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.

>Dark Clouds: Looking Back at Security Preparations for the G20


States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions.

~ Noam Chomsky
Wars, foreign policies, economic meltdowns, immigration laws, state of the union addresses, military budgets, pomp, closed door meetings, state secrets, police forces, fear, all point to what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of the World. It is a world of “power over” others, as Greg Boyd describes in his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation. Power clings to power, wealth builds protection around itself, and for good reason. Those without power, without wealth, sometimes what to tear down, or at minimum call into question, power and wealth. And for good reason as well. Power over others inevitably leads to cruelty and death, to loss of fundamental rights and freedoms, and to official lies and false promises.
“Power over” also produces tactics of self-protection, including violence and overwhelming force.
A lot of people claim to like or even love Jesus. I would guess that many, maybe most, of those people also cling to and justify kingdom of the world ideologies. We have a tendency to seek security and comfort. We we often give up many freedoms as long as we are promised personal peace and prosperity. We like the example of Jesus, but all too often fall into the trap of believing in the safety of “power over” social structures. Sometimes, however, people rise up to challenge “power over” assumptions.
The first three videos below, from Press for Truth, were made in the weeks prior to the recent G20 Summit that took place in Toronto. The fourth video documents some actions at the summit, including members of the Black Bloc causing property damage, and large numbers of police harassing protesters in the official protest zone. The fourth video also asks the question of whether disguised police infiltrated the Black Bloc and helped to lead some of the riots in order to justify other police actions and an enormous security budget. The news reported that the protest riots got out of hand at the summit. Hundreds of people were arrested.
I find these reports fascinating.
Clearly, the use of violence is exactly not in the tradition of Jesus. In fact, the Black Bloc is committed to a “power over” position as much as the bankers of the WTO or the IMF, or the police forces they so love to hate. Their use of violence, regardless of anything else they might say, gives them away. But the others, those that seek a new paradigm through peaceful protest (that is designed to publicly call into question the prevailing ideologies), are living, at least in part, within the tradition of Jesus – even if they would never call themselves Christian or darken the door of a church.

>John Zerzan: On Modernity & the Technosphere*

>John Zerzan lives in Eugene, Oregon. He is an author, speaker, and the host of AnarchyRadio. I have only recent discovered Zerzan, but I like a lot of where he is coming from.

Here is a lecture from Binghamton University on April 2, 2008.

* Grabbed from Essential Dissent. Discovered by way of Jesus Radicals.

>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.

>the footprint we work


Several years ago I read a great little book on personal finance called Your Money or Your Life. In that book I was captivated by the idea that money represents one’s “life energy.” The idea is that much of the time we work for counterproductive reasons – we falsely trade our life energy for something that feels like life but is something much less. By working more (giving up more and more of our life energy) we end up wasting more trying to maintenance our busy lives. We eat more fast food, pay for dry cleaners, pay for child care, lack time to cut out coupons or shop frugally, drive more rather than bike or take public transportation, and generally have less time for our families. Our modern lives are increasingly lives of diminishing returns.

Recently I came across a somewhat related quote in Bill McKibben’s book Deep Economy. It is as follows:

The more hours you work, the bigger your ecological footprint too. That’s because you’re spending more money and spending it carelessly: with no time to go to the farmers’ market, let alone to cook what you buy there, you drive through the drive-through instead. The numbers are substantial: an American working twenty to forty hours a week requires about twenty-three acres of the earth to support him; someone working more than forty hours requires nearly twenty-eight acres.(1)

I have not been someone to get on the environmentalist bandwagon as much as I probably should, though I have been at the fringes for years. However, if what McKibben says is true I feel I have to take note. If my goal is to love my neighbor as myself then I need to ask how requiring my person acreage, as it were, to be more than the American average, or even more than the global average, is helping me to love my neighbor. One of the great ironies is that the U.S., a country that has claimed Christian roots, praises itself for being such a great help and example to the world while it far outstrips the world in consumption of just about everything. In other words, we puff ourselves with pride for how much we love our neighbors yet we live as though what belongs to others is more rightfully ours. That’s not the way I want to live.

