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) —– End forwarded message —– # distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission # <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism, # collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets # more info: and “info nettime-l” in the msg body # archive: contact: