner.
 
I’d like to think that this provides an opportunity for another site to come along and take over. One that was written by grown-ups for grown-ups. Of course, it would be easy to set up a little puddle and to invite in only those you wanted. But Twitter, Facebook and the rest have shown how a global reach can be truly transformative.
 
Are these services really too big to replace or topple? The investment dollar suggests that this is the case, but then this is stupid money fuelled by greed, not a sense of greater good.
Copyright © Alphr, Dennis Publishing
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