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Today’s Office Of Tomorrow
Anne Corwin   Jan 24, 2007   Existence is Wonderful  

Recently, I overheard a co-worker talking about the days back when cubicles had typewriters in them rather than computers.  Relatively speaking, this was not all that long ago.  I’ve been working at the same place for about five years, and during that relatively short span of time, I’ve seen changes in the infrastructure of a sort that is probably just as dramatic as the conversion from typewriters to computers.  We are by no means a paperless office, but these days, paper is being used only when someone wants to quickly jot an idea down or make annotations.

Every so often, I find relics from the days when schematics and other design documents were all drawn painstakingly by hand—a stencil here, a drafting pencil there—and even the occasional, actual, hand-drawn diagram.  They are really a sight to behold, to the point where I’ve occasionally wondered whether I might be allowed to take one home and frame it.  Yesterday’s dry, technical documentation has become today’s quirky art—not just because its tidy pencilled lines reveal the subtle but unmistakable individual flourishes of the engineer that created it, but because it depicts hardware that is almost certainly obsolete. 

Now, electronic schematic capture programs are standard-issue at most companies.  Far from being simple (but undeniably impressive) symbolic drawings, modern schematic software generally represents an entire database, with every part and connecting wire having a complex set of properties associated with it.  Some programs even allow hierarchical blocks, that allow the user to click on a part and access at the sub-components within.

Schematic software is a good example of how some forms of accelerating change are emerging, because on the surface, a schematic drawn using a computer program doesn’t look all that different from a hand-drawn version, aside from lacking the requisite smudge and erasure marks.  The average person looking at a schematic will see a bunch of shapes and lines, regardless of the means by which the schematic was created. 

However, when the modern engineer sits down in front of a screen to work on her schematic, she cannot simply think of making something that symbolically represents the design in her mind.  Rather, she must consider how to make the schematic so that it represents the physical reality of the circuit it depicts as closely as possible.  The database associated with a modern schematic can be used to output a parts list, run a simulation based on individual device parameters, send information to a layout program, and a host of other activities that all used to be very distinct. 

A related up-and-coming area of technological advance is in the realm of automatic routing software—I used to be very distrustful of these programs, since they didn’t seem to be very capable of laying traces in a manner that truly respected the intent of good design practice, but it is now getting more and more difficult to tell whether a board was routed by a human or an auto-router (at least according to a recent demonstration I saw).  This is one area I can definitely see making use of practical artificial intelligence—something that not only applies design rules entered by a human operator, but understands them in a more general sense. 

Of course, in conjunction with observation of the obvious technological evolution in the modern office, it is intriguing to look at the concurrent social and cultural evolution.  One thing that stands out to me, on the basis of my having grown up using computers of various kinds (my father brought home an IBM PCjr when I was five years old), is the fact that—provided one has sufficient RAM—there’s very little of the “get a coffee while something loads” phenomenon anymore. 

Unless I’m imagining things, the pace of office life is accelerating to some extent, just as surely as the technology we are using enables it.  I remember, as a young teenager, thinking nothing of having to sit through five minutes of scrolling text while my favorite video game decompressed (my father used to have most of the programs compressed by default because storage was not cheap back then).  Now, I get antsy if a program I’m opening takes more than five seconds or so, and if thirty seconds go by, it’s almost a sure bet that something is amiss. 

E-mail and instant messages zip not only across the office, but across state and even national lines, so that every worker has, potentially, a kind of “distributed avatar” of their employee self.  Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, the notion of a distributed avatar of an employee will become more literal and less of an analogy; imagine being able to script a software incarnation of your most likely responses to certain sorts of inquiries from colleagues—certainly, this will be clunky at first, but it could very well end up improving at a similar rate to the aforementioned auto-routing programs.  You could be home asleep, or (to the likely delight of your boss) working on a more complex project while a simplified but at least semi-reliable incarnation of your thought processes deals with the more routine aspects of your work. 

In short, the engineering environment of the future seems as if it has quite a bit of potential to develop into something that will not only produce products faster, but innovate more, since employees will be able to share some of their own native functionality with the prosthetic, enabling, and creative technology that surrounds them.  Regardless of what the near-term limits of accelerating change might be, modern companies are now being pulled along by it, and are realizing that in order to stay effective and competitive, they must remain current and cogent in their knowledge of what is going on in the world of technology and culture.  At this point I can’t even imagine what new “going to work” archetypes are going to exist ten years from now, but something tells me they’re going to be quite interesting!

Anne Corwin
Anne Corwin was an IEET intern 2006-2007, and is an engineer and technoprogressive activist in California. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Humanity Plus, and is active in the longevity movement through the Methuselah Foundation and in the neurodiversity movement addressing issues along the autism spectrum. Ms. Corwin writes the blog Existence is Wonderful and produces a related podcast.

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