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The Future of Work – The Past and Future of the Desk

(Photo credit and thanks to the Early Office Museum )

As the Singularity approaches, the very nature of work and many of the tools we use on a daily basis will change radically. Chances are that most of you reading this article are sitting at something called a desk right now. But what are desks and why do we have them? What is the future of the desk? What about mobile and augmented reality technologies? Can’t they make the very idea of a desk obsolete? Let’s take a look.

The earliest desks were little more than something to lean on while writing.

Monk working at desk (Manx Heritage Museum)

The desk is seen here as a tool for writing, an idea that is echoed in our modern notion of the computer desktop and desktop publishing.

By the Seventeenth Century , wooden desks had become a method of organizing work and included drawers and slots for holding papers and other items. The classic secretary desk included a flat surface for writing that folded out for example.

Some early desks featured flat surfaces which allowed papers to be piled and stacked. By the late Nineteenth Century, the typical office included many desks and related office equipment including pencils,pens, and inks, the first typewriters, book binding machines, filing systems, and of course lots and lots of paper.

In 1945 Vannevar Bush published his seminal paper As We May Think. In this paper he described his concept developed during the 1930s for “a future device for individual use … a sort of mechanized private file and library” called the Memex which notably was conceived to be in the shape and form of a desk. Although Bush envisioned the Memex as an electro-mechanical microfiche library, his ideas about organizing information were influential in the development of early personal computer interfaces and the World Wide Web.

Vannevar Bush at his desk

The first computer designed to fit entirely on the surface of a desk was apparently the HP 9800 series. These were little more than sophisticated programmable calculators by modern standards, but these sorts of devices were common in scientific laboratories in the 1970s.

HP 9816

The machines that launched the personal computer revolution such as the Apple ][,  Commodore 64, TRS-80, and IBM-PC all were designed to sit on a desk in a home or office environment.

The first personal computers of course all used a command line interface, but not long after their introduction graphical user interfaces were added based on the so called “desktop metaphor.” The idea of the desktop metaphor is that the computer is a sort of virtual desk, with programs, data files, and so on being represented on the computer screen as items on the surface of a virtual desk defined by the area of the computer screen.

Currently we see two divergent trends that promise to shape the future of the desk and office environment. First, we see the continuation of the desktop metaphor where the user interface to a computing system is based on the idea of a desk. Second, we see the continuing improvement of mobile computing and augmented reality or other display technologies that might make desks unnecessary and obsolete.

This first trend has recently been extended with the addition of effective and affordable touch interfaces in the forms of tablets which recently have gotten large enough to enable touch based tables and even walls. These take the desk metaphor quite literally, turning a desk or table into an interactive touch based display surface.

What about the physical desk itself? Certainly with the advent of CAD (Computer Aided Design), new materials and advanced manufacturing techniques the very form of desk itself is worthy of a bit of rethinking.  The desk is not only an information space and tool for writing, but also a place to put things. This is of course on advantage of the idea of the secretary desk that closes up to hide your clutter. One of my favorite designers, Karim Rashid, recently did a hyper modern wedge shaped retake on the  secretary desk called the SLAB. Other designers imagine a  desk that looks like it belongs on the starship Enterprise. Many of theses ideas may seem silly or dated in the future. The changing nature of work tools themselves define a new set of requirements for the form and function of the desk. Financial traders like the one Kevin Kelly interviewed in 2007 have an entire office consisting of screens. The need to place screens drives the requirements for desk form, u-shpaed as shown here for example, as well as the need to have multiple heights and rows of displays. This may eventually drive the very walls of a room to made into touch based interactive displays.

The desk has become the place where many people spend the majority of their day, and “desk work” is a large part of what defines professional environments today. But sitting at desks isn’t good for you. And increasingly we work online so work can be performed anywhere we have Internet access; where ever we are is our office. Co-working and hacker spaces provide alternative environments for lean start ups and the self-employed.

Citizen Space, San Francisco
 Arguably all you need is a sufficiently sophisticated augmented reality display, and any flat surface whether it be a wall or “desk” can become your “desktop”.

Papervision – Augmented Reality (extended) from Boffswana on Vimeo.

So we have two very different views of the future. In the first, the desk takes over our experience of the abstract realm of software as the “desktop metaphor” and with advancing touch based displays becoming embedded in actual furniture including desks and tables and eventually even our walls. The desk as a place to put things might continue to exist, but these things are smart and communicate with the desk’s information space. In the second apparently opposing vision, the desk vanishes becoming essentially irrelevant. We use augmented reality, wearable interfaces, and portable displays to turn where ever we are into our work space. The desk is dead. Or is it?

A more thorough analysis shows that these two approaches are not as opposed as they might at first seem. Both interfaces can, for example, access a shared data or information space via a distributed network of systems, i.e. The AR-CAVE. The future will include both advanced and information rich desks and desks as a place to put things.  Meanwhile, offices will become display rich environments and augmented reality displays will advance. The two approaches will become compatible and interconnected; they will work together as part of our extended selves.

If you want to dig deeper, consider the treatment in Ji -Sun Kim’s thesis.

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