Building a better box

This may be the best cubicle I’ve ever had, or will have.

It’s in an L-shape, and each end would be long enough for me to lie down on if there were nothing else on it. Six drawers, and two large cabinets overhead. Best of all is the view. I am directly facing a pair of windows that look

out onto trees, traffic, an ever-rising skyscraper and, in the far distance, Toronto’s CN Tower. When we first moved in here, people came by and admired this spot. “”Thanks,”” I told them. “”You’re never getting it.””

You would think it hard to improve upon this luxury, but a small American company called Clear View Innovations has announced a product that represents the ongoing quest to perfect these office fragments. Its Interpreter Mirror was originally developed to help sign language interpreters see the subject behind or beside them and still be able to sign while facing forward, thereby reducing the strain of twisting back and forth. It has now mass-produced a smaller UltraView Mirror, designed for use by computer users who wish to “”multi-task”” by watching TV or viewing other displays while computing. It looks a little bit like the mirror on a car door. “”There’s no turning back!”” its slogan boasts.

This wouldn’t be for me, but I could easily see another use of it in the cubicles of IT support people, who sometimes find themselves tucked into dead ends in the back of an office where there is no escape from befuddled users. In our last office, the IT support person’s cubicle was fairly long, like a little hallway, so that you couldn’t tell if he was there unless you walked right into it. There was nothing around him except an unused group of cubicles that had once been a circulation department and some worn-out printers.

The juxtaposition of cubicles and junk may be what contributes to what sometimes becomes a culture of dislocation and isolation among the people who work in them. This is satirized regularly in the Dilbert comic strip, but why else would we see the emergence of The Cubicle Dweller’s Survival Page, which describes horror stories from what the page’s author calls a boxed-in world: “”I had a co-worker once that had some sort of cubicle phobia,”” he writes. “”She said that whenever she sat at her desk in her cubicle that she would get nervous, have stomach trouble, and start to pick at her chair.””

Even kids are getting a sense of what’s to come. I remember sitting on the subway a long time ago where, across from me, two young boys were rapping. They weren’t listening to CDs but appeared to be rehearsing their own rhymes. I remember one verse because it struck a chord: “”What kind of world do we LIVE in/When in these cubicles people are SIT-IN’/They sit in the box all DAY/They work for the minimum PAY.”” You’ll have to supply your own backbeat and scratchy record noise to get the full effect.

There was a point in the dot-com boom when cubicles were dressed up considerably with bean bag chairs and fooseball tables, but most enterprises are probably stuck with the standard two or three half-walls. What’s surprising is not the extent to which we are alienated by cubicle dwelling but the degree to which we adapt to it. Many of the people I work with would probably never need the UltraView Mirror, even if they face a wall. They can often hear someone approaching. Some of them can even distinguish gender: a man if there is change jingling in their pockets, or a woman if you hear the flip-flopping of the backless sandals they all seem to wear. One former colleague claimed he had developed a sort of sixth sense about it. “”I always know when someone’s there,”” he told me. “”I can’t explain it, but after a while it’s like you get eyes on the back of your head.””

I know what he means. No matter how cluttered or confined the space, we seem to have a unique way of communicating with others on some basic sensory level. In this, our office geography demonstrates a human ability to integrate and connect that — so far — surpasses anything our technology has ever achieved.

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Shane Schick
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