Now is the autumn of our discontent

It’s been a long summer around here, but it’s now over. For the first time in 5 years, I managed to take some vacations — which for me meant spending 4 days with my parents in the Portuguese Highlands, where the country is rough, the people are rough, and Internet and wireless telephony is shaky — but the food is nice, and we can grab apples, figs and grapes directly from the trees 🙂 (if you imagine Portugal to be a sunny country with beaches stretching over miles and miles, I should mention that most of the country is actually very, very hilly — there is, in fact, just one major city which is completely flat, the rest is pretty much built on top of hills and mountains. The Portuguese Highlands are surprisingly similar to Scotland  — not so cold, no sheep, and men wouldn’t dream of wearing skirts, but the rest is not fundamentally different, also including the Celtic influence and the legendary avarice 🙂 Oh, and yes, disagreements about water rights are settled by the axe — literally so, even in the 21st century). By sheer coincidence, the very hot summer also turned to a mild autumn during these days, a season I always loved.

During these days I managed to think a bit. Sometimes it takes some physical distance to be able to reflect a bit, stand back and change the perspective. I’ve started in September my third job — not to get rich, but merely to be able to pay all my taxes and still have a bit left to eat — and this shows how tough the economy still is: six years ago, I would be comfortably living just with a single salary and a single job. These days, people are lucky to have a job at all. On top of that, mostly for fun, but also thinking that due to the changes introduced by the Bologna Process, everybody around here will be able to do a 3-year degree and top it with a mastership very easily in the same time that I had to painfully trod along just to graduate, I suspected that my own career chances would dramatically decrease as the “new” college degrees become commonplace. It’s time to go ahead with the PhD, and possibly even go beyond it with some post-doc in a few years, since otherwise I’d fall behind all those people hunting for a job. It’s also a good strategy to increase your education during periods of economic crisis. Education is not (yet!) extraordinarily expensive in my country, so it makes sense to spend time learning while you can. On top of the three jobs and the academic studies, I’m also taking an advanced course in practical Buddhism 🙂 which will be enough to keep me busy for the next few years.

Still, surprisingly, I seem to have more time free. None of my jobs are 9-to-5, and neither are my studies. For those among you that love routine, my lifestyle would sound incredibly stressful. Some days I have literally nothing to do; others, often in succession, are crammed full with activities over 19 hours or so. Weekends and holidays mean nothing to me, but, on the other hand, I can just take the Tuesday morning off, without anyone complaining, and blog about silly things, instead of worrying about work. The trick is simple: almost all my activity is done online. I’m a 95% telecommuter — the remaining 5% are for those backward-thinking clients and tutors who still think that breathing the same air as your partner/student/client in a room is a requirement for increasing productivity.

Perhaps not coincidentally, my swift change of “routine” and lifestyle started when I found out about Second Life. At that time I already was a telecommuter — living 1000 km away from my company’s HQ, on an island in the middle of the Atlantic — and it worked rather well. I didn’t want to get back to my “early” life, of spending hours in traffic, and wasting precious moments at the office while “nothing happened”, when I could be doing something rather more productive. After all, it’s not the amount of time you spend at the office that makes a difference, but the results of the way you employ that time: telecommunications technology can bridge all distances so easily these days that it doesn’t really make any sense to pretend otherwise.

Some companies I work with have introduced different pricing for their customers. If all the work can be done remotely — and it’s up to the client to decide if they will open their firewall ports to allow that — it’s charged cheaply, and maintenance can be made around the clock, weekends included. If they insist to see a person arriving at their premises, they charge extra — plus commuting costs — and they’re stuck with a 9-to-5 schedule, which has to be pre-arranged in advance. A lot of companies are still stupid enough to prefer that. Somehow, if they cannot look eye-to-eye to the person doing a job, it isn’t “real” work.

Now I guess I’ve been overly optimistic a few years back. As early as 1995, I seriously believed that the Internet would dramatically change the way we worked, because, well, physical presence would not be necessary. I remember having a lot of suppliers and clients back then where we only physically met to go and have lunch together — all the work was always done remotely, and it was silly to think otherwise. Except for training — we didn’t have Second Life yet! — any kind of job in the service industry could be done remotely with surprising ease. It was not just more convenient, it had lots of advantages — commuting time would disappear and be turned into “work time” instead. You could multitask among clients: while you waited for something to finish (say, installing a new application, compiling some software, printing out a report) you could swiftly and effortlessly switch to a different client, and start doing work for them, too. Multitasking is not exactly a new way to work: lawyers, for instance, multitask all the time — they take phone calls while writing documents for their clients, and charge both for the same time slot.

