You may already have all the equipment — the palmtop, the laptop, the mobile, all linked together in endlessly useful and reconcilable ways. You know you can live in global times and portable times and mobile times. You can even embrace these times — carelessly slinging out your desktops and anything that hints at bulk, or fixity and turning your office into a multi-functional space for combined work and pleasure.
And then… Then along comes a plane where the same film is shown three times on your personal screen without ever reaching the end due to reasons of turbulence, which not even a sophisticated in-flight entertainment programme can do anything about. (This is when you wish you’d bought a fat, robust old-fashioned book instead of that thin volume you finished over the Atlantic somewhere).
Then along comes America, which everybody knows is the place of technological plenty — and so ought to be the natural home of the work of the future. Unless you want a adaptor for a UK PC because you’ve left yours at home, that is. And you want it in a hurry.
At this point, globalisation invariably becomes more complicated. Because this is America, you can buy such adaptors at every street corner. The packaging on these adaptors discusses how to handle the “foreign electricity” that pertains outside America (I rather like this concept but it does say quite a lot about how Americans feel about globalisation), rather than how to handle the domestic version.
However, they’re supposed to work both ways around, as a number of immensely confident New York University graduates killing time in electronics stores all assured me. If you plug them (the adaptors not the graduates) into an American wall, however, they blow up the wall. As I know to my cost. It is true that the small print says a lot about shavers
The fact is, that the work of the future hasn’t arrived yet. Not even in America. Which is why (counter-intuitively I suppose) — you have to go to a museum to see what it will be like. Workspheres, an exhibition currently running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looks at designs for work. It includes past and existing products, chosen because they innovate in terms of design or function, or because they were markers in industrial design for office work. The Bic biro makes an appearance here. There are also some commissioned pieces exploring future possibilities for machines, office environments, and equipment for working on the move.
Some of the exhibits at Worksphere are more or less standard; desks that move and twist in new ways, intelligent desks, small, smaller, smallest laptops. Others are rather more “out there” — pods for nomadic workers to find rest and relaxation while moving around, what look like 1950s salon hairdryers to provide a more partial version of this R&R space and personal skies to project above your desk — wherever your desk happens to be.
Mobility is a theme of the exhibition. But there are other themes that emerge which are harder to read. If the projections here are anything to go by, it seems that the work of the future will be fuzzy — there’s lots of textiles, wraparound phones and rubberised keyboards. It will also be transparent.
The future, indeed, is transparent plastic folders and transparent plastic Christine Keeler shape chairs. This doesn’t look too different from the past. The future is also two 21in monitors embedded in a redesigned sleeping apparatus that comes with smart pillows containing keyboard, mouse and loudspeakers and is called Bed in Business.
The designers of the bed suggest it won’t make your work day longer — it will just make you more relaxed. A parallel exhibit, Weekend Dinner (screen embedded in table) “allows you to have a nice dinner and show your partner what you have done that day, thanks to technology”… Just what you always wanted, possibly, but did your partner?
Even while I’m scoffing however, I have to admit, pure techno-fetish lust is setting in. It’s not the transparency that does it and I certainly wouldn’t want to wear the Just Landed from Mars workstation coat and scarf outfit around town, but I do really want a tiny silver IBM workstation that responds to your every gesture.
What I need, however, is the unacknowledged star of the show — which says more about today than tomorrow. This is a small — but not that small — case about the size of a laptop jammed with every conceivable plug extension, socket extension, modem extension and adapator. Everything you actually need to take nomadic working seriously. It’s the Road Warrior.
And if I had that, I wouldn’t have blown up my American wall yesterday…
This was first published in March 2001