In tech, we’re always talking about workplace ergonomics, the fine points of Aeron chairs and standing desks, the wretchedness of open-plan spaces and cubicle farms versus private offices, how many monitors to have, and so on. Usually, I’m an eager participant, very much attuned to the idea that comfort and pleasant aesthetics are essential to output, motivation, and sustained concentration in high-focus, specialised creative labour.
But sometimes it does help to get a little perspective. A glance at the work environments of many world-class musicians, scholars, authors and researchers from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, or at the cramped physical environments in which highly capable, clever IT people work in developing countries, may convey a useful reminder that if you really want to do something, you can do it just about anywhere.
For that matter, my first job, as a technical hand and later sysadmin at a small-town ISP, when I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 18-20 year old, was in office space not altogether Class A; it was a freezing, windowless dungeon in a small 4-room suite whose HVAC controls were shared with a machine room in need of constant, high-intensity cooling, and the rooms were littered with stray computer hardware and accessorised with fairly second-rate furniture. Yet, I’ve never been so productive or so excited to go to work since those days.
In fact, the physical configurations in which I eagerly wrote code for many hours as a teenager are downright sadistic by cushy Silicon Valley standards; a crude wooden desk from Big Lots, a far too low wooden dining room chair, a 7 lbs (~3.1 kg) laptop, a shared family PC in the tiny living room of graduate student barracks. And what a PC that was–a 386SX/40 with 2 MB of RAM, at a time when most respectable citizens were packing 60 and 90 MHz Pentiums. We were poor–by American standards, anyway–but I didn’t really notice.
I have a friend and colleague who travels around the world, living his digital life out of a rather clunky Lenovo ThinkPad, sat on a variety of surfaces, whichever are available at the moment. While he’s not usually staying in mosquito-ridden youth hostels in the Congolese jungle, I fully grant, he doesn’t have 30″ IPS displays or wrist rests, to say nothing of a snazzy office with an adjustable-height desk and a foosball table–you know, the bare essentials for Ruby on Rails jockeys in the Bay Area. Yet he’s one of the most disciplined and entrepreneurially successful people I know. I think of him every time someone says that they “literally cannot work” without a chair with proper lumbar support.
More extremely, some of my Armenian colleagues learned to code in a time when Yerevan was largely without grid electricity, during the disastrous Nagorno-Karabakh War and its contemporaneous power crisis. They hooked up their clobbered-together computers to car batteries for a few hours day, batteries which they improvised some means of charging occasionally, usually by leeching surplus electricity from cables to critical facilities that did have it. They’re some of the most capable and multifarious IT guys (not to mention electrical engineers!) I know.
Yes, one’s eyes, back, wrists, etc. become more fragile and capricious with age, and it would be prudent to afford them some care. As I near 30, I’m acutely aware of that fact, having all sorts of aches and pains I didn’t used to have.
Nevertheless, my conclusion on the psychological purpose of constant twiddling of small features of our environment – desks, monitor sizes and so forth – is that it’s more about tricking yourself into working on stuff you don’t really want to do. It’s to create the illusion that now everything is truly right with the world, and productivity will seamlessly spring forth from one’s fingers. It’s a means of papering over the fact that you’d rather be doing something else. If most of us were actually doing something stimulating, we’d probably be happy enough doing it on a rooftop while it’s snowing.
To drive that point home, a story:
I rented an office in a repurposed Soviet-era building in Yerevan, Armenia for a while. I should pause to say that this was very much a “you get what you pay for” kind of thing, so please don’t think all life in Yerevan looks like this. Anyway, here’s what was going on in the very room next door some of the time (“renovation”), and also a picture of the ice that formed under my doorway some winter days:
The “included” Internet connectivity was sorely lacking; in the end, I ended up with some WiMax receiver that gave me 384k/128k on a good day. I grumbled about it some of the time, sure. But I also wrote much of our product’s middleware, user interface and API documentation there. I was furiously productive, and it would not be unreasonable to say that our product made a titanic generational leap whilst I was there. Some other parts of this product infrastructure were written, also at a very impressive clip, whilst sat in a stiff chair and Spartan metal table in the rentable upstairs workspace at Sankt Oberholz, a Berlin coffee shop and coworking enterprise situated in a late 19th century building. I was hunched over uncomfortably, my nose stuck in a 13″ ultrabook with a loathsome keyboard. My eyes burned and my wrists tingled by the end of most days.
Now I’m sitting in my eminently comfortable Class A office in Atlanta, with great connectivity and a 32″ LED display on my desk, a favourite Das Keyboard at my fingertips, and I’m writing blog posts, poking around on Facebook. The difference is pretty clear to me: when I was in Yerevan and Berlin, I wanted to work, and now I don’t.
I won’t end with some hackneyed and nauseating Millenial “thought leadership” about “doing what you love”, nor the facile conclusion that it’s all in your head. I would just offer the modest speculation that an ounce of tweaks to the intellectual content of one’s work, or other, more existential life issues that inform your inner drive, is probably worth a pound of major adjustments to one’s office furniture, seating, barriers, and computer peripherals.
It’s wonderful to be back amidst the beautiful Alpine scenery of Innsbruck, and I’m overwhelmed by nostalgia. I was last here almost exactly twelve years ago, in 2003, when I was 17, for about two months during the summer before my senior year of high school.
This was before the era of smartphones and ubiquitous WiFi, and we had no Internet access in our rented apartment. I still had to use a real map, and had maybe an hour of Internet access a day. For the first time in many years, I learned to happily do without, and to go outside and enjoy life without anxiety about the torrent of news, information and opinion to which I was not privy.
My father got a rare and coveted opportunity to teach on a summer abroad programme for American students. Practically, classes would let out around noon on Thursday, and the weekend was ours for travelling; this way, I got to see Vienna, Rome, Florence, Berlin and Paris, generally connecting by train through München. The München-Innsbruck EC train got to feel something like a commute home by the end of it all.
But it was in Innsbruck itself that I got my first exposure to Western European life, and it did a lot to mellow me out of my teenage angst, in those times expressed through we might call “niche” intellectual and ideological fixations. In everyday life in Austria, waking up after dawn to behold this ring of spectacular mountains above and piles of unlocked bicycles below, I found my idea of “capitalism with a human face”. Its attachment to reality is a complex topic, but irrelevant; my teenage mind had learned to stop worrying and love the small things, love the petite bourgeoisie. Apart from a brief exposure to the Rockies, I had never been in mountainous settings. I had only known the stifling humidity and mugginess of the Eastern half of the US and never crisp, cool air. Last time I had seen vestiges of daylight at 10 PM was in the “white nights” of Riga when I was four–a last-hurrah holiday in 1990 preceding the secession of the Baltic Republics.
In many ways, my quotidian walks up and down Maria-Theresien-Straße, ventures west on Anichstraße to the Universität Innsbruck cafeteria for our included lunch of schnitzel, and my hikes to Hungerburg (868 m) did more for my spiritual health than the whirlwind of train travel.
I returned to America in August calmer, thinner, fitter and happier, with very concrete–for once, not theoretical–expansion of horizons. I had forgotten a lot of Spanish grammar just in time for the AP course, but had a bit of German up my sleeve.
My literature teacher from the previous semester asked, dejectedly, “Where is the angry communist Balashov?” I had no answer for him; I was in good spirits, and it was a great time to be alive.