Notes from Cyburbia: Observations from a Suburban Office Park

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I wanted to buy a food processor as a birthday gift for a friend recently. To buy one, I had to venture out to the vast territory of suburban shopping plazas.
Kim Nicolini

Issue #29, November 1996


In aquariums it takes several months for the various bacteria to develop a food web and to establish themselves in the gravel of the start-up tank. As more species of life are slowly added to the embryonic aquarium, the water becomes extremely sensitive to vicious cycles. If one ingredient drifts out of line (say, the amount of ammonia), it can kill off a few organisms, which decompose to release even more ammonia, killing more creatures, thus rapidly triggering the crash of the whole community.
— Kevin Kelly, Out of Control

Shop 'Til You Drop

I wanted to buy a food processor as a birthday gift for a friend recently. To buy one, I had to venture out to the vast territory of suburban shopping plazas. To find the one I needed, I eventually had to go to three different chain stores. I couldn't find it in the first store — Target — because Target stopped selling name brands and now only sells the special made-in-China "Target" brand. Why not increase profits by making cheap stuff even cheaper? From Target, I went to a giant everything-for-the home-store (Home Express, Home Depot or Home Something). It was a vast warehouse bigger than an entire city block. Young, uniformed, non-union employees walked the aisles with walkie-talkies, while overhead pages, buzzes, and ominous dinging sounds punctuated the air. I felt like I was in the middle of a huge military complex and was overwhelmed with the urge to flee. "Home Something" didn't have what I needed either, but I was glad for the opportunity to get out of that place as fast as I could.

My final stop was Service Merchandise (which should be called Consumer Bureaucracy Headquarters) where I had to jump through an amazingly complex and ridiculous system of hoops to buy one item. I had to look up the item I wanted to buy in a catalog, fill out a standardized Order Form, pay for the item at the cashier, then wait at a Merchandise Pick-Up counter for my item to roll out on a conveyor belt. This entire experience was utterly horrifying for me. I kept exclaiming, "Why is it like this? How can things be this bad? Why can't I just go to a small neighborhood store, pick out the thing I want and pay for it? Why do I have to be ensnared in this giant labyrinth of consumerism and surveillance, in which I am asked for my name, my zip code, my phone number and/or loads of other personal data if I want to buy something?"

My friend who was with me kept telling me that it wasn't that bad. He didn't understand why I was freaking out; then again, he doesn't spend a minimum of 40 hours per week in a suburban office building. I do. The majority of my waking hours Monday through Friday are spent in an environmentally controlled building in Concord, California. In what little free time I do have away from that building, I want to breathe fresh air, I want to see the sun or the clouds, I want to be as far away from surveillance cameras and overhead paging systems and artificial air as possible. So when I found myself negotiating my way through the labyrinth of the suburban shopping plaza, I was overwhelmed by anxiety and dismay. I felt like the powers that work so insidiously to deprive human beings of their ability to be human, living biological beings, were rapidly taking over all aspects of my life. Maybe I was being paranoid, but I don't think so.

A Day in the Park

Why they call building complexes like the one I work in "office parks" is beyond my comprehension. Parks are where you can go to experience "nature." Parks are where you get away from the pressures of work and the unhealthy effects of bad air and a polluted environment. Maybe if they call these buildings office "parks," the buildings will seem more desirable to work in; workers will be happy to be there. How nice it is to go to an office "park" to work. This attractive concept of the office park environment actually had me fooled for about two weeks when I first started working in Concord five years ago. Then I started to notice the truth hiding beneath the glamorous surfaces of my office park building.

Many Sci-Fi narratives of the past and present tend to portray closed, artificial work environments as an ideal work space. They emphasize the positive and attractive aspects of a closed work environment, painting an attractive scenario in which high technology allows for a friendly environment where convenience, efficiency, and congeniality reign. The Star Trek series, for example, portrays a completely enclosed work space in which everyone works together to fulfill a mission that all believe in. Yes, there are problems on Star Trek, but they almost always come from outside of the closed workplace of the Enterprise. We rarely see labor disputes, negotiations of benefits, problems with childcare, OSHA issues, or the ramifications of living and working in a completely artificial environment ruled by high security and surveillance systems. The Star Trek work environment is very healthy and treats its employees well. Threats come from the outside, not the inside. Cyberpunk, on the other hand, tends to investigate the underside of this sort of Sci-Fi technotopia. Cyberpunk strips away the illusion of convenience and luxury painted in technotopian visions and shows the damage that can be done when people live, work, and breathe technology and machinery, with little or no means of meeting their basic biological needs. Cyberpunk is not sci-fi. Cyberpunk presents a dramatic picture of the reality that many people in the work force, including myself, live and experience today.