Second Life just enabled all that to be taken to new levels. Now formal meetings, presentations, conferences, and training could also be done in multitasking. In theory, assuming a powerful computer (or two!) you could even attend two meetings at the same time — and still keep your hands free to answer some emails, log in to a remote system, write some documents, and take a phone call. The very few remote things that you could not accomplish easily on the pre-virtual world era were easily done by Second Life.

I remember a recent meeting on my third job. We entered a room where a lot of physical 3D models were shown for a booth on an upcoming fair, and the CEO was proudly showing the amount of detail (and work!) put into those scaled models. But then he also said that this was pretty much nonsense: after all, the designers work with AutoCAD and 3DS and could do movies of those, so they wouldn’t need to spend all that time and materials doing the physical plywood models. I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking further on: why would they even need a physical meeting to discuss those models? They could just do the models in Second Life, and invite people to view them in Second Life. No time would be wasted in doing physical models at all, and people would not waste time leaving their places and drive to the meeting. Better still, instead of looking at some models on top of the table during the short time allocated to the meeting, they could log in over and over again and see them.

But I went even further. Why waste time and money doing a physical exhibition with booths? The whole industry fair could be implemented in Second Life as well, and it would suit precisely the same purpose. People that have to struggle with their schedules to attend yet another boring industry fair would simply log in for a few hours from teh comfort of their homes, and have access to pretty much the same information. And they could set up conferences, meetings, training sessions, and so forth — just like in the physical world.

This seemed so obvious to me that I have to struggle to understand why it’s not universally done. We even have a much better excuse these days. The economic downturn makes spending money in booths, advertising, and travelling much harder and more limited. But there are no restrictions in the virtual world. Once a booth is designed — once an ad has been created — it can automatically be pushed into SL for all to see. There are no more costs. Oh, sure, we have to pay tier, but compare the cost of having one sim with the cost of having a 9×9 m floor space on a booth, and the whole concept becomes ridiculous.

But for the past few years I have had little success in pushing those ideas forward. In 2006/7 there was at least an apparent openmindedness that allowed people to attend conferences about SL and think about those ideas… but not in 2010. We went back to the 19th-century way of doing business. Why?

I also remember a few Metaverse Development Companies who bragged about their new offices and how pleased everybody was to work in those places. I was baffled. Why do they need offices at all? Aren’t they working in virtual worlds? Don’t they believe in their own products and services?

The same applies to Linden Lab. One of the reasons given to fire such precious employees like Babbage Linden was that they couldn’t afford so much office space. Yes, office space is leased at premium cost. But… we’re talking about Linden Lab? The company that is supposed to be doing virtual worlds “to improve the human condition”?

Why does Linden Lab have offices at all?

I mean, seriously. What real reason does Linden Lab have to lease office space? Nothing they do requires physical presence: they’re not a massage parlour, nor a restaurant, nor a hair salon, the few jobs in the service industry that actually require physical presence. Teams — what LL calls “studios” — have rarely been assembled from people in the same physical office: according to some Lindens, the teams would be spread across all physical offices and assembled virtually, working on the same project. Your fellow co-worker sitting at the table next to you would very likely not even talk to you; he’s be fully immersed in a totally different project, answering to different team leaders, reporting to different people. Even the co-location facilities were mostly handled remotely, and with the subtle push to Amazon, this is even more so.

A few business visionaries, decking their walls with MBA diplomas, tend to reinforce the need for the “physical contact” as a way to establish stronger bonds. Comradeship, the esprit de corps, bonding, and so forth, require physical interaction. I’m sure this can be proven to be correct on relatively small groups of people. But a corporation with dozens or hundreds or thousands of employees break that assumption apart. Bill Gates used to say that the maximum “manageable” unit of people was about 35; allegedly, the whole of Microsoft is hierarchically designed so that all levels there are, at most, 35 people working under the same overseer, all the way up to the Board. For me it makes sense: 35 is actually a very high upper limit for a teacher to be in touch with her class, for example (20-25 is more acceptable).

And LL used to have telecommuters, too: people working as Liaisons and Help Desk were often employed outside the San Francisco offices. Some outside contractors also worked remotely. So what changed at the ‘Lab to revert that tendency of creating the virtual office?

