#11: What "The Office" tells us about missing the office
+ Why Congress should wear masks like online avatars
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In an email on Tuesday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that even after the coronavirus outbreak the company’s employees can continue working remotely “forever” if they so choose. The pandemic has accelerated a change that’s been inching along for more than a decade; in 2017, telecommuting surpassed public transportation nationally as the way Americans “traveled” to work. According to Brookings, about one-third of Americans workers telecommuted on occasion before coronavirus, but now almost half of the workforce is working from home.
While workers hunker down in the living room, the consequences are reverberating in urban real estate as companies offload their downtown overhead. If working from home becomes the norm, the New York Times says Manhattan could face a reckoning. But if you want an online demonstration of what we’ll lose when the office is no more, look to the internet collective MSCHF’s Slack recreation of The Office.
Wired wrote that the underwhelming quality of seeing the NBC show’s characters posting the script line-by-line in real time on the work chat app reminds people what they miss when they’re phoning it in from the couch. Spend just a few minutes watching Michael Scott and Dwight Shrute delivering deadpan in the chat room and you’ll notice that without an office there’s none of the human tension inherent to improvised comedy that lets awkward moments sit in the air. There’s a quality to the proverbial water cooler, the lunch room, and the company happy hour that Slack, Zoom, and Animal Crossing have not yet been able to replicate. This online iteration of the Office shows what we already know the internet lacks from real life: Shared physical space encourages spontaneity and produces feedback.
That’s what urbanist William Whyte observed when he watched lunchtime behavior in Manhattan’s midtown office plazas for his Street Life Project in the 1970s and 1980s (See: NL #1). But Whyte’s earlier work is relevant here too, as he was concerned about with the problems of “groupthink” in corporate culture and expanded his thinking to the workplace and the suburbs.
In The Organization Man (1956), Whyte documented a belief he calls the Social Ethic, which led large companies and bureaucracies to make poorer decisions. He contends with a mythology he saw driving decisions at companies like IBM, GM, and Ford, where “man exists as a unit of society” and that “The Organization” makes people collectively more productive. Whyte argues against a culture of corporate conformity, finding that better ideas can emerge from disagreement and the individual. Whyte writes:
Must consensus per se be the overriding goal? It is the price of progress that there never can be complete consensus. All creative advances are essentially a departure from agreed-upon ways of looking at things, and to overemphasize the agreed-upon is to further legitimatize the hostility to that creativity upon which we all ultimately depend.
Whyte is not quite calling for the “disruption” of today’s parlance, as he argues against nonconformity for its own sake, but Whyte is making a case against the desire for smooth systems, against seamless designs and flawless processes, for a reason that observers of cities have known: Friction breeds creativity. It’s the human interaction in a city that allows individuals to communicate well enough to share new points of view, build new businesses, or even steal great ideas.
Urban thinkers have long observed what’s called urban agglomeration, where the density of firms in the same field creates the exchange of ideas, competition, and economies of scale. It also can create spillover creativity into other businesses, driving the so-called “creative class” theory that’s turned cities into power engines in the knowledge economy. The tech boom has further concentrated growth into fewer companies and fewer cities. Even with the internet, we've failed to spread jobs to more places—as AOL cofounder Steve Case’s argues for funding startups outside tech hubs to bring about a “rise of the rest,”—and more people—as the latest news on Google’s rollback of its diversity and inclusion programs demonstrates. The barriers to entry go beyond logging on.
The mapping software that’s powering all the coronavirus dashboards - Bloomberg
Andrew Cuomo’s “screen new deal” is a high-tech dystopia - The Intercept
Big tech has crushed the news business. That’s about to change. - New York Times
Facebook will pay $52 million in settlement with moderators who developed PTSD on the job - The Verge
Inside the Instagram hip hop and R&B “battles” that are now must-watch quarantine viewing - Washington Post
How designers can build experiences that reduce anxiety and stress - OneZero
How “Plandemic” lured normies down the far-right rabbit hole - The Daily Beast
The daily call that 200 arts groups hope will help them survive - New York Times
(Photo credit: Charles Deluvio/Unsplash)
A lot of the time, the narrator is restlessly wandering the internet, writing emails, googling herself, and avoiding news to stave off “ambient political depression.” She conducts her life digitally, as many nonessential workers have had to do lately, physically alone but virtually communicating across a wide network. This is a newly mainstream kind of consciousness (the Very Online), the texture of which is rarely evoked so well in writing—the simultaneous overflow and undernourishment of information, the way in which just surfing can be fulfilling as a form of at-home flânerie.
—Kyle Chayka, “The Art of Staying Home,” New Republic
Face mask the truth
In the spirit of civil disagreement, here’s a modest proposal: Instead of turning the question of whether to wear a mask or not into a culture war, let’s fight it out on the masks themselves.
As a Senate committee met on Wednesday for a hearing about how to go about reopening the country, the Washington Post’s fashion critic Robin Givhan writes that during that “contentious debate… masks are part of that give-and-take.” While some opted for plain medical masks, Democrat Tim Kaine donned a tie-dye cowboy bandana while Republican Tim Scott wore an eagle-clad stripes and stars mask.
The symbolic power of these masks owes a little something to a long-running feature of the internet: Avatars. Back in 2016, Amanda Hess described the power of the icons used to represent and reinvent ourselves in digital space. She wrote in New York Times:
The word “avatar” originates in Hinduism, where it refers to a god descending to the earth in mortal form. In Hindu theology, Vishnu assumes various earthbound avatars — among them a fish; a tortoise; a half-man, half-lion — in an effort to restore order at times when humanity has descended into chaos. Now we’re the gods, reinventing ourselves online in the hope of bringing order to a realm we can’t quite keep under our control.
Our avatars represent a self-image that’s fractured across dozens of sites and text bubbles and email chains. We present ourselves differently on Twitter and Tumblr and Slack depending on the norms built into each space.
Much of the anonymity of the internet was once enabled by the avatars we chose to use. It also has become a form of information shorthand. In 2017, Twitter dropped the unhatched egg after it became an unintended avatar of harassment on the platform. There’s more than facelift needed to root out bad actors on social media, but it is worth considering how these informal signifiers help us discern bias. Everybody knows what a red rose emoji or a surplus of American flags in your display name means on Twitter, and then you can consider the source. It’s not unlike how people could take the blatantly partisan newspapers in America’s past with a grain of salt, compared to the now blurry divide between news and editorial in most news organizations.
At least this new canvas for the culture war accurately reflects the polarized and amplified state of our current politics. It’s hard for me not to see the parallels to the swaths of red trucker hats and pink knitted caps crossing paths in Washington back in January 2017. To have that spill into the realm of otherwise suit-clad elected officials makes the meaning behind our dividing lines a little sharper and reminds all of us that none of this is normal.
Mask on, mask off,
Civic Signals is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America. Share this newsletter with your friends!