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Rene Daalder
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    The Age of Optimization (part 3)
    Collapsing time and distance

    To further investigate the far-reaching implications of a virtually optimized future, let’s once more revisit the emergence of today’s live/work movement as it plays itself out both in the inner cities and the suburbs.


    Illustration by alborz

    • By 2006, the expansion of home-based workers in the U.S. grew twice as quickly as in the previous decade.
    • In some regions, such as the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, almost one in 10 workers is a part-time telecommuter.
    • At many companies — IBM, Sun Microsystems, and AT&T among them — upward of 30% of their employees work from their home office.
    • Demographers forecast that by 2015 there will be more individuals in the region working electronically from their house than there are people making use of public transit.

    Once upon a time the information many of these tele-commuters needed to do their job was only available at their corporate offices. Since then, some of the most important and recent data, which used to be contained in numerous filing cabinets has been transferred to the computer. At first the data were stored in massive mainframes which only the corporation could afford (along with other equipment such as typewriters, telephone switchboards, the telex and the fax machine). But today every one of these functions can be performed from any cheap lap top computer.

    • Today, almost every aspect of conducting business has been migrated to a digital utility whose technology extends far beyond its corporate premises. This utility connects all computers, facilitating 55 trillion links, 100 billion clicks per day and 2 million emails per second.
    • Even inter-office communication often takes place online, sending an email from one adjoining cubicle to the next, traveling around the world with the speed of light only to arrive with only a fraction of delay at their destination a few feet away.
    • For all practical purposes, there no longer is a difference between people performing administrative work from an office, a WiFi-equipped coffee shop or for that matter their homes which have been fully equipped to produce the same letters, spreadsheets and data for years.
    • With geographic location no longer an issue, in the last decades a substantial part of the US service industry has been outsourced to places as far away as India.
    • Phone operators and help desk consultants are seamlessly integrated from one society into the next halfway across the globe in time zones as different as night and day.
    • Believe it or not, but the fast food order at your local McDonalds drive-through stand is now discreetly taken by Internet phone operators in India. Apparently, this transcontinental procedure has considerably sped up the way your order of French fries is being processed at your local fast food joint.

    Given this reality, it doesn’t compute that local commuters are suffering hours in rush hour traffic in order to perform their daily tasks from a random cubicle in Buffalo, while their order at the local McDonald’s is instantly processed by someone in Bangalore. In fact, the tasks these workers perform are no longer bound by the limitations of time and place, which would suggest that the ubiquitous office towers to which they commute may sooner or later become the remnants of an obsolete legacy that has outlived itself. Who knows, the very spot where employees now sit in their cubicles - surrounded by a few snapshots of their loved ones - may one day be re-zoned to become the very living room of their future live/work condo.

    To be clear, none of the earlier mentioned facts are meant to deny the advantages of people working together in science labs, think tanks, creative work places, or for that matter academic programs. But when movie director Peter Jackson can direct the London Symphony Orchestra’s recording sessions for Lord of the Rings while reclining on a couch in New Zealand, surely accountants must be able to share their bookkeeping efforts without wasting time and energy on daily commutes. The same goes for numerous other professions, ranging from managers and salesmen to all manner of creative people, many of whom have proven to be much more effective once they have joined the remote work force.


    Optimization At Work

    The initial inspiration to embark on this inquiry was to emulate computer optimization software’s capacity to de-fragment and reorganize layers of inefficiently stored digital data. In this particular instance the objective was to probe the outmoded organization of people who transport themselves to obtain locally archived information rather than accessing searchable data files from wherever they may geographically be. In the process I tried to demonstrate how today’s invisible digital utility can at least partially be measured in dimensional terms by its potential to free up actual space in the “real” world. Opportunities for optimization were targeted in areas of manufacturing, education, retail and office space as well as self-storage facilities, all of which suggested potential for imminent change. Even if one were to disagree with some of the specifics of the various scenarios, the overall data shows an unmistakable trend that appears to be largely overlooked by politicians, urban planners, public intellectuals, corporate CEO’s and environmentalists alike.


    Illustration by alborz

    First of all, we tend to greatly underestimate the digital realm’s potential to restore our choked-up infrastructure by reducing traffic to the level it was originally meant to accommodate. What if we could cut highway traffic by 30 or 20 or even 10% simply by moving the results of people’s labor back and forth from their computer to the main office in “real time”? Such a development would almost overnight give rise to more efficient life-styles and a freedom of movement we have not known for decades.

    • It would significantly reduce our average carbon footprint while cutting down on stress and frustration.
    • Increase mobility while providing a solution to runaway fuel prices
    • Create additional living spaces without erecting new buildings.

    Clearly, the implementation of a comprehensive live/work policy alone would do more for our overall quality of life than most environmental plans currently on the table. Some of the results might be accomplished on a corporate or even grass roots level by employers and their staff without much intervention of politicians, urban planners or government funding. After all, the required virtual infrastructure has long since been integrated in people’s lives and has become absolutely essential to younger generations whose lives seamlessly unfold at the intersection where the virtual and the physical meet.

    If you lived here, you’d be home now, the old billboards used to say. But the idea of “home” has been greatly expanded since then. So much in fact that an updated version of the slogan might read: If you lived here, you’d be everywhere at once...

    The world has been outfitted with a new operating system, just when we needed it.

    May the Age of Optimization begin.


    End of Part III.
    Also see Part I and Part II

    Fri, Sep 5, 2008  Permanent link

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    meganmay     Tue, Apr 20, 2010  Permanent link
    Optimization at work (if only by a graceless act of god):
     http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/20/business/20road.html 


     
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