My tired eyes move rapidly left, right, left, right, trying and failing to grab the blurred images I see through the speeding car’s window. I can’t feel the movement, but I know it is happening because I have seen the effect on other people. On some level I am registering what I am seeing, another car, the lines in the road, the guard rail, but only because I already know what I am supposed to be seeing. The blur fits in with pre-identified objects. My eyes do a tremendous amount of work, while my brain sits back with a yawn and lazily categorizes.

Why do I feel so small in the back seat of this cab? I feel like a child, my eyes are only just level with the lower edge of the window next to me, and the glass partition separating me from the driver restricts my view to the front. I have to strain to sit up and lean forward to see anything more than cloudy sky. I feel safer in the back of this cab than I normally do in cars with other people driving. I think it is because I can’t see potential death every other second, a car drifting into our lane, a bit of trash flying into a windshield, someone going too fast or too slow and throwing off the rhythm, a pothole, an animal, a rain drop, because I can’t see anything at all.

Perhaps I am confusing the feeling of safety with the feeling of relief. I’m on my way home from a meeting in a horrible place. A building with no solid walls. Transparent glass partitions for the conference rooms, but for the employees, every thought, every feeling, every need, exposed to the world. The insanity of the modern, open-air office space. I cringed every time that stranger, across the aisle from the glass box I sat in, casually looked up from her screen right at me. People surround her on all sides, staring at screens, mice in hands, all of them aware that if they stopped appearing focused, if they took a breath, a sip of coffee, stretched back their mouse-cramped arms and closed their eyes for even a second, the entire office would see and judge that moment as unproductive. I shiver in sympathy for the imagined torture.

The person I am meeting with, when I ask how he likes working in that space, says that it is cold. Open air is hard to insulate, I say. I try to explain how awful this environment is and he says what everyone in corporate america says, but Google does it this way…  But Google isn’t corporate america, it is a fantasy land where people are recognized and honored for their creativity. That is not the reality of your corporation, I want to say, but don’t. I’m there to help him be creative, after all. The extent of my creativity, for the entire four-hour meeting, is making a plus sign in PowerPoint grow and shrink. That’s it, and they all ooh and ah like I’ve made magic.

I give tiny bits of advice. Too many words, not every slide needs a title, perhaps you can show an image and just say those points aloud. But they don’t listen. They need their charts and their bullet points, and, honestly, they are correct. The data points are important, the people attending the conference next week need to learn these details.

The tiny details, this number or that went up or down, these people here want this thing, those people there want something else. Slide after slide after slide. There is too much. The dots and lines and letters and numbers blur into something the eye can’t follow anymore. But the tool used to convey the information through hard-working eyes to lazy brains, PowerPoint in this case, doesn’t matter, so don’t get mad at it. The problem is the information itself.

My eye moves, left, right, left, right, my hand moves the mouse to follow. I capture conversation and translate sounds to symbols. I can’t see through the glass at the stranger across the aisle anymore because I’ve sunk too low behind my screen.  Four hours of pushing pixels until…  I escape from the glass box, from the cold, open air, from the constant, unblinking eyes of others.  Out through the revolving door and to the street where I can hale the cab that will take me home.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/01/the-open-office-trap.html

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