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The Rise of the Personal Workspace

With the rise of personal computers, starting in the 1980s, came the new take on the personal office or personal workspace (PWS). Those with offices had enjoyed physical desktops for some time.

Now, however, the computer screen was a “desktop” thanks to the icon-based aesthetics and terminology pioneered at Xerox PARC, and evangelized to the world through Apple Mac, and later Microsoft (Windows).

However, the culture already contained another widespread personal office like environment, that of the driver or pilot in a car, truck, airplane or ship.

When a single controller was at the helm, we might call the surroundings a cockpit or cab. If a team were at the helm, the context was a cockpit large enough for several people or a control room or bridge. The term “bridge” was aeronautical, referring to ocean going or space faring ships, the latter appearing mostly in science fiction.

In the school situation, again returning to the 1980s, the time-honored pattern continued: students would migrate from room to room, perhaps starting with a home room.

Each room came with a teacher, an authority figure, charged with imparting discipline as well as content. Students as yet were not lugging laptops, nor were they going home to personal computers in their bedrooms, for the most part. All that would change in the 1990s and thereafter, wherein the personal workspace took off.

The metaphor of the desktop, in the meantime, was augmented with piloting and controller metaphors from the transportation sector. As a captain of industry, or at least of an enterprise, the new thing to have was a “dashboard” which ideally would show the current business environment in real time, not as a boring spreadsheet or bookkeeping document, but as a flashing set of readouts and controls.

Yet another source of PWS aesthetics came from the hospitals. Medical tests, charts, real time monitors, all about measuring the health of a patient, would have application more generally, in the emerging command and control rooms, the situation rooms. CEOs could think about the pulses and pressures within their businesses. Cockpits were already medically informative. Mission control would monitor the vital signs of the astronauts.

Also starting around the 1980s if not before, people started worrying about a “Digital Divide” opening up between those schooled in piloting a PWS, and those being herded from room to room, but not getting either personal computer time, nor internet at home. This divide was reminiscent of the chasm identified by C. P. Snow (1905–1980), twixt the “two cultures” he perceived dividing into Sciences versus Humanities.

Now it was more about who had the privilege of “geeking out” by becoming more computer literate. A white suburban kid in a sprawling ranch house was more likely to fit the profile then someone crammed into a city apartment with multiple siblings. Social class, race, ethnicity, all fed the Math Wars that were to ensue. Students could learn faster when encouraged to assist one another, and collaborate, as in TuxLabs in South Africa.

Would students be viable players in the emerging economy if they didn’t have file management skills, meaning the ability to manage a computer’s file system?

These function had been offloaded onto secretaries and file clerks. Now all of a sudden one had to do one’s own keyboarding, and hold a device known as a “mouse” while looking at something called a “desktop” covered with little cartoon figures called “icons”.

Those cut off from this world of icons and dashboards were maybe losing their toehold in the next economy. How might one climb a career ladder if schooling had never put a PWS at the focus?

Those with experience with UNIX, wherein “everything is a file”, would have a big advantage in the next chapter. GNU and Apple would bring that UNIX world, rebranded POSIX, to a larger audience.

GNU would feed the OS revolution. The PWS would increasingly feature Linux boxes. This class of POSIX PWS was leading the pack in many directions.

Some decades later, the smartphone burst into this market and spread the icons and applications aesthetic to a far larger number.

The telecommunications industry was not about to concede dominance to a computer industry that failed to take global networking seriously.

Microsoft acknowledged belatedly that the company had been blind sided by the sudden rise of the web browser, and has been playing catch up ever since.

In general systems theory, the PWS is both a work station and a learning environment. The driver doesn’t just pilot the car, but also listens to radio stations, podcasts, books on tape.

Commuters download their programming to learn what to converse about, at home and at work. Students in study carrels plow through books, watch instructional videos, take on-line courses. Teachers are move likely to come to them through social media than to inhabit the same room.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that in controlling, in driving or steering, the PWS is an active agent in the physical and cyber dimensions.

Offices engage in business transactions and drive the economy. Many a PWS has become a broadcast studio, a source of communications. Others are more restrictive in sending memoranda to short lists of recipients, which recipients in turn serve as editors in a kind of deep learning matrix.

The generic term of what goes on between receiving and transmitting is “edit / recombine” i.e. that’s where the “value adding” occurs. The PWS draws from sources, makes a collage or rearrangement, perhaps by means of video editing, supplies new input (possibly), a layer of interpretation and analysis, and then becomes in turn a source for other PWSs.

Returning to schooling: a most advantageous educational track offers opportunities to build one’s skills as the denizen of a personal workspace, which skills include video editing, budgeting, and scheduling.

Planning and following through are indeed essential steps when to comes to working in concert, within teams, to accomplish goals.

At this point, GST turns to theater and film making for concepts, not just operations research. Theatrical and video productions often require elaborate logistics and parallel programming.

Indeed, improving the lot of humans and fellow travelers aboard Spaceship Earth may be conceived of as a theatrical production. Some call it World Game.

Related Reading:
GST for Truckers (July 29, 2018 blog post in Control Room)
GST in the Global U (April 11, 2018, Medium)
From the Annals of the Transcendentalists (July 14, 2018, Medium)
Data Science for Truckers (July 28, 2018, Medium)