The Cube Farm on a Stud Farm
Lots has been written about modern organisations moving fast – including by us (see The Ux-ification of Research). The body-clock of many organisations runs at a clip but these corporate bodies are distant from the world too.
There is a spatial dimension to organisational success and failure that needs addressing.
I spent five years working at Intel Ireland on a former stud farm. My green and bucolic surroundings masked the fact that the site housed one of the world’s most sophisticated manufacturing plants – a large microprocessor factory.
Moving there from London took some adjustment, not least because I spent my days ‘trapped’ in a large industrial estate.
Chip making is not a city centre activity but I couldn’t help but feel like I was living my life behind a virtual and physical firewall. I was isolated from the urban swirl of ideas, interactions and people that I had grown accustomed to (and which have been shown to be so important to the development of ideas and economies*).
It always struck me that my place of work ran counter to the rationale of my job. I was hired to understand how technology does or might play out in people’s lives but spent most of my days sequestered in a grey cube farm. It would be hard to imagine somewhere more isolated – chromatically, spatially, intellectually – from the world I was meant to be understanding and interpreting.
In the original adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Veruca Salt questions one of Wonka’s inventions: “Snozzberries? Who ever heard of a Snozzberry?”. Wonka brushes her aside curtly and cryptically:
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams.
Wonka comes to mind when I visit Silicon Valley offices. They are places of marvel, invention, creativity and prodigious output. Smart people realise their founders’ and others’ dreams. These Imaginariums are setting the mood music for billions of lives. Many of the structures, textures and tempos of the modern age are created in these spaces.
The rise of the big platform companies brings staunch criticism. That’s not surprising. The critique takes many forms but is often a geographical or spatial one:
“Silicon Valley is a bubble disconnected from the ‘real’ world” – and one whose only real connection to ‘normal people’ is through the insulating umbilical chord that is the fleet of private buses that connect it to San Francisco. This city is pretty exceptional too.
Does it matter that these Imaginariums are out on a limb? How does this impact how they interact with and design for the world?
The instinctive response runs as follows: the smartness of all those people inside gets blunted by inhabiting these bubbles. If San Francisco is a bubble, the Valley is a bubble within that bubble. And so the Imaginariums are bubbles within bubbles within a bubble. The creators and the creations of these sites are unhinged from the world beyond.
Their spatial disconnection, this line of thinking contends, to cultural disconnection. Cultural disconnection leads to weird decisions and strategic misdirection – and the sense that they are in our world but not of it.
Imagined Communities and Imagined Customers
So far, so familiar – and there’s some truth in this received wisdom. But there’s another perspective we can take.
The way we think about culture, space and place has changed. The idea that culture inhabit places in some fixed way – for example, that India is the place where one goes to find Indian culture – came under attack in the 90s from the social sciences**. This assault gained momentum just as there was an uptick in the cultural and information flows that could really de-link place and culture. The internet globalised culture, made the world flat and, some even claimed, led to ‘the death of distance’.
If culture is no longer native to, or a product of, any particular place so, we could argue, neither are the cultural products of the Imaginariums.
Some Imaginariums may be isolated but they are hardly disconnected. They’re connected to other offices, labs, research teams and development sites around the world. People, ideas and inventions flow across these sites pretty fluidly.
The technologies these Imaginariums create de-territorialise their producers just as they do their users and culture more widely.
So while the idea of isolated offices churning out products onto an unsuspecting world is appealing perhaps it’s not the whole picture. If culture is not about one group of people, in one place, neither is the world of work.
And yet, as my own experiences in a cube farm suggested, I think a little less spatial separation from the world might be a good thing.
Shamans and intermediaries
Researchers have traditionally acted as shamans – transporting and managing the traffic between companies and the world. They are important cultural interlocutors.
This arrangement works up to a point though but there are two clear limits to that model.
First, researchers ‘injecting’ profiles, personas and profundities into a business only goes so far. Pumping disembodied knowledge in has never been enough, yet it has been the norm for decades. While reliance on intermediaries remains, so will the sense of distance between producers and users.
Second, the sense of a cultural chasm between the producers and the users of the key platforms of the 21st century feels like it might be an artefact of the spatial segregation of the Imaginarium from everyday life. There may be a correlation between this sense of distance and their actual segregation. But is it causal?
Do the technologies and agendas of these businesses feel unfathomable, inscrutable and unknowable because of their spatial separation from us? And if so how one might close this spatial and sensory gap?
Vulnerability, emotion and the art of decision making
The practice of turning a business ‘inside out’ – sending its people out into the world to experience and learn – is growing. It’s usually framed as an exercise in consumer closeness or intimacy – an exercise in nurturing emotional connection or empathy.
But the philosophy of phenomenologists, and the newer discipline of neuroscience, can also help explain why this might be a good idea.
Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus argued that being physically co-present with other people elicits an emotional response that is embodied. Physical interactions and engagements create emotional involvement and visceral responses. Putting yourself into environments and settings that are unfamiliar (and may even feel threatening) creates the conditions for emotional engagement.***
To learn we need something to be at stake. That’s difficult when we rely on second hand accounts, simulations or just the virtual.
We’ve been led to think that emotions are bad for decision making because they cloud our judgement and cause us to introduce bias. The idea of an emotion-free rational agent is at the heart of economic theory. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, and Baba Shiv of Stanford Graduate School have shown that the opposite can be true. “Emotion is essential for, and fundamental to, good decision making”.
There’s a large body of work that puts vulnerability and engagement at the heart of understanding. Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier are masterpieces of this genre. But more recent works like Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story or Fran Abrams Below the Breadline are great too. The list is a long one, and these are just personal favourites.
But these are the works of journalists. In business there’s less active and explicit willingness to making oneself vulnerable and it is not measured or incentivised. As Clayton Christensen suggests in his book “How Will You Measure Your life?” we often do what we do because we know it’s measured or will bring a return. How we allocate resources matters.
What would it look like if getting out of the office became integral to how the job gets done, not a distraction from it and if the role of research as an intermediary between world and business were disrupted.
Is it time for vulnerability to be better resourced?
Willy Wonka’s dismissive reply to Veruca came from Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s 1873 poem Ode. It finishes with what feels like a faint warning about the permanence of the magical power:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems
Might emotional vulnerability, not the security of segregation, lie at the heart of long term corporate success?
We think so.
/ Simon Roberts
** Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson. 1992. Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference, Cultural Anthropology Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 6-23
*** Hubert Dreyfus. 2009. On the Internet. Routledge.