1. McKibben, Bill. Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, pp. 114-115.

>How do you calculate the cost of a war?

>The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are expensive. In terms of human life the cost is incalculable. In other words, when it comes to calculating costs based on the sacredness of human life, we cannot truly make that calculation. But what about the dollars?

If anything has hidden costs it is war.

What really are dollars and where do they come from? Is not a dollar an abstract representation of life energy? We work, we spend our time (time away from family and friends and things we would rather be doing), we sacrifice, we use our creativity, we keep our promises, and we suffer for a dollar. We obtain a dollar as an exchange for our life energy. So when we think about a 3 trillion dollar war we are actually thinking about 3 trillion units of life energy. Who’s life energy? Yours, mine, the kid’s – though they don’t know it yet.

>A Recomendation: The Take

>There are violent revolutions and there are more peaceful ones. Some revolutions are based on ideals and theories and Utopian visions. Others grow out of simple needs for decent jobs and human dignity. The later is the story of the documentary film The Take (2004).

Created by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, The Take chronicles the struggles of out-of-work laborers in Argentina trying to take over abandoned factories and run them for themselves. Driven by basic necessity rather than ideology, these workers desire the simple ability to have a job and provide for the basic needs of their families in the wake of devastating economic policies by the county’s capitalist leaders.

What is truly wonderful about this film is it ability to tell a powerful story, set it within a complicated historical context, and do so while showing the very human realities of the struggle. In other words, it’s not really about revolution, or jobs, or capitalism versus a kind of collectivism. It is a story about people.

And yet, even though it is a story about people, it is also a story about a revolution. Argentina once had a thriving economy. But then new strategies were introduced by a government set on getting themselves rich as whatever cost. The country went into a downward spiral. Factories closed, unemployment skyrocketed, and the World Bank and IMF offered the kind of help one gets only from enemies who claim to be friends. The problem with bad macro-economics is the inevitably tragic micro-economic fallout. Simply, it’s the burden placed on the families who can no longer afford to feed themselves, go to the doctor, or pay rent.

But in Argentina something new began happening. The workers went back to the shuttered factories in which they formerly labored and re-opened them. These workers took over the means of production, produced products, sold them, paid their bills, gave themselves paychecks, and ran the factories collectively. The former owners, who legally were still the owners, were kept out, often by court orders based on Argentine laws, and mostly by the sheer tenacity of the workers who put their hearts and bodies on the line.

If there is anything truly remarkable about this story it is the way ordinary people, people with wives and husbands, with kids, with dreams and desires, walk the thin line between despair and possibilities. These are people like me, like you, who want decent jobs, who love their families, love their friends and their communities, who are not seeking power and glory, but only want a chance to live as they should.

Where the film ends is not where the story ends. Some challenges are overcome, but others still loom. The workers get mostly what they seek, but their future is uncertain. The government took a turn towards the left and is therefore more amenable to the workers, but, like all governments, it is still a mixed bag. If anything, The Take is a realistic look at the human struggle for life and liberty, for work and pay, for present needs and future dreams. It is, in short, a story of humanity.

>Chomsky on the U.S. elections, oil politics, and the current state of resistence

>Inside USA, an English language program on Al Jazeera recently did an interview with Noam Chomsky. I have never watched or read anything from Al Jazeera, that I know of. I did not realize they had an English version, but I guess that makes sense.

From the website, Inside USA says this about its mission:

Inside USA’s mission is to strip away the spin, and highlight some of the real issues in America – poverty, violence, race, health, and immigration.

We will be speaking to people on the ground – not television pundits, but real people with stories to tell – a full spectrum assault of American voices -young, old, white, black, immigrant, rich, and poor.

Here is the interview with Noam Chomsky:

Part one:

Part two:

I have always found Chomsky fascinating. His work on East Timor and Latin America is groundbreaking. So is his work on US politics. Maybe his biggest contribution is his relentless focus on power, that is, political, social, imperial, military power, and its role in shaping how the world functions. This focus puts him somewhere else than simply “left” in terms of politics. The great irony is that although he most likely should be labeled as a radical his views are very close to what most ordinary people think, even if they think they must disagree with Chomsky.