When I first started working in the suburban office building that I now spend 40 to 50 hours per week in, I was completely seduced by its shiny cutting-edge appearance, by the illusion of space and convenience and high-tech glamour. I entered the building, and it was like I was entering a TV show or a book or a movie. I was not in the real world. I lost all sense of physical orientation and connection with the outside world as I tried to map my way through the building's non-linear system of cubicles and offices and conference rooms and vending machines. Coming from a very low-budget social service job where I actually typed letters and documents on a typewriter, I was blown away by the plethora of technology that surrounded me in my new environment: multitudes of computer terminals, fax machines, e-mail, pagers, and cell phones. And what a posh building full of colorful art and rich carpets and upholstered furniture. I felt so privileged working in a space which you had to access with a security code and an ID card. Wow! I was part of the future.

Then I started working my everyday job. I sat in my cubicle and made phone calls, sent faxes, and typed documents on the computer. After about two weeks, I began having incredible anxiety attacks. I felt completely disconnected from the outside world. I missed the kids that would come to my office and visit me at my old job. I missed opening my window and getting fresh air. I missed two of my most basic human needs — socialization and access to natural resources. The glitter was falling off of my suburban office building. What initially felt like an exciting entrance into a new frontier was rapidly feeling like a stay in prison where the only frontiers were the break room with its vending machines and bad coffee or the bathroom at the end of the hall (which I began using a lot simply to feel like I was moving and still alive).

Each day, I felt that my communications with people were becoming more and more fragmented. Sure, technology allows us to reach a lot of people, to telecommute, and to do everything from one office. But it also robs us of a sense of community and human connection. At my job, my communications with people are almost entirely through tools that are themselves 'products,' through informational hard and software (e-mail, faxes, phones, etc.). For the most part, the people I work with don't have faces; I rarely have the opportunity to meet or talk with them one-on-one, face to face. Technology may provide the workplace with the bare functions to get the job done as efficiently as possible, but it does not provide the worker with the necessities to be a mentally and physically healthy person.

Not only that, this environment breeds paranoia. Because most communications take place through technological sources at the high-tech workplace, people rarely have the opportunity to have a "sincere" or uninhibited conversation, further stultifying workers' ability to engage in healthy social interaction. Technology, of course, comes with a special built-in feature: security. All technological discourse can be and frequently is monitored. If you talk on the phone, the call could be overheard or recorded. When you send e-mail, your messages are stored in a master database. Faxed information can be stored and reviewed. In the electronic high-tech workplace, surveillance is a constant way of life. In the information factory, no one is beyond suspicion.

New Age Alienation

I learned rapidly that the suburban office building is an environment created for products and profits, not for people. The mission behind this conglomeration of high technology and architectural wizardry is not to help people work in a better environment but to increase productivity and profit margins for the corporations which rent space in these buildings. The goal is simple: fit as many people as possible into the smallest amount of space that still allows them to produce as much information and as much product as possible. Human biological needs are secondary at most, an annoyance to be dealt with only when absolutely necessary.

After my first month of work in my "new" building, I got really sick with a horrible respiratory illness that attacked my head, lungs, throat, and entire body for about two weeks. I would walk through my building and say "hi" to all the other sick people. Dozens of my fellow employees were blowing their noses, coughing, sneezing, and nursing fevers. Flu season, right? Wrong. I have not gone a month in the past five years without being sick. There has never been a time in the past five years that a "virus" or "flu" has not been working its way through our building, feeding itself on the thousands of people that work there. Everyone complains about it; everyone knows about it; but nothing is done about it.

I asked the Director of Facilities about the air in the building. I told him that it seems that we are breathing everyone's germs day in and day out. His response was that the air shouldn't be a problem because the building was meeting the minimum requirements to fulfill Cal OSHA standards for the workplace. Our building receives 7% fresh air. The rest is recycled air — the same air that we breathe every day — cycling itself, germs and all, through the building. This might not be that big of a deal, except that our building, like most office buildings built in the last ten to twenty years, has no windows that open. We have no access to fresh air. We are only allowed the 7% fresh air that the building managers choose to give us. It was unfathomable for our Director of Facilities to conceive of giving us more than the minimum 7% fresh air. And this is the ideology that lurks behind the face of my building and capitalism in the 90's: always give employees the minimum amount of benefits and resources to keep them on the job while meeting the standards set by law. No more. No less.

