World view: When we are what we do

April 6, 2001

Is the shrinking gap between work and play creating psychologically weaker workers? asks Dorothy Zinberg.

When a frigid wind blew me into the atrium of New York's Museum of Modern Art, the first thing I noticed was that there were two long lines of people waiting to get past the ticket booth. Contrary to the usually more subdued visitors, dozens of young people predominated.

It was not the Picassos or even the dazzling collection of contemporary artists such as Jasper Johns or Frank Stella that had lured youth to Moma. It was Workspheres, an international show commissioned by the museum's department of architecture and design to explore the changing nature of the workplace and to create workable solutions that will make it possible to adapt to the changes. The exhibition runs until April 22.

If the designers have caught the Zeitgeist , then we are fast becoming what our computers, laptops, PalmPilots, cell phones and other gadgets determine. Remember Charlie Chaplin, whose hands never lost the motions induced by hours of repetitive actions on the assembly line even after he had left the factory? Many workers today do not appear to be much different, only the equipment differs as the numbers of those who are totally wired soars.

As Workspheres aesthetically revealed, we adapt our bodies, and consequently our psyches, to the machines, not vice versa. Any distinction between what we do and what we are is rapidly disappearing as more and more of the population becomes a walking, sitting or sleeping office.

The designers have envisaged the future for information workers, focusing particularly on nomadic workers who conduct business in many different places including cars, hotel rooms, business-class seats on airplanes and trains, and strangers' offices.

The designers have created home environments for those who bridge both worlds - the teleworkers. Estimates vary, but there are about 1.6 million teleworkers in the United Kingdom, growing at a rate of 20 per cent a year, almost 20 million in the United States, and about 6 million in western Europe.

For many, the change is welcome, particularly for those who are self-starters, enjoy isolation, or have responsibilities at home. But for others, who find themselves out of the loop for promotions, salary increases, collegial friends or company loyalty, the work can be stultifying and underpaid. Remember the piece workers - immigrants who sewed at home for a pittance without any protection or benefits?

Ironically, the exhibit that caught the imagination of many people was called an Inspiro-Tainer. Based on the assumption that non-traditional spaces are increasingly being turned into offices with dual purpose for home and work, designers Giuseppe Lignano and Ada Tolla converted a metallic industrial airplane cargo container into a dual-use, self-contained environment that "blurs the boundaries between work and play, isolation and communication, and meditation and entertainment".

The Inspiro-Tainer chamber is a one-person, totally wired, enclosed environment. However, if the inhabitant craves company, the container can be wheeled over to another pod and part of the hatch raised to signal the wish for contact.

For those working primarily at home - or maybe one should say for those who are bringing their homes into their offices - Dutch designer Hella Jongerius created a work-in bed for two, a welcome nod to togetherness. The bed is made up of exposed mattress coils. It boasts two IBM computers embedded at its foot, while throw pillows double as speakers and the mouse. The dinner table abutting the bed contains two monitors set flush with the surface next to the dinner knives. I am not certain how matching monitors can enhance dinner-table conversation, but maybe in the world of the totally wired, cyberconnecting is as close to intimacy as people aspire.

Yes, we have seen much of this before, as technology shapes the way the body and the spirit function. Ever since the beginning of the industrial revolution, when the nature of work began to shift, changes have followed rapidly. Traditionally, work was divided so that the man worked outside the home while the woman kept house and nurtured children. Work was defined as paid employment. But, early in the wake of the industrial revolution, it became clear that work was central to one's place in society and one's sense of self. Whether it was that which Freud claimed provides a sense of reality, whether it is simply an economic function as Marx avowed, or even if it is the way to be part of a community, it remains the integrator of one's inner and outer selves.

Consequently, the powerful significance of work has to be explored along with the newest technology-driven designs to assure that the seeming aridity of the new objects - along with the disappearing boundaries between work and home - do not produce a generation of psychologically diminished workers or a barren culture.

Computer engineer Ellen Ullman, speaking recently on the radio programme Talk of the Nation, punctured the euphoria of other information technology experts by stating: "We have reproduced ourselves: all of us are now like programmers."

I doubt that this is the standard of culture for which nations should strive. This in no way mitigates the breathtaking creativity computers have abetted. Rather, it is an attempt to keep in perspective the deeper needs of individuals and society and to design technology to enhance that which satisfies these needs.

Dorothy S. Zinberg lectures at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.


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