TCS Daily

Liberation Technology

By Bob Collins - May 1, 2003 12:00 AM

Technology is improving our lives so quickly that we barely notice how profound the change has been. In 1997, I decided to leave my job in a corporation and begin working for myself, in my home. That decision has made a tremendous improvement in the life of my whole family, and it would not have been possible 10 or 15 years ago.

My own experience is an example of how technology is expanding freedom, and opening up economic opportunity and growth - as long as regulation doesn't get in the way.

My writing business is based on an incredibly small investment in a computer, laser printer, fax/copy machine, second telephone line and voice mail, cell phone, and cable modem. Simple software gives me all the capabilities I need to do my work and manage my business.

It's more efficient, because clients can use me on an as-needed basis. I'm able to earn a living because I can draw clients from anywhere. My biggest client today is 700 miles away, and others are 100 to 2000 miles from here.

Even in the short time I've been in business, there have been significant changes in the technology available.

At first, I had trouble working on large electronic files, such as PowerPoint presentations, because of the time they took to download on a phone line. But with cable broadband service, the file transfer is almost instantaneous. An increasing amount of my work is also done through secure web sites, where the contractor and the client can log on to post and review draft materials. My fax machine is collecting dust.

My work in a corporation made extensive use of research files maintained on site. Now I can do just about any necessary research on the Internet (or access to a client's intranet), and usually find what I need in a matter of minutes. In fact, perhaps the most important advance in the past six years is the Google search engine.

Enabling technology replaces all the corporate services I used to depend on as an employee. When I need to travel to one of my clients, I can book flights, hotel, and rental car easily online. With online banking and a home equity line of credit, I can manage my uneven cash flow at the click of a mouse. Likewise, I can buy office supplies online and have them delivered to my door. When I need to transmit hard copy, I can drop it off in a FedEx box a mile from my house, and the client will have it the next morning.

These examples might seem commonplace, but none of these capabilities were available when I graduated from college in the 1970s - when the primitive telecopier represented the leading edge of technology.

Virtually every technology I use (except cable service) has declined in price, Over the years, I've added a laptop computer and cell phone, which have made it possible for me to work anywhere. Long-distance telephone service has gotten so inexpensive, I've stopped billing clients for phone charges.

The benefits made possible by new technology are truly remarkable:
  • I used to drive 14 miles each way to work during rush hour. I save at least an hour commuting every day and no longer add to congestion or pollution.

  • I can work when most convenient, be home for our kids when they're not in school, and do volunteer service during the week.

  • I'm far more productive working at home. I can earn more money in less time and still be a more economical resource for clients.

  • I'm free to live anywhere in the United States, as long as I have broadband access to the Internet and am in within range of an airport with good service.

Regulatory advances, such as medical and retirement savings accounts, have also helped make it all possible. But regulation - current and potential - remains the biggest question mark in realizing the full benefits of new technology.

It's critical for self-employed individuals to have access to economical health coverage and the ability to save for retirement. When my wife didn't have a job with benefits, we were able to get combine catastrophic health coverage with a Medical Savings Account.

The burden of taxes and regulations is another key factor. Although TurboTax makes Schedule C manageable, I'm reluctant to do anything that might complicate my tax situation. When we needed a part-time sitter for our children, we were careful - mindful of "Nannygate" - to pay all federal and state taxes. The reporting requirements were more onerous than the taxes. To move my business to the next level, I would have to hire someone to assist with research, proofreading, and paperwork. But the regulatory and legal risks of becoming an employer are daunting.

My business also has a strong stake in regulatory policy that promotes robust availability of both broadband access and air transportation.

The ability to earn a living from home is good for the environment, and good for family life. But I suspect that not everyone thinks it's good for people to be independent. It's certainly not good for supporters of bigger government, when people move from tax withholding on a paystub to writing a personal check to the IRS every three months.

Not everyone has a job like mine, but technology is making it possible to do more work without going to work. There are many enabling technologies I haven't adopted, and many more being developed all the time. Not everyone likes to work alone, but many would welcome the productivity and flexibility of working at home. The demand for new options is driving technology and services that are creating these kinds of opportunities. That same demand should drive political decisions that keep government out of the way.

Bob Collins is a writer living in Ohio.

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