>Global Supply Chains and the Commandment to Love One’s Neighbor as Oneself

>The title of this post is also the title of my thesis which I wrote for my Masters of Business Administration program, which I just completed. To get some idea of what sparked my thinking and led to my thesis topic you can watch the video clip below about workers in developing countries as they support the demands of the developed world. You have already heard about sweat shops in third world countries. Here is what they look like:

…or this parody from The Onion brings up the issue in its way:

What are we, those of us in the most powerful nations on earth, going to do about the globalization of capital and corporate power? The world may be becoming increasingly, economically “flat”, as Tom Friedman says, but is it becoming morally flat as well?

It may sound strange to ask what we are “going to do” about globalization. Isn’t it a good thing? Isn’t it about the expansion of wealth and freedom? Isn’t it about the Internet and better communication? What we don’t typically hear about is the hidden costs of globalization, or about what that word conjures up in the minds of those in the developing world. For much of the world globalization includes the realities in the video above. For the rest of us that reality is often hidden.

I am, by nature, a rather conservative type. I don’t get easily bent out of shape over issues. I don’t seek revolution at the drop of a hat. I also grew up a Christian and was, until a few years ago, a registered Republican. I am still a Christian, and because of taking my faith seriously I could no longer be a Republican. Now I am an independent. But it’s not really about politics. It’s about a perspective on the world, on how I want to live. It’s about what kind of person I want to be and where I want to end up. And it’s also about the kind of world I want for my children and their children.

When it came time for me to choose a topic for my MBA thesis I felt the need to tackle something to do with ethics. I felt I needed to address, for myself, the underlying moral issues inherent in business and economics before I went out from my schooling into more business adventures. So I picked the topic of the treatment of women workers in global supply chains and the ethical implications for businesses that rely on the benefits from those supply chains (like lower costs and faster delivery, etc.). My thesis became, for me, a kind of introduction to the larger topic of ethics and, more specifically, how should someone who claims to be a Christian act in the world.

The following is from Chapter One of my thesis:

Consider this scenario: when a shopkeeper opens her doors in the morning and hangs out the welcome sign it is time to get to work. The pressures of the day quickly crowd in as she must meet the demands of her customers and her business’ bottom line. She must manage her time and her employees, deal with suppliers, and try to make plans for the future while also trying to fully understand the past. Questions of ethics are considered, if considered at all, largely in the immediate context of the day-to-day routine. Our shopkeeper will have to decide where she stands on being truthful and honest with those whom she works; she will make ethical decisions around how she manages her accounting and pays her vendors; she may even face moral questions about what products she sells and whether they are good for her community.

Now let’s assume this shopkeeper is also a Christian, one who makes claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and one who participates in the life of Christian culture. The ethical issues for the shopkeeper will not be any different from any other shopkeeper. However, she now carries the burden of having to follow some explicit commands with regard to the world, most notably to love her neighbor as herself. And who is her neighbor? Is her neighbor only the immediate customer or vendor with whom she does business? Or, given that she lives in an increasingly globalized world, does her neighbor include those with whom she now has connections, even though they may be on the other side of the planet and at the distant end of her supply chains?

If our shop keeper then decides that she does want to build her business around the idea of loving her neighbor as herself, and then apply that philosophy to her dealings with her supply chains, she must decided how to do that. What options are available to her? Does she choose servant-leadership as a leadership style? That is, will she seek to be a servant first and, as Greenleaf (1991) says, “to make sure that other people’s highest priority meeds are being served” (p. 7)? Does she choose to buy only from suppliers that treat their employees well? Does she seek to instill corporate social responsibility into her business practices?

These kinds of questions might be of little importance if it were not for two realities. The first is that the world is more connected than ever before. The second is that many workers in global supply chains, particularly those in developing countries, often have few of the rights or freedoms those in Western and Northern societies take for granted and may even assume to be inalienable. This is not to say that the benefits of free-market capitalism have not brought greater wealth to many developing countries, nor that many of the world’s poor have not seen at least some economic improvement to their way of life. However, as the gap between the world’s poor and the world’s rich gets bigger, and as facts continue to come out regarding the all too often harsh treatment of laborers, including women and children, within global supply chains, one cannot help but ask whether a laissez fair, free-market philosophy is the best approach for creating a fair and just system that benefits all stakeholders appropriately.

