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<nettime> office space
wade tillett on Sun, 14 Jul 2002 20:58:11 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> office space


 "What you want to do is put people who don't trust each other near
  each other." (Stephenson qtd. 69)

In an article titled "Designs for Working" (New Yorker, Dec. 11, 2000,
pp. 60-70) Malcolm Gladwell compares Jane Jacobs "Death and Life of
Great American Cities" to the 'new' office environment. The paternal
regressive wistfulness of Jacobs is re-interpreted to the interior
office-scape. Gladwell espouses the joys of "Advertising City", an ad
agency office with a corridor called "Main Street" an adjoining open
space with cafe tables and trees called "Central Park", as well as a
basketball court, game room, bar, and workstations grouped into
"nests".

 "What she (Jane Jacobs) couldn't know was that her ideas about
  community would ultimately make more sense in the workplace. From
  time to time, social critics have bemoaned the falling rates of
  community participation in American life, but they have made the
  same mistake. The reason Americans are content to bowl alone (or for
  that matter, not bowl at all) is that, increasingly, they receive
  all the social support they need - all the serendipitous
  interactions that serve to make them happy and productive - from
  nine to five." (p. 70)

The destruction of public space is thus only the happy result of a
'serendipitous' designed and controlled private space which happens to
have as its purpose, "to invite a particular kind of social
interaction..." (64).

 "Traditionally, office designers would tell a company what furniture
  should go where. Stephenson and her partners at Steelcase propose to
  tell a company what people should go where, too. At Steelcase, they
  call this 'floor-casting.'" (68)

The newly omnipotent office designer is recast as the caring paternal
figure. The falsely-constructed neighborhood of constant surveillance
is dubbed public (Jacob's 'public character'). Manipulated office and
neighborhood politics are pawned as culture. The probabilized,
planned, recorded interactions are euphemised as 'serendipitous,' and
intentionally mislabeled as social.

The workplace is inverted and interior. Social, public space is
assimilated, simulated, and re-constructed in order to redirect the
probabilities and possibilities of human connections back inward.
Gladwell discusses how research found that people beyond a certain
distance were more likely to call someone outside of the company for
assistance. The idea of the 'new' workplace is to control all social
interaction, to internalize every aspect of life to the officescape,
where all is subject to manipulation for profit. The artificial main
street, cafe tables, game room, basketball court, and bar are nothing
less than a real-life social trap for humans, a life-size apparatus of
capture. (Or, more likely, they function as the artificial
nature-scapes at the zoo, serving to conceal their method of
containment only to those not contained.)

 "One afternoon recently, Stephenson pulled out a laptop and
  demonstrated how she had mapped the communication networks of the
  leadership group onto a seating chart of the fourth floor. The dots
  and swirls are strangely compelling - abstract representations of
  something real and immediate. One executive, close to Hacket, was
  inundated with lines from every direction. 'He's a hub, a
  gatekeeper, and a pulsetaker across all sorts of different
  dimensions,' Stephenson said. 'What that tells you is that he is
  very strategic. If there is no succession planning around that
  person, you have got a huge risk to the knowledge base of the
  company.' "(69)

Maps of social interaction are made. These maps are turned into plans.
These plans are manipulated to provide the desired and adjusted social
interaction, rectified and corrected to provide the least risk to the
company. The complete re-design of social interaction is justified by
the pathetic rhetoric of 'social support.' Social interaction is no
longer something which occurs exterior to design, unprotected or
unplanned. The inversion of the social is an act of absorption. The
'new' office is a mediated structure of power, a constructed space of
possibilities (probabilities) which, surveilled and mapped, promises
socially-engineered profit.

 "The point of the new offices is to compel us to behave and
  socialize in ways that we otherwise would not..."(69) 

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