It didn't take me long in my "new" building to be constantly overwhelmed by a growing sense of claustrophobia. The walls of glass that make my building look so beautiful, shiny, and blue from the outside (like a giant aquarium) were becoming more and more like prison walls each day. The walls of glass are the walls that contain me. They are the walls that do not allow me to breathe fresh air or to feel the sun and wind. At one point, I actually wrote a poem called "Glass" in which I imagined my escape from the building, the phones, the computers, the overhead pages, and all the techno-trappings. My escape, however, consisted of me jumping through the glass, breaking the wall, only to meet my death at the feet of my co-workers standing outside for a "smoke break." A human resource specialist once told me that the reason windows do not open in most contemporary office buildings is to prevent suicide. Is this a reasonable solution to intolerable working conditions? Absolutely not.

image - union Hundreds of people assemble in our office space each day to move information. They sit at their cubicles in front of their computers and their phones and they sell information. That's the high-tech work world. They don't see the sun. They don't breathe the air. They sit; they work; they type; they fax. They never see the product that they are producing. They are as alienated from the products of their labor as the women in sewing factories downtown. Cyburbia, this new seemingly glamorous work environment, promotes a new kind of alienation, one that is not so easy to pin down.

One of the "assets" or luxuries of my building and others like it is the athletic facilities that it provides for the tenants. We have a gym. However, what most people don't realize is that the gym is also an asset to those in power. As workers work harder and harder trying to meet impossible demands and astronomical workloads, they panic that they are not working hard enough. Their panic translates into an intense desire to stay fit, to work their bodies as hard as their minds. Yet, they are trapped in the building. They can't get outside to get exercise because they must work long hours to try to keep up with the workload. What better solution than a gym? You don't even have to leave the building to exercise. You can go to the gym and work on reports while you exercycle. You can work-out, breathe your 7% fresh air, and head right back to the office to work some more. But this is not healthy. People have a biological need for fresh air and exercise. They need recreation and socialization. They need time off. Sure, the gym is convenient, but it is also another component in the high-tech work environment that promotes physical and mental illness.

Water from a Rock

The closer we look at these new workplace technotopias, the more we realize that the high-tech workplace serves only those who make the profits, not those who spend their days working in the buildings. The environmentally controlled workplace is far from ideal. In fact, it only adds to the problems which workers are facing more and more each year. Diminishing worker rights are directly linked to the problems confronting workers at high-tech office buildings. With the decline of labor unions and the increase in corporate practices that keep benefits to a minimum while maximizing the number of hours of labor employers can extract from a worker, we see workers facing a number of health issues resulting from their work environment. The standard corporate policy of the 1990's follows a perverse pattern:

  1. Put all full-time employees on salary so you don't have to pay them overtime when they work over 40 hours per week.
  2. Downsize your company and delegate more responsibilities to the existing employees so their workload is impossible to manage in a 40 hour week.
  3. Only permit hourly employees to work part-time so that there is no risk of overtime or paying benefits (vacation, sick-time, medical, dental, etc.).
  4. Give full-time employees the minimum benefits to keep them working and fulfill state and federal requirements (vacation, sick-time, medical, dental, etc.)

What you have in this scenario is people working 50-60 hour weeks within a closed environment in which they have no access to fresh air and are constantly breathing germs. You have people who have very few hours of "sick time" each year and are forced to work even when they are very ill. You have people who have no access to medical care who are constantly coming to work with serious illnesses. You have a vast workforce of people who are physically and mentally unhealthy, who have few opportunities for positive social interaction, and who are underpaid, over-worked, and biologically deprived. Sound severe? It is. But these are the facts of life for millions of people working in office buildings.

At my workplace we have a couple of nicknames for the building -the "airplane" and the "petri dish". The airplane refers to the lack of real air. The petri dish refers to the constant battalion of viruses and flus that are attacking employees. The building is a virtual breeding ground for infection and illness. Many of the people I work with are acutely aware of the dangers of their working environment. They try to supplement the biological deprivations they face by creating a mini-biosphere in their work station. Many employees fill their entire work area with plants, hoping that the plants will produce enough oxygen in their immediate area to help keep people healthy. But a few plants aren't going to cure the ills that befall contemporary office workers. In the end, capitalism and the environments it constructs are unhealthy for people and other living things.

When she is not working in aquariums, Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet, and free-lance cultural critic. Write to her at the following internet address: knicolini@comcast.net.


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