Changing the way we see the world
BY Thomas Wagner | Oct 18, 2012

It was in the 1980s. The electronic revolution was still in its infancy. And suddenly a young company (it had chosen an apple with a bite out of it as its logo as its founders worked on an apple farm and mainly lived on fruit) placed full-page ads in German dailies and weeklies. In 1984 it had brought a compact business machine with an integrated monitor to market that was called a “MacIntosh”. In the TV commercial directed by no lesser a worthy than Ridley Scott for its world premiere, the snow-white box that responded to its user turning it on with a magical “Bling!” and the word “welcome” was presented as the ultimate counter-weapon to “Big Brother”. The ads were in black-and-white and purely typographical – this was long before the days of four-color printing on web-fed rotary presses. One of them stated: “So work where you want.” A good friend of mine, the sculptor Rolf Schneider drew on the ad with lipstick and filled the empty space with a dynamic shape – back then, during a stay in Paris a fire had left his studio completely covered in soot. Today we know: the revolution of work had begun.

“Seen from the point of view of media technology, the replacement of the classical book page by the screen is the most interesting occurrence since the invention of moving type.” Peter Sloterdijk, 2001

Much has happened since. Not only in the offices and on desk tops. In many cases, the forever ugly boxes still stand on or under the desks, along with a fixed screen. But soon it may all become a thing of the past. What took the stage as an ad slogan in the 1980s, with all the promise it made, has long since become a reality: We do in fact work wherever we want. At least wherever we are “online”. We have thus gained flexibility and freedom. But there’s no free lunch. The price we pay consists of being reachable anywhere and being able to work anywhere. But it’s a fact that electronic networks enable us to work in many places, whereby you might be forgiven thinking that your working space is now actually the inside of your head.

“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.” Marshall McLuhan, 1969

The development from industrial society into network economy and the shift of activities into the virtual domain seems unstoppable. You need be no prophet to predict that new interfaces and representation techniques (such as those using OLED technology) will in coming years not only fundamentally change the individual work station, but the interior and atmosphere of entire offices. This is being driven by both developments in technology and the changes values of a generation of “digital natives” for whom global mobility, social networks and a changed “work-life balance” come naturally. In office worlds that keep pace with progress fixed room hierarchies are already a thing of the past, as are personalized single cells; “workbenches” where you go online with your laptop, communications areas, quiet zones and concentration nests all form islands in a pleasantly designed open-plan setting. One could likewise express it as follows: Where work mainly relies on communication and there is ever less of a distinction between work and free time, across the board all those hybrid forms of organization win the day that aspire to foster precisely that. Although it remains to be seen whether “smart working”, “liquid feedback”, the truly infinite confidence in the power of teamwork and the corresponding office concepts do indeed generate a culture of trust and excellence.

Completely new typologies are, however, in short supply. To boil it down to a single common denominator this means that the contemporary office must first be big, second be hooked up to all the direct or electronically based communications channels, and thirdly if required provide a cocoon in which people concentrated work or intense discussions can be conducted by small groups. Which is to say: The existing “office system” is being refined and the established paradigm given greater differentiation. Which raises the question which Kermit the Frog asked in Sesame Street: “What’s next?”

“In this regard, the office will become a theoretical model of social and metropolitan organization.” Andrea Branzi, 1991

When, back in 1991, Vitra kicked off its “Citizen Office” project, for which Ettore Sottsass, Andrea Branzi and Michele De Lucchi all reflected on work and life in the office, Rolf Fehlbaum put it in a nutshell: “The prevailing style of office is a convention that has evolved from Taylorist notions, but seems hopelessly out of date as an expression of organization and disciplining in an electronically networked world. The temptation to launch a new unambiguous line to contrast with the old-style office is something the designers resisted. But one thing was clear: real life does not start outside the four walls of the office, meaning that it must be possible for life to express itself in the office.”

Almost all of what was considered back then has since been realized, albeit by no means installed everywhere. And today? What’s the current convention? Have other control mechanisms taken the place of disciplining orders? Or have we in fact evolved into mature “office citizens”? Will the flexible office become even more so in a few years’ time? If yes, then owing to what? Back then Fehlbaum rightly stated that “we (the manufacturers and users) usually truly forget that each product design is also a projected view of the world.”

“So let's not use a stylus. We're going to use the best pointing device in the world... We're going to use our fingers… And we have invented a new technology called multi-touch, which is phenomenal. It works like magic.” Steve Jobs, 2007

So what does the proposed future world view look like? It seems pretty certain that our future image of the world will be more strongly shaped by issues relating to the environment, energy and communications. But is it in line with what we are now seeing being realized? Or is what is convention today already soon to be replaced by another project or design? One thing is for sure: We have grown accustomed to information (be it texts, image or sounds) being available everywhere and at all times – at least selectively. We don’t need to move to get them, as they are on permanent standby and can be downloaded anywhere. This conveys a vague notion of a society of mobile networked communication based on a notion of dynamic storage, i.e., the idea of an archive. This shifts the interface where humans and archive interconnect further into the center of things. “Design”, Peter Sloterdijk noted back in 2010, “will invariably come into play wherever the black box has to offer the user a side for contact and for all its intrinsic hermeticism to make itself useful for him: Design creates an open-minded outer appearance for these dark enigmatic boxes.”

The expectation is that in coming years an ever greater number of people will use Smartphones and increasingly mobile networks. What impact will this have on the structure and shape of the world of work? Will there soon no longer be any fixed workstations as such? Will data simply be jointly accessed from a “cloud” and presented on large-format wall screens made up of OLEDs? What does this spell for design, and what does it imply for the social structure of offices if information can be comprehensively processed and represented – and there can be intercontinental conferences in real time using superfast data networks? Reason enough to look forward with bated breath to what views of the world will be propagated at the Orgatec.