These days, I’m far less impressed about corporations with huge, shiny buildings. “Look at all that real estate! We’re an awesome company!” Yeah, right… but what impresses me far more than that is the ability to engage into a university degree where all students except one live outside the city where the campus is — sometimes hundreds of miles away. And this becomes commonplace… to a degree.

Definitely not to the degree that I wished, though.

So looking back at what Second Life has done in the past seven years, I wonder what is so unacceptable about it. These days, people use cellular phones and emails to stay in touch with their clients and partners and colleagues. They use ERP to control manufacturing processes. They use homebanking services to send money across the world. They look up their medical records and pay their taxes online. However, they still do physical meetings, physical conferences and training. They still work in cubicles. They spend a lot in office supplies — the word processor just replaced the typewriter, but the all-electronic office, promoted by Xerox in the 1980s, is still always a step across the horizon. Digital media is fine, yes, but it’s always nice to keep some paper records, and rent office space to hold all those folders and files, and hire employees to act as secretaries and archivists… a whole service industry just exists to support the burden of the physical world, wasting money and resources just to keep the physical structure intact, instead of investing in the quality of work produced by their employees…

With the economic downturn, wouldn’t it make much more sense to think about where to funnel all that money instead? If Linden Lab didn’t have any offices at all, and could spare the costs of office equipment, air conditioning, parking lots, and even cleaning, would they still be able to afford people like Babbage, Qarl, or even Blue Linden? Of course they would!

Nevertheless, we rely too much on the “physical” aspect of work. The biggest change of the office space started probably after the Renaissance, where artisans still lived and worked in the same house, but slowly started to commute to work where they would meet with other artisans. With the Industrial Revolution, the notion that an office would hold space for all workers under the same roof, the workplace was changed dramatically, due to the sheer size of employees needed to get a company operational — even in the service industry: banks, insurance companies, newspapers, lawyer offices, and so forth, would employ hundreds of people under the same roof. But we can excuse the Victorians because the only advanced telecommunications technology they had was the telegraph (and later, the telephone).

Nowadays, we have Second Life, but we still pretend to be stuck in the 19th century.

As said, around 2006/7, it looked like things were changing. People were at least open to the idea of changing their workplace again. Telecommuting was getting increasingly popular, but… there were some doubts about replacing everything. Four years later, people are still reluctant — perhaps even more so! — because, apparently, due to a mix of “tradition” and “superstition”, some things are just not “virtualised” in the office space. The CEO might spend the whole day in a room with a closed door but yell at employees through the phone or send angry email, but he never considers that he could do pretty much the same thing sitting at home (as well as their employees) and log in to Second Life to do exactly the same thing. I might be sensible to the argument that, in theory, this very same CEO could walk out of his room, enter the open space area, and yell at the employee, and look in their scared faces and even smell their fear.

In practice, however, this rarely happens, if at all.

So the question remains about the lack of adoption of Second Life in the business world. My best guess is that it is “too soon”. Internet Email, invented in 1972, just became routinely employed in the late 1990s — and by then, it was a robust technology (even though it was already plagued with spam and viruses!!). Perhaps Second Life is not seen as a “robust” technology — not yet. Perhaps it’s a question of mentality: the notion that you don’t have your shiny building and the vast amount of real estate to impress your clients might still make some CEOs wobbly at their knees. Perhaps they’re waiting for others to take the lead, and only then follow suit — a “monkey see, monkey do” attitude.

But in this era of limited budgets, financial constrains, and a stop to excessive spending in fruitless activities, I would really hope that even the most die-hard conservatives would start looking at alternatives for doing business in a more cheap and efficient way — keeping the only thing that matters: the workforce with their knowledge — and getting rid of everything superfluous.

In my country there are constant scandals in the news about the amount of luxury cars held by politicians and high members of the civil service. I’d say, throw all those cars away, put those people in their homes with a good ADSL/cable connection, and let them run the civil service via Second Life. The costs saved that way would pay not only better wages, allow more people to be employed, but it would even possibly save the welfare state from utterly collapsing. And people would also work far more time that way, but be happy about doing so.

Perhaps we should ask Linden Lab to take the lead. To put their money where their mouth is. To ask them to be bold and show how much they believe in virtual world technologies, to the point that they can stop wasting money in trivial, superfluous, non-productive things that they carry as burdens — and invest in people instead.

And it would mean that I would be able to take more time off in my little paradise in the Highlands 🙂

CC BY 4.0 Now is the autumn of our discontent by Gwyneth Llewelyn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...