TRON: The Future is Then, or the continuing legacy of the appropriated Action Office

In the summer of 1982 I was living in a small log cabin along the banks of the Kenai River, a few miles upriver from Soldatna, AK. I was working in fish canneries and my father was trying to start a new business. My father was also a pilot and we would often fly across the inlet from Soldatna to Anchorage on the weekends to eat fast food and catch a movie. One of those weekends we saw TRON.

I loved TRON. I thought it a somewhat strange, but fascinating film. The early CGI graphics were very cool. But much of the underlying content of computers and computing was foreign to me. I had used computers a little (Commodore Pet computers in 9th grade for some BASIC programming which I didn’t really understand). I knew nothing of the Silicon Valley and its burgeoning culture. I knew nothing of RAM, or CPUs, or IBM. And don’t forget, the first Macintosh computer did not arrive until 1984, the very mediocre Windows OS 2.0 arrived in 1987, and the Internet did not go “public” until the 1990s, and wasn’t commonplace until 1996 (commonplace being a relative term).

To my surprise I began working at a software company in 2000. That was the first time I got a job with an international corporation and worked in an environment that made the comic strip Dilbert seem more like a documentary than fictional comedy. I did customer service, tech support, and sales. I am still with the company and currently work on backend data issues. Recently I saw TRON again and was intrigued with its visual depiction of a work environment in a large computer company in the early eighties.

TRON is famous for its highly imaginative vision of the virtual world inside computers. The idea seems to contrast with the reality of the homogenized office world seen in this image:

I worked in such an environment, just different color cube walls

The sea of cubicles, likely enhanced by some fancy matte painting, speaks volumes about modern corporate life. Even in the modern world of computer programming it comes down to controlling costs and harnessing the labor of others. These cubicles represent a darker turn from the original concept of the Action Office. The idea of the Action Office is to create an environment where creative people can interact with each other more freely. What we ended up with was the cubicle. Today it is much the same. However, there is a trend to do away with the cubicle and just give workers a place to set their laptops; no walls, no personal space, just completely open. Not surprisingly it is called the Open Office concept.

One other thing caught my eye. In the cube in the image below we see the sign on the left that says, “GORT, KLAATU BARADA NIKTO.”

A “personalized” cube

Some things never change. You will find similar signs where I work today. What I have noticed, though, is that the blue hue of the cubes (many cubes then were also orange, green, etc.) have given way to taupe and beige and gray in order to create a more pleasant atmosphere. What is also interesting is how fashions have come full circle. In the nineties the style was baggy shorts, flip flops, and other goofy attire. Now the trend is back toward business casual.

Back to office design. In the 1950s Quickborner, a German design group, tried to improve the typical large office space with something they called Bürolandschaft, or “office landscape”.

office “landscape”

Then in the 1960’s the American design company, Herman Miller, invented the Action Office concept and furniture. This concept was to get away from the Open Office concept on the one hand, and the individual closed-off office on the other. The goal was to create an environment that was more private that a completely open design, but was also more human and flexible to the needs of workers.

Action Office by Herman Miller, 1960s

Companies, however, began to cherry-pick the various components of the Action Office suite (from Herman Miller and other purveyors) based on the desires of the finance office and share holders. We ended up with large cube farms that were more like something from a science fiction film about a dystopian future. Of course, it did not take long for the idea to be parodied.

Still from Playtime (1967) by Jacques Tati

The theatrical release of TRON lies about halfway between the advent of the modern office and our present day. So much has changed—the Internet, mobile phones, iTunes, more than one economic recession—and yet so much remains the same. The fundamental concepts of so much business, its methods, its modus operandi, and its questionable ethics, are all still with us, and so is the cube.

>Considering businesses flying government flags


I am curious. What is it with businesses and flags?
There is some sense in a state capitol having a state flag out front, or the U.S. Capitol building having the Stars and Stripes waving out front. But why is it necessary for a business to have a U.S. flag, a state flag, and even a flag with the business’s name or logo on it? I ask this, in part, because government flags in front of buildings have become so ubiquitous that we barely notice them, and when we do we never ask why are they there.
I suppose most people would give a quick unthinking kind of answer, a kind of “isn’t it obvious?” answer. But stop for a moment and wonder if it really is so obvious, or should be so obvious.
What are flags anyway?
Flags are symbolic representations of something bigger. The Stars and Stripes “stand” for the United States of America, all that is good and all that is bad. That is why some people salute the U.S flag, yeah even get tears in there eyes at it presence, and others burn the flag, even get tears in their eyes as well, but for other reasons.
When a business flies a flag it is showing us a symbol for something that represents that company. So a U.S. flag, in this sense, stands not only for the country but for the business as well. The business is “claiming” the symbol as being meaningful to the business. 
Personally I find flags interesting, but troubling as well, especially when the flag represents a state or government. People have fought and died for the Stars and Stripes. That’s a big deal for a lot of people. For that reason alone it seems almost demeaning to the flag (and those who have died) for any business – like a car dealership – to wave the flag outside as a means of advertising their business. On the other hand, I find it sad and problematic that anyone would willingly or unwillingly die for a state (in this sense a nation state). Flags are part of the ongoing problem we call humanity and what emerges from that humanity is sin (among other things). People get tribal, power hungry, territorial, and vain. People kill each other and even like doing so. Governments, such as the violent and all too self-righteous U.S. government, wave flags and create mythologies around those flags. Government flags are about power. The U.S. is a great country in many ways, but it is also a country of countless problems and even atrocities. For that reason it is also troubling to fly the flag in front of a business.
It is better to not fly the flag. There is no need to do so and probably several excellent reasons not to. Anyway, as I stated at the beginning, I am curious.

>Update on "RitzCamera – OH SNAP!"

>In my earlier post I detailed my trials & tribulations with Ritz Camera. I just got an email from them. It goes as follows:

We are sorry to inform that we tried to get an RMA number for the return of the item. However, as per the updates which we received, you will have to contact the manufacturer regarding this.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause to you.

Please feel free to get back to us for further assistance.

Customer Service

I will try the manufacturer, but I must say Ritz Camera is crossed off my list of shopping destinations. This is, in part, because I don’t care if they can get an RMA number or not. After what I have gone through they should just take back the item, refund my money, make me happy, and then they can figure out what they want to do – i.e. chalk it up as a minor financial loss ($135) for the sake of a happy customer to whom they made promises that, because of some arbitrary “official” policies, they could not keep.

>RitzCamera – OH SNAP!

>Call me crotchety in my old age, but I’m a stickler for good customer service. Consequently I will NOT be making any more purchases from RitzCamera, a.k.a. Wolf Camera.

Below is an email I sent yesterday to customer service for RitzCamera and to Andre Brysha, Senior Vice President & Chief Marketing Officer of Ritz Interactive (the holding company for RitzCamera).

I am a very frustrated consumer. Before I tell you about my experience, please consider this quote from your President and CEO Fred H. Lerner:

“From the very start, we have been committed to providing our customers with a world-class online shopping experience. That means consistently delivering on our promises – all the way through the selection, purchasing and fulfillment processes. Sure we benefit from our well-known, trusted brands, but it’s the ease of use, savings, and superior service that keeps customers coming back to our sites.” 5/13/2009 [I have added the underlines for emphasis.]

I personally purchased a blu-ray disc player from RitzCamera on 2/21 (order # XXXXXXX). The player does not work properly. I called customer service in order to return the player. The friendly customer service rep told me there would be no problem in returning the product, that in 24 hours I would receive an email with an RMA #, and then in 3-5 business days I would receive pre-paid mailing information to ship the player back to RitzCamera. I hung up happy that, at least, I would be able to return the faulty product RitzCamera sold me.

MORE than two weeks went by and I received nothing.

I called again on 3/19 and spoke to another customer service rep who informed me that I could not return the product to RitzCamera because it is a non-returnable item. This was completely different information than that given to me previously by RitzCamera. At no time during the period since I was told returning the player was “no problem” did I receive either an email or phone call informing me the information I was given by the first customer service rep was erroneous. No correction, no new information, no apology, nothing.

I then asked for a supervisor. I was told by the supervisor that maybe there was something that can be done – he would make no promises except to get back to me. He told me I would have to wait up to 48 hours to receive an email with the answer. Although more waiting was more trouble for me I had no choice.