A Christian business person must ask these kinds of questions, not merely because economic systems come with their own set of moral presuppositions about human nature and human needs, but also because in the day-to-day world of business, as it is in life, one’s actions flow from one’s beliefs. If a Christian is to take seriously the commandment to love her neighbor as herself, then it only makes sense that that command, that challenge, would raise such questions. Maybe one of the great historical ironies is the interconnectedness of free market capitalist thinking and Christian theology; ironic because one system is based on self-centeredness for its success and the other is based on other-centeredness. Our shopkeeper will have to decide if this interconnectedness is both useful and valid.

I go on to describe how global supply chains work, including the fundamental pressures they impose, such as cheaper labor and fast delivery. I then describe how those pressures necessarily create negative conditions for many workers. I then describe the common conditions of working women in those supply chains. (I chose women workers because of the data available and because they represent more than half of the global workforce while often being in the weakest position with regards to labor rights and fair treatment.) Finally I examine how some have sought solutions, for example the concepts of corporate social responsibility (CSR), fair trade, and servant leadership.

I also examine how Christianity has shifted away from social concerns by becoming a personal/private faith thing rather than an “all of life” thing. This shift has led many Christians for forsake the requirements of their faith, that is, to be “salt of the earth” as it where. Too many Christians, I argue, see their faith as a purely private matter, except for a small handful of political issues.

I do not see globalization as a specifically “Christian issue.” There are many perspectives and answers available. But I find narrowing the scope down a bit helps to crystallize the issue for me. I do not see in the Bible anything specifically about free trade, but I do see a lot about feeding the hungry and helping the poor. Recently a professor of mine related a story where he was teaching about globalization and one of his students, a man from Africa, said that when he hears the word “globalization” he knows it to mean Western imperialism. There is something that rings true for me about that student’s perspective, and that bothers me.

Much of my thinking has shifted over the past several years as I have tried to take seriously the teachings of Jesus. The irony is that the teachings of Jesus contradict much of modern, popular Christianity in both its focus and its call to action. I have become convinced that mainstream, right-wing (and many left-wing) Christians just may have become the new Pharisees – the pious religious types who Jesus railed against and who eventually killed him. They do church really well, but their hearts have become hard – and I know what I’m talking about because I am one of them. Because of this I chose to focus on the implications of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as a foundational challenge. I figured that commandment cuts through a lot of garbage.

This video interview with Tony Campolo offers some idea of what I am talking about:

I won’t say that I am in Campolo’s camp entirely, and I don’t cite him in my thesis. However, I will say that his teaching challenges me deeply.

I am also challenged by numerous other thinkers, most of whom are not Christians, and some are even anti-Christian. But I believe truth can be found just about everywhere. The following video clips further pad out the topic.

Christian “progressive” Jim Wallis talks about living out one’s faith:

Left-left-wing academic and leading progressive thinker Michael Parenti on globalization and what it really means:

Parenti is no fan of Christianity by any means, or any religion really, but he is a very sharp thinker and erudite historian.

Brilliant and exacerbating Noam Chomsky on globalization:

I find myself more and more fascinated with Chomsky’s work. Years ago I read a book of his on linguistics for my MA thesis. Since then I have most only heard him speak. His observations on power politics are illuminating. Chomsky and Parenti do not see eye-to-eye on several issues.

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine speaks on the topic of global brands, the topic of her famous book No Logo:

Famous activist, historian, and progressive thinker Howard Zinn on American Empire (a topic related to globalization):

Not all is doom and gloom. Consider the Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis clips above and the clip below.

Towards a solution – Fair Trade:

I have to say the process of writing and defending my thesis was longer than I anticipated, but it has bee a very rewarding process. I am glad I finished school and I am excited about my future career. I will say, however, that I have not, for me personally, solved the issues raised in my thesis. I still struggle to fulfill the commandment to love my neighbor, and I’m sure I always will.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1991). The servant as leader. Westfield, IN: The Robert K. Greenleaf Center.