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ISSUE 560: The high-tech office- July 18 2000


Pro-technology writers argue paper is here to stay

"The 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 longer.

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 Vancouver's Yaletown.

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.

And finally:

Three things are certain --

Death, taxes and lost data.

Guess which has occurred. *


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan