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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

How Tech Remakes Space, Food and Urgency

We usually think about technology changing our world in terms of things it touches directly. Shelves of records and CDs disappear into Apple’s iTunes. Goods are advertised on the Internet and in a few years hundreds of newspapers close.

The revolution of cloud computing and mobility, however, appears to be doing something even more profound: in an astonishingly short period of time this technology is changing the way we interact with the physical world.

In an article published Tuesday night, I wrote about a San Francisco real estate company called RocketSpace, which gets a premium to existing real estate prices by offering an environment of energetic and rapid change. Architectural niceties like views, oak paneling and thick rugs are old values. The new ones include lots of bandwidth, long tables where people work in the open, and proximity to other people working long hours.

That is, they want to work in places that look like Facebook. And Facebook wants to embody the perpetual change of a software-intensive data center, or a mobile app that can be updated for a new look and added functionality.

Facebook took the old headquarters of Sun Microsystems and spent money on hanging wires and putting people in close proximity and giving the space an unfinished look. While Google earlier put three or more people in an office, Facebook did away with far more walls. In both cases, this was not primarily about saving money. The bigger issue is creating physical spaces that encourage collaboration and flexibility.

New engineers at Facebook are encouraged to change something small on the site as early as the first day, so they can feel as if no product is ever really done. Early in Google’s development, engineers realized that the search engine’s global reach enabled them to experiment continuously with different versions of a product.

Working in a RocketSpace office, where even a cubicle might signify too much rigidity, “is the ethos of cloud software,” said Steve Swasey, the head of communications at Kabam, a cloud-based games company. It’s a look the company kept after moving to its own digs. “Long tables, people talking in a hush because others are working, and if you put in a request you can get your own file drawer,” he said, adding, “on wheels.”

This new way of thinking about how we use space and relate to one another does not end at offices. A company called Quip recently unveiled a kind of cloud-based word processing software built for a mobile world. Its files and documents are meant to be collaborative products, which anyone in a group can jump into and change around. Trappings like instant messaging along one side of the screen and Facebook-like photos of others currently working in one’s files drive home values of change, and getting products out fast.

Those tech workers accustomed to flexibility are also taking that ethos outside the office. As noted elsewhere, the operations of cloud computing, in particular the virtualization of one computer server to do the work of many, have also affected things like transportation, with the Uber car service, and lodging, with Airbnb. A room in a house is now potentially a hotel room, and a limousine is, for a short time, a cab. A recent report looks at this shared â€" or partial ownership â€" style as a threat to our consumer-driven economy.

Certainly, few big changes happen in a vacuum. Both the crammed office and the “sharing economy” can easily be seen as strategies for dealing with a particularly harsh and lasting economic downturn. We are, as a nation, taking in boarders for extra cash.

It may also be true that the current computing revolution prolongs the recession, by increasing the efficiency of a system that was tuned to a higher level of consumption.

Social and economic changes caused by the likes of Airbnb are possible only because cloud computing makes it cheap and easy to manage a huge database of distributed assets that are in near constant flux.

Food trucks that fans follow on Twitter, creating temporary restaurants on streets and sidewalks, or pop-up stores in temporarily unused stores are other markers of this embrace of perpetual change.