Spotlight: Computer Independents


To many who daily battle traffic to work and back, the idea of combining home and office is an appealing dream. Husband-and-wife team Paul and Sarah Edwards not only live that dream but are helping to make it come true for others. Their Association of Electronic Cottagers (AEC) is partly a support group for the cottage industries made possible using personal computers and partly a rights watchdog for home workers.

Hundreds of thousands of users nationwide are turning their computer purchase into profit by starting businesses, notes Paul Edwards. They work at accounting, word processing, free-lance writing, computer programming, mailing lists, and many other businesses.

Some have been so successful that they have left their 9-to-5 jobs, while many others free-lance at home after work. And some remain employees of companies but enjoy the flexibility of working at home and setting their own schedule, linking up with employers' computers via telephone.

The AEC evolved out of an international computer network, the Work-at-Home special-interest-group (SIG) of CompuServe, an interactive data base service for computer users. The Edwardses began this SIG because they wanted to meet other entrepreneurs and believed others had the same need. "Now people can connect up and take an electronic coffee break together!" says Paul. Via this network, authors have met coauthors and publishers, business partners have met business partners, and yes, even a romance or two has developed.

One hot topic on the network is the political counterrevolution against computer independence. The AFL-CIO and other labor unions see the decentralization and autonomy facilitated by electronic cottaging as a threat to their prerogatives. So, trying to copy their decades-long success in having home-based knitting work banned, they have urged that telecommuting be banned. In addition, local bureaucrats, wielding zoning laws, have put some home computer workers out of business.

But the Edwardses see things differently. They have put together an Electronic Cottage Bill of Rights that is strongly individualist. Among its provisions:

Legislatures shall make no laws prohibiting freedom to work in one's home with a computing and/or robotic device when that work does not interfere with neighbors' enjoyment of their own homes and communities.

A productive and entrepreneurial economy being necessary to the vitality of a free nation, and electronic cottagers being among the most productive workers in our society, the ability of people to realize their full economic potential shall not be unreasonably infringed.

Zoning officials and public administrators shall not unreasonably prosecute and enforce outmoded laws and ordinances written for other eras against electronic cottagers.

The right of people to be secure in their homes and communications shall not be violated.

The AEC alerts members to legislative and regulatory threats to their independence, provides petitions that can be customized for different communities, and recommends techniques for effective lobbying against controls. Home computer users are urged to join AEC to "protect your freedom to pursue electronic cottage opportunity."

Those who think of computers as cold and inhuman might be surprised at the route by which the Edwardses came to their interest in the machines. In the late 1960s, Sarah was working as a training director for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and later for the University of Kansas Medical Center. She began getting tired of driving or taking the bus to work. In 1973, being a licensed clinical social worker, she opened a therapy practice at home. Paul, meanwhile, practiced law for several years, then went into management, first in the public sector, then as president of the Environmental Research and Development Foundation, then as head of his own consulting firm—at home—in 1974.

Paul and Sarah, with their knowledge of the Transactional Analysis "child/adult/parent" model of personal interaction, began to see that the government plays too much the role of the parent, making a lot of unnecessary decisions in people's lives. Yet, as Paul puts it, "The vigor of our society is in entrepreneurship and freedom to pursue opportunity. The whole personal computer movement puts into people's hands a very powerful money-making, entrepreneurial tool."

Paul and Sarah decided to become partners. Working from their home in Sierra Madre, California, they began consulting and wrote several books to help people take advantage of these entrepreneurial opportunities.

Working from home, notes Sarah, means "You don't have to choose between career and family and personal commitments. The potential for bringing the family together is really large." Their 18-year-old son, Jon, is an engineering student at UCLA.

Working from home needn't mean being tied to the house, they point out. During a promotional tour for their latest book, Working from Home, The Complete Guide, the Edwardses stayed in touch with their CompuServe SIG by means of a lap computer. The very network made possible by the latest communications technology is making it easier for individual entrepreneurs to resist those who would cramp their style.

John Dentinger is a free-lance writer who works out of his home.