Category Archives: economics

Tron: The Future is Then, or the continuing legacy of the appropriated Action Office

In the summer of 1982 I was living in a small log cabin along the banks of the Kenai River, a few miles upriver from Soldatna, AK. I was working in fish canneries and my father was trying to start a new business. My father was also a pilot and we would often fly across the inlet from Soldatna to Anchorage on the weekends to eat fast food and catch a movie. One of those weekends we saw Tron.

I loved Tron. I thought it a somewhat strange, but fascinating film. The early CGI graphics were very cool. But much of the underlying content of computers and computing was foreign to me. I had used computers a little (Commodore Pet computers in 9th grade for some BASIC programming which I didn’t really understand). I knew nothing of the Silicon Valley and its burgeoning culture. I knew nothing of RAM, or CPUs, or IBM. And don’t forget, the first Macintosh computer did not arrive until 1984, the very mediocre Windows OS 2.0 arrived in 1987, and the Internet did not go “public” until the 1990s, and wasn’t commonplace until 1996 (commonplace being a relative term).

To my surprise I began working at a software company in 2000. That was the first time I got a job with an international corporation and worked in an environment that made the comic strip Dilbert seem more like a documentary than fictional comedy. I did customer service, tech support, and sales. I am still with the company and currently work on backend data issues. Recently I saw Tron again and was intrigued with its visual depiction of a work environment in a large computer company in the early eighties.

Tron is famous for its highly imaginative vision of the virtual world inside computers. The idea seems to contrast with the reality of the homogenized office world seen in this image:

The sea of cubicles, likely enhanced by some fancy matte painting, speaks volumes about modern corporate life. Even in the modern world of computer programming it comes down to controlling costs and harnessing the labor of others. These cubicles represent a darker turn from the original concept of the Action Office. The idea of the Action Office is to create an environment where creative people can interact with each other more freely. What we ended up with was the cubicle. Today it is much the same. However, there is a trend to do away with the cubicle and just give workers a place to set their laptops; no walls, no personal space, just completely open. Not surprisingly it is called the Open Office concept.

One other thing caught my eye. In the cube in the image below we see the sign on the left that says, “GORT, KLAATU BARADA NIKTO.”

Some things never change. You will find similar signs where I work today. What I have noticed, though, is that the blue hue of the cubes (many cubes then were also orange, green, etc.) have given way to taupe and beige and gray in order to create a more pleasant atmosphere. What is also interesting is how fashions have come full circle. In the nineties the style was baggy shorts, flip flops, and other goofy attire. Now the trend is back toward business casual.

Back to office design. In the 1950s Quickborner, a German design group, tried to improve the typical large office space with something they called Bürolandschaft, or “office landscape”.

Osram Offices, Munich, Walter Henn, 1963: Bürolandschaft layout

Then in the 1960’s the American design company, Herman Miller, invented the Action Office concept and furniture. This concept was to get away from the Open Office concept on the one hand, and the individual closed-off office on the other. The goal was to create an environment that was more private that a completely open design, but was also more human and flexible to the needs of workers.

Early use of Herman miller’s Action Office, late 1960s

Companies, however, began to cherry-pick the various components of the Action Office suite (from Herman Miller and other purveyors) based on the desires of the finance office and share holders. We ended up with large cube farms that were more like something from a science fiction film about a dystopian future. Of course, it did not take long for the idea to be parodied.

M. Hulot gazes across a modern office in Jacques Tati’s Playtime, 1967

The theatrical release of Tron lies about halfway between the advent of the modern office and our present day. So much has changed—the Internet, mobile phones, iTunes, more than one economic recession—and yet so much remains the same. The fundamental concepts of so much business, its methods, its modus operandi, and its questionable ethics, are all still with us, and so is the cube.


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>Dark Clouds: Looking Back at Security Preparations for the G20


States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions.

~ Noam Chomsky
Wars, foreign policies, economic meltdowns, immigration laws, state of the union addresses, military budgets, pomp, closed door meetings, state secrets, police forces, fear, all point to what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of the World. It is a world of “power over” others, as Greg Boyd describes in his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation. Power clings to power, wealth builds protection around itself, and for good reason. Those without power, without wealth, sometimes what to tear down, or at minimum call into question, power and wealth. And for good reason as well. Power over others inevitably leads to cruelty and death, to loss of fundamental rights and freedoms, and to official lies and false promises.
“Power over” also produces tactics of self-protection, including violence and overwhelming force.
A lot of people claim to like or even love Jesus. I would guess that many, maybe most, of those people also cling to and justify kingdom of the world ideologies. We have a tendency to seek security and comfort. We we often give up many freedoms as long as we are promised personal peace and prosperity. We like the example of Jesus, but all too often fall into the trap of believing in the safety of “power over” social structures. Sometimes, however, people rise up to challenge “power over” assumptions.
The first three videos below, from Press for Truth, were made in the weeks prior to the recent G20 Summit that took place in Toronto. The fourth video documents some actions at the summit, including members of the Black Bloc causing property damage, and large numbers of police harassing protesters in the official protest zone. The fourth video also asks the question of whether disguised police infiltrated the Black Bloc and helped to lead some of the riots in order to justify other police actions and an enormous security budget. The news reported that the protest riots got out of hand at the summit. Hundreds of people were arrested.
I find these reports fascinating.
Clearly, the use of violence is exactly not in the tradition of Jesus. In fact, the Black Bloc is committed to a “power over” position as much as the bankers of the WTO or the IMF, or the police forces they so love to hate. Their use of violence, regardless of anything else they might say, gives them away. But the others, those that seek a new paradigm through peaceful protest (that is designed to publicly call into question the prevailing ideologies), are living, at least in part, within the tradition of Jesus – even if they would never call themselves Christian or darken the door of a church.

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>John Zerzan: On Modernity & the Technosphere*

>John Zerzan lives in Eugene, Oregon. He is an author, speaker, and the host of AnarchyRadio. I have only recent discovered Zerzan, but I like a lot of where he is coming from.

Here is a lecture from Binghamton University on April 2, 2008.

* Grabbed from Essential Dissent. Discovered by way of Jesus Radicals.

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>The World According to Monsanto

>I know you may have already seen this video, but if not, it is worth taking the time.

Part One

Part Two

Part three
Part four
Part five
Part six
Part seven
Part eight
Part nine
Part ten

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>Greenpeace, smokestacks, and my children

>I am reading the book Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists, and Visionaries Changed the World by Rex Weyler, and thoroughly enjoying it. I have to say the more I learn about Greenpeace the more I like them. And like so many other things in my life, I think I know something until I start reading about it, then I realize what I assumed turns out to be different from the truth, or at least a skewed facsimile.

Also, I recently came across this video of a Greenpeace direct action campaign in England. I would encourage anyone to take the time to view it.

Not only do I like their spirit, but there is something fundamentally human about what they did. As a parent I look to the future for my children and I wonder what kind of world will they live in, and will that world be one where greed, power, and selfishness prevail, or will it be a world where the basic needs of human life take precedence over corporate profits? It’s easy to get sappy, and I can’t say I’m an expert on either global warming or pollution, but I have to say one thing my MBA taught me is that you cannot trust any publicly traded corporation to willingly diminish it potential profits for the sake of my wellbeing, your wellbeing, or the wellbeing of my children and yours.

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>the footprint we work


Several years ago I read a great little book on personal finance called Your Money or Your Life. In that book I was captivated by the idea that money represents one’s “life energy.” The idea is that much of the time we work for counterproductive reasons – we falsely trade our life energy for something that feels like life but is something much less. By working more (giving up more and more of our life energy) we end up wasting more trying to maintenance our busy lives. We eat more fast food, pay for dry cleaners, pay for child care, lack time to cut out coupons or shop frugally, drive more rather than bike or take public transportation, and generally have less time for our families. Our modern lives are increasingly lives of diminishing returns.

Recently I came across a somewhat related quote in Bill McKibben’s book Deep Economy. It is as follows:

The more hours you work, the bigger your ecological footprint too. That’s because you’re spending more money and spending it carelessly: with no time to go to the farmers’ market, let alone to cook what you buy there, you drive through the drive-through instead. The numbers are substantial: an American working twenty to forty hours a week requires about twenty-three acres of the earth to support him; someone working more than forty hours requires nearly twenty-eight acres.(1)

I have not been someone to get on the environmentalist bandwagon as much as I probably should, though I have been at the fringes for years. However, if what McKibben says is true I feel I have to take note. If my goal is to love my neighbor as myself then I need to ask how requiring my person acreage, as it were, to be more than the American average, or even more than the global average, is helping me to love my neighbor. One of the great ironies is that the U.S., a country that has claimed Christian roots, praises itself for being such a great help and example to the world while it far outstrips the world in consumption of just about everything. In other words, we puff ourselves with pride for how much we love our neighbors yet we live as though what belongs to others is more rightfully ours. That’s not the way I want to live.

1. McKibben, Bill. Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, pp. 114-115.

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>How do you calculate the cost of a war?

>The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are expensive. In terms of human life the cost is incalculable. In other words, when it comes to calculating costs based on the sacredness of human life, we cannot truly make that calculation. But what about the dollars?

If anything has hidden costs it is war.

What really are dollars and where do they come from? Is not a dollar an abstract representation of life energy? We work, we spend our time (time away from family and friends and things we would rather be doing), we sacrifice, we use our creativity, we keep our promises, and we suffer for a dollar. We obtain a dollar as an exchange for our life energy. So when we think about a 3 trillion dollar war we are actually thinking about 3 trillion units of life energy. Who’s life energy? Yours, mine, the kid’s – though they don’t know it yet.

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