FIVE DAYS expired and I did not receive that email. Nothing.

Today I called AGAIN and was told there is nothing RitzCamera can do, but that I can call a corporate number to hear the company policy again. Again, no apology for anything up to this point. In today’s highly competitive world what does this say about RitzCamera’s policies? While many other companies are striving to deliver exceptional customer service where truly is RitzCamera?

As a consumer of electronics, a student of business, and as someone who knows what good and bad customer service is, there is no doubt that RitzCamera’s fundamental company policy is not dissimilar from taking customer’s money, not standing behind the products they sell, and treating their customers poorly.

Consider me not only an upset FORMER CUSTOMER of RitzCamera, but also a passionate advocate of looking elsewhere. There are many other vendors besides RitzCamera.

Consider as well the cost to me of a mere $135 blu-ray player (which I have already replaced via Costco – which I confirmed will take it back anytime, no questions asked, and give me cash if I request) compared to the cost to RitzCamera of a poorly treated customer. It would appear that, at least in my experience, customer service from RitzCamera takes all too lightly the quote above from Mr. Lerner.

I merely wanted was to return a defective product back to RitzCamera and get a refund. I was told this was possible and easy to do. That turned out to be a lie. If only I had been contacted within a couple of days of that first phone call and told that a mistake had been made and that I would have to return the item to the manufacturer, but that a refund was not a problem I would still have been mostly happy. As it stands now, however, I want RitzCamera to send me the free mailing label and refund my money.

Conflicting information, broken promises, and lack of basic respect for your customer has driven me away.

Yes, I tend to be wordy, but I would rather have it all out there in an email as a record of the saga. As of this posting I have noticed only one attempt to contact me via phone – I googled the number and it came from RitzCamera – but no message was left. Andre Brysha has not bothered to make sure someone got a hold of me, nor has he decided to contact me himself. In all it is the same story, and hence a continuation of the same experience for me. But at least I can let you know a little something about RitzCamera.

Finally I got a kind of update from RitzCamera late 3/25 in the form of an email:

Thank you for providing an opportunity to be of assistance.

This is with reference to your order number XXXXXXX.

We express our profound apology for the complexity you have experienced during the purchase process from our online store. We are sorry; it was purely unintended.

We would like to inform that we have already forwarded a request to our shipping and handling department to have a check in this issue. We will get back to you as soon as we receive an update from them.

Please feel free to get back to us for further assistance.

We’ll see where this leads.

>One week of an IDEO project

>The famous design firm IDEO is often considered the most creative such company in the U.S. I have heard about them for years, but now I am more interested because I have been doing some research on innovation and creativity. There design processes tends toward what they call controlled chaos. It is active, cooperative, democratic (mostly), and sometimes intense.

Recently they set up a camera to capture an entire week of work in two minutes:

Ten years ago ABC’s Nightline ran a story about IDEO and its design philosophy. Nightline asked IDEO to redesign the ubiquitous shopping cart in five days. This video is one of the best distillations of how to get a group to think & act creatively under time pressure and with a specific goal in mind.

The rest of the piece: Part 2 and Part 3.

>Greenpeace, smokestacks, and my children

>I am reading the book Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists, and Visionaries Changed the World by Rex Weyler, and thoroughly enjoying it. I have to say the more I learn about Greenpeace the more I like them. And like so many other things in my life, I think I know something until I start reading about it, then I realize what I assumed turns out to be different from the truth, or at least a skewed facsimile.

Also, I recently came across this video of a Greenpeace direct action campaign in England. I would encourage anyone to take the time to view it.

Not only do I like their spirit, but there is something fundamentally human about what they did. As a parent I look to the future for my children and I wonder what kind of world will they live in, and will that world be one where greed, power, and selfishness prevail, or will it be a world where the basic needs of human life take precedence over corporate profits? It’s easy to get sappy, and I can’t say I’m an expert on either global warming or pollution, but I have to say one thing my MBA taught me is that you cannot trust any publicly traded corporation to willingly diminish it potential profits for the sake of my wellbeing, your wellbeing, or the wellbeing of my children and yours.