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Wednesday, May 11, 2011
By Paul Ford
My friend asked, “Could you sit in on a few conference calls?” I sat in on a few conference calls, one of them with a tired-sounding programmer in Australia.
Finally, at around 8PM, we had made good progress. He said, “Should I pay you?” And I said there was no reason; I was just in the neighborhood. And besides, that would have made it feel like work.
I realized afterwards that that I really like swinging by, seeing what people are up to. So I've been doing more of it. I leave a meeting and then think of who works nearby, and text them. “Near you,” I tap with my hamfingers, “would stop and say bloodclam.” Then I send a second text: “Autocorrect sorry meant stamp by helloth.” Eventually they tell me to come up or more likely just ignore me. It's much more fun than scheduling months in advance.
The structure of the City encourages exactly this sort of interaction, but culturally it feels weird to just drop in on folks. Maybe it feels like that because people are not my native medium—so in order to fake being good at people I have some rules. For instance, I try to have questions. I ask, How are your kids? Who are you suing? What are you up to with the iPad? I assume that everyone's time is worth more than my own, because they are in their office and what the hell am I doing. So far no one seems unhappy I stopped by, and I'm pretty good at telling when people are unhappy with me, because I am a very anxious person. Usually they just put me to work, like at the office in midtown, or show me a PowerPoint. People always have PowerPoints they would like to share. I also make sure to leave.
My swingby meetings are a conscious reaction to the rampant lunchism in our world. People go to lunch for many reasons, including eating, but often lunch is gratuitous (pause, head-tilt). Sometimes a restaurant is more convenient, but I've had many lunches meeting people in the shadows of the skyscrapers where they work. I travelled an hour mostly horizontally; they travelled three minutes mostly vertically. Why don't I just go upstairs and save them the trip? Why must we cram our interactions with the wider world into 75 minutes sometime between 12:30 and 2PM, which usually involves something drizzled over something else and then a light garnish, Diet Coke with the lemon wedge that makes it into a $3.50 Diet Coke, and expenditures of between $22 and $248, followed by an ape-dominance demonstration of who can pay? Unless you're actually hungry, but who is actually hungry?
Of course there is a whole industry—the restaurant industry—dedicated to preserving lunchism and promoting a lunchist agenda. If anything ever happened along my outline there will be ads in major newspapers about LUNCH: An American Institution as Important as Marriage but Totally for Gays Too and if he hasn't already David Carr will write a thoughtful, informed essay about how the web wasn't satisfied to destroy publishing but was now gunning for midday meals. But is lunch necessary? It's not really where the conversation is. The conversation is on and around devices and computers and up in the office. It's about the desk toys and the picture of the kids on the little hutch that they let you keep above your standing desk. Offices are almost always overstructured, outmoded, and annoying, but so are sonnets. Limits give us structure, structure lets us define goals and measure our success. And seeing how people push against the limits of the order around them tells you a lot about who they are, and about how the world is going. When I start at a new office I like to take a small copy of a famous picture of a sad baby monkey desperately hugging a “mother” monkey made of chicken wire, and I pushpin that through the cloth of the cubicle-skin into the cushiony sponge-flesh below. That is how I tell the world.
An office, even a good one, is always a place where human beings are daily reminded that their individuality and weirdness are to be suppressed in the interests of tribal uniformity. People get upset and adbustery about this, and well they should because it often sucks, but have you seen what happens when you let people do whatever they want with their time?
As regards offices everyone is always talking about, by which I mean sending links to pictures of, Google's offices. We are meant to be awed, I think: There, people bounce to meetings on giant beach balls; there, each engineer gets one day a week with a wet nurse. O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! I know it's supposed to be awesome but the pictures from Google always look like the set of Silver Spoons. Pony rubs! Nap cubes! Snack trams!
Digression: I hesitated to write even that silliness. Google is the giant sacred kraken of our worldwide, and some part of me has an internalized Google within. Also, they can access literally all of my data. I worry (1) that the wrathful kraken will remember; and (2) that I'll get well-meaning emails from Gootches and Gootch-chasers writing from their personal gmail dogfood accounts, gmails that read: “Paul, I know you're just joking but this is a really great place to work and our new Arduino boards will enable people to do things they have always truly wanted to do like measure the temperature on an airplane.” And I'll say, “what else can they do?” And they'll answer, “I really can't talk about it,” which is how most conversations go with the Gootch. Which makes sense, because conversation scales more efficiently when it travels in one direction. Lie back and think of Android.
Kidding! Just relax into your victory! Mine is the jesting of the slave who has accepted that someday I'll be sentenced to the yellowbadge camp where they grow the seaweed for your nori. So go now, change from your work cape into your casual cape and let's keep not talking about things. Of course I agree that an amazing developer ecosystem is going to lead to superior experience; that's why we all use Amigas.
Anyway! Normal, regular offices. I like swinging by. And life at the imperial court is fun, but like I said, people are not my native medium.