by Reid Fleming
The image of the office of thefuture is too neat, too smooth, too disembodied to be real. Reality is always messy.
-- Alvin Toffler
Misha K. turns the key and opens the door to his apartment. Stepping into it is like stepping into Japan: tatami mats, antique samurai swords, a tea room, rice-paper walls. No photographs are present in any of the public rooms, only watercolors.
All modern appliances are hidden from sight. "The owner is in Hong Kong for six months, and the rent is $25 cheaper than the place I was living," explains K..
"My landlord is the most avid Asian-phile I've ever known--speaks Japanese and six dialects of Chinese. The man is a Kickboxing gold medalist and has studied the tea ceremony."
Misha looks around the room. "I guess he's into peace."
In a side room, K.'s modern-day Macintosh computer, a sharp contrast to the idiom, hums quietly while the screen saver animates colorful geometric patterns.
"I hate it when that happens," he says, turning the computer off. "I always forget to turn it off."
Misha works at a strategic marketing firm in Boston. He is one of two computer systems administrators for the company of roughly 50 employees.
"My job is to keep the computers running," says K., 22. Outside the apartment, the former Santa Barbara resident turns his back to lock the door. His woolen trenchcoat does little to disguise the angles of his thin body.
Everyone in the office, art director and secretary, has a desktop computer. Additionally, all of the computers are tied together in a network. It allows people in different departments to work on the same project simultaneously.
"We use only Macintosh computers, lucky for me," he intones. "They're easy to understand." He pauses, then flashes a serious look. "If you have a brain."
Misha dropped out of university while still a computer science undergraduate. His computer skills, however, were strong enough to get hired at a well-paying firm.
On the way to the nearest undergound train station, K. explains that his biggest problem at work is "all of the people who immediately assume a demon has possessed their computers anytime something strange happens. That's nearly everybody."
Misha arrives at work after a fifteen minute train ride and a five minute walk. He punches a code into an exterior keypad, and the front door unlocks. He goes inside, takes the elevator up three stories, and arrives at the reception desk.
"Normally, I go to my office, check my mail, and then close the door," explains K. "A closed door discourages people who have problems they can work out for themselves. Generally, if they lack the guts to knock on my door, they're forced to figure it out themselves."
Misha does just that, goes into his office and closes the door. After logging in to the computer system and checking a few things, he starts to get fidgety. He picks up an empty ashtray and starts tossing it from hand to hand.
"Don't worry if I look anxious to you," he reassures. "I just quit smoking a few days ago, and it's hell. I've been dreaming about cigarettes."
A knock at the door. It opens and an art director explains in the hurried tones of someone sent to fetch the doctor that his computer won't print the text in her layout.
Misha follows her through the main office area to the studio, where the art computers are. On the way, it becomes clear that Misha is one of only two men in the company who wears a tie to work. Everyone else dresses casually.
They sit down at a high-end Macintosh with a 24 inch color display of a brochure layout. "So what's the problem, exactly?" asks Misha.
"Well, the words show up on the screen, but when I print it out, they disappear. Why does the demon box do that?" insists the art director.
"Which font are you using?" He saves her file and then exits to a network utility. It turns out she's using only one half of the necessary font data--the computer knows how to display a font onscreen, but doesn't have the specifications for output to a printer.
The art director begins to mildly freak out. "What does that mean? Will I have to start over with another typeface? Can't you do something? I hate this thing!"
Already Misha is looking through all of the storage devices in the network, looking for the output file. He looks through six employees' personal directories before he finally finds a copy.
The art director turns ecstatic. "Thank you, thank you. You saved me six more hours of work."
"Next time, try to use only the fonts that are properly installed. Don't import anything."
"I won't, I won't," she says, but she's already heading down the hall to the laser printer to see how the copy looks.
Lunch time comes, and after a trip around the corner to a local deli, Misha returns to his office with a gyro and a cola. After the art director's crisis, more than a dozen similar incidents required Misha's personal help before noon. All this time, he's supposed to be getting ready to install new network software.
In the calm of the noon hour, the question "Do you like it here?" springs to mind.
"You know, the pay's not bad, and I could think of a lot of worse jobs. Actually, I've worked a lot of worse jobs. I love programming, but my only real programming job was abysmal. I was writing control systems for laser interferometers, kind of boring but I found it challenging.
"The management there felt it necessary compartmentalize information as much as possible. If they felt I didn't need to know something, they'd completely neglect telling me until I submitted my program and they came back saying it didn't work. 'Why doesn't it work?' I'd ask, and they'd say, 'well, we didn't tell you that it had to do this and this and this, so change it.'
"Here, they leave the computers to me and don't second-guess what I need to know. Also, they gave me a $1,250 Christmas bonus last year. The only problem is, I hate Boston. I hate New England. I want to move back to California, soon."
On the wall of his office is a map of San Francisco. It has little colored pushpins stuck in it wherever big computer firms are located. Also, he keeps an up-to-date database of prospective employers hidden in a private subdirectory.
"I'm still getting my resume together, but once that happens, I'm mailing out about a hundred copies," he declares, picking up a now purposeless cigarette lighter.
What is it about New England that makes him yearn for California?
"Oh, the weather, definitely. I can't stand snow, it's awful. Have you ever shoveled snow?"
Half an hour later, the office is loud with activity again. Just like in the morning, a long succession of payroll executives and copy writers show up to enlist Misha's help. The problems range from missing files and forgotten passwords to device errors, hardware malfunctions. As soon as one problem is solved, a fresh one shows up at his door.
Thankfully, most of them can be solved without leaving his chair. Lost files can be located from any terminal in the building, as long as they're lost in the system and not on a floppy disk in someone's desk. Likewise, Misha can reassign passwords anywhere. It's a rare or particularly serious problem that actually gets him away from his desk.
"It seems impossible that anything substantial gets done in this office at all. At every turn is another computer logjam. I'm so flooded with pleas for help that my own assignments are often delayed for weeks."
Almost on cue, an executive knocks on the door just before quitting time. Apparently, his account on the Dow Jones Information Retrieval System isn't working, and he wants Misha to walk him through the login.
Unfortunately, it becomes clear that the executive has only the most cursory knowledge of his computer's workings.
"All right," Misha begins. "What terminal program are you using?" The executive answers.
Misha starts looking around in his directory. "So, where is it? Where do you keep it?"
"In the computer," admonishes the man, as though he's already told Misha more than he could possibly need.
An hour later, Misha returns to the ordered serenity of his apartment. The place lacks a stereo, or a television. By virtue of these omissions, everything has a static, museum quality.
Then, passing down the hall, Misha stops at the doorway to the side room, and goes in.
"I always forget that," he comments, turning off the computer and settling back into quiet Japan.
Copyright © 1992, 1997 Lip Think Press. All rights reserved.