ISSUE 560: The high-tech office- July
Pro-technology writers argue paper is
here to stay
Internet changes everything," we're often told in columns such as this
one. E-commerce leads to "friction-free capitalism," spelling the end
to traditional business practices. The paperless office brings an end
to traditional record keeping, while telecommuting brings an end to the
office. The information superhighway brings an end to distance itself.
In their book, The Social Life of
Information (Harvard Business School Press/McGraw Hill,
$41.95), authors John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid
refer to this tendency to proclaim the digital revolution as spelling
the end of this and that as "endism."
Co-author Brown is a researcher for Xerox,
so it is perhaps not surprising that the book has some sympathy for
paper. They point out that the paperless office clich? was promised 25
years ago by Business Week, but actual paper consumption has
doubled since then.
And why not? The authors point out
that, all too often, moving documents from paper to a digital format
removes "text from context." Readers of the news online, for example,
miss much of the experience of browsing an actual newspaper. They lose
the serendipity of finding articles while flipping pages.
The book is filled with anecdotes
illustrating ways in which the digital revolutionaries have failed by
missing the vital complexity of the real world. Trendy advertising
agency Chiat/Day, for example, tried to redesign its workspace,
doing away with permanent offices and even individual desks. What they
got was a sort of internal civil disobedience, as staff fought to stake
out turf in the structureless working environment.
The book similarly skewers the myth of
telecommuting, with a diary of an at-home worker's attempts to set up
an Internet account. Physical offices will be around for quite a while
On the larger scale, too, distance is
not yet dead. Some software companies manage large projects with
programmers working around the clock, one set of coders in North
America and a second shift, 12 hours apart, in India. But this is the
exception. Instead, we are continually seeing the importance of
geography in the "new economy," in locations from Silicon Valley to
Brown and Duguid are not
anti-technological Luddites, however. Brown is the director of Xerox's
legendary Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) where, in the 1970s,
research led to graphic user interfaces (universal on today's
computers), laser printers, Ethernet networking and more.
The authors instead want to expand the
way we look at technology, growing from a one-dimensional focus on
information and individuals to include the social networks found in the
real world of work, education and everyday life. Read it to get a sense
of where today's technology works and where it doesn't, and what will
be needed before the new digital ways of doing business can
successfully transform the old.
Reflect, repent, reboot
One of the ways that technology can
seem dehumanizing and confusing is in the error messages we get when
(inevitably) something goes wrong. Microsoft and Apple
promise more understandable error messages in their next generations of
operating systems. (Somehow, this is always promised for the next generation.)
An e-mail circulating across the Internet suggests that Sony,
with its Vaio series of notebooks and desktops, should replace standard
error messages with haiku. For instance:
Chaos reigns within.
Reflect, repent and reboot.
Order shall return.
Yesterday it worked.
Today it is not working.
Windows is like that.
A crash reduces
your expensive computer
to a simple stone.
Three things are certain --
Death, taxes and lost data.
Guess which has occurred. *