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By Ellen Channing The shrill, metallic screech of the subway train’s breaks reverberated off the tiled tunnels that crisscrossed their way beneath the dense urban environment. The crowd of passengers, laden with purses, backpacks, briefcases and shopping bags jostled and shoved their way through the train’s exit doors as if pulled by a vacuum force. Many toes were squashed, and packages upset, but no one seemed to notice; their full attention was directed at the small screens held in their hands. Arnold Greene did not struggle against this tide of movement, he let it drag him from his seat onto the subway platform. Checking his mobile device for the time, he spotted a comfortable bench in the station, and sat down. His mobile device wriggled with importance, indicating the working day had begun. It is the year 2050. Despite predictions of flying cars, personal jetpacks, or meals in tablet form, the extreme concentration and popularity of consumer electronics has resulted in one concrete achievement: portable offices. Arthur considers himself lucky; he aged right into the vogue of the portable office. When he was fresh out of college and green to the job market, corporate offices still operated from a centralized location. Working on the go was unheard of, limited to special circumstances like business travel, new mothers on maternity leave, and careers that mandated flexibility: artists or screenwriters, for example. Then, working from outside the office was called “telecommuting”. Now, Arthur can take his office with him, and set up wherever he pleased. Decentralization opened up a lot of opportunities and improvements in the working world.Arthur grimly remembered his struggle to sustain his apartment rent on a young professional’s salary. Housing was limited and rates were expensive to reflect its high demand. When everyone could work from anywhere, companies no longer occupied office buildings. This
real estate began to free up, and was re-purposed for apartment homes.. Now housing was everywhere at a completely reasonable rate. Surprisingly enough, portable offices did little to ameliorate commute and traffic conditions. In fact, traffic had actually gotten worse. Instead of congestion only on major highways leading downtown, all roads were congested to accommodate the freedom of office location. Arthur is a project manager at an investment firm. In the past, a stationary office would have easily met his needs; keeping in contact with his clients and his staff was completely achievable in a single office space. He didn’t enjoy work in those days. He prefers the freedom of being able to settle where he chooses, anywhere from a fast food restaurant to the ninth hole of a golf course. Quite a few lawyers and bankers choose to set up there, accompanied by their drivers and putters. Today, he chose to settle on the subway station bench. He feels inspired by the constant movement of people, and trains back and forth. He worked harder and faster to keep up with their pace. He wouldn’t be speaking with any clients until the annual progress report telepresentation that afternoon, and he needed the hustle and bustle to direct him to focus and wrap up some stray points. When it came time for the presentation, he’d seek a quieter locale. Productivity and achievement are very important in Arthur’s line of work. His paycheck directly reflects the amount of work was completed, as monitored from within his portable office. Though many contemporary workers initially objected to this proposal, Arthur was in strong support this method of evaluation and compensation. He could remember working in an office with colleagues that did less work than he did, but still earned equal salaries. This is the primary motivation behind his office selection for the day; motivation for achievement. After taking his seat, Arthur rested a tablet with a pyramidal base comfortably on his lap. Both screen
and video camera, this tablet is about the size of a legal document, and the density of a magazine. It also behaves similarly to a magazine, it is foldable and flexible when powered down, but rigid when in use. This allows for ease of transport. Many portable office workers preferred to carry their supplies in a medium sized bag; tote for women or briefcase for men. Arthur preferred to carry his equipment strapped to his body because he did not like the aspersions cast on bagcarrying men. There were similar social consequences for the body computer variety, such as android or computer loving slurs, but Arthur was so lithe and tall that his office equipment was unnoticeable beneath his over-sized trench coat. He pulled out a pair of shiny objects from this pockets, bearing a resemblance to brass knuckles. A loitering teenager noticed this similarity from the corner of his eye, and hastily fled from Arthur’s view. As he slid them on his fingers, their true purpose became clear. These devices allowed him to communicate with the content on his screen, to modify or add data, to edit or remove notes within documents. The rings encompassed four fingers on each hand, and typing was recorded from only eight keys. The result appeared much like steno, a stenographer’s shorthand language. Everyone’s steno spellings were unique, and the portable office computer learned to interpret a user’s keystrokes over time. Arthur recalled the wasted days of spelling and handwriting practice in elementary school. His children were now encouraged to develop their own unique steno character set in primary school. The dark glasses on Arthur’s face tracked his rapid eye movement to determine what he was viewing on the screen. This gave him navigational control, and played the role of the historical mouse. He had just completed his edits of the report. All that was left was the crown jewel of his presentation. Arthur reached into his coat and extracted a small stylus. This piece was an expensive personal modification to his portable office. It had no mandatory functionality,
he just preferred to sign his signature by hand instead of keying in an access code. It provided an aristocratic touch that impressed his older clients, as a wax sealed invitation would have impressed his parents. Also, Arthur thought proudly, If you have the skills, might as well show ‘em off. Right before he was about to make contact with the screen, the image flickered and cut to black. Arthur paused, and thought diagnostically. He had never experienced a problem with his portable office before. He stamped his feet experimentally. Perhaps he had fidgeted and cut the electricity. The portable office was powered by an in-ground electrical current conducted through his specialized boots when they were in contact with the ground. The attempts to regain power proved to be fruitless; the screen sat limp in his lap like a magazine that had been thumbed through too many times. He looked around the subway station. Trains continued to move, lights remained on, and people were buoyed back and forth across the grey concrete sea. Clearly, the electricity was still working, or else Arthur would see decay in their way of life. Despite the popularity of the “green” or ecologically friendly movement of the past, the major researchers that had the means to develop an alternative energy source were the same who sold consumer electronics, and thus research went uncompleted. What do I do next? Arthur thought. How can I contact the others to see what is going on? There must be a problem with the communication network, but what could it be? Arthur began to worry. Communication was an essential part of his business and his station in life. His worries prevented him from seeing the irony of it all- humans rendered helpless in communication when their supplementary connective devices fail. It seemed that the advanced society of 2050 had lost the power given to man in the days of homo ergaster: speech.
Overwhelmed and seeing no easy solutions, he resolved to seek out his old business’ headquarters. Surely someone must remain to bind the threads together. Stumbling and blinking like a mole freshly emerged from the earth, Arthur exited the gaping mouth of the subway tunnel. It had been years since he was really downtown and topside. Luckily, the city hadn’t changed that much, at least in its layout. Skyscrapers still reached towards the clouds, and cars groaned and roared like metal beasts in a herd, stampeding down all major roads and intersections. Though he didn’t immediately recognize his surroundings, he felt a twinge of familiarity, and continued to weave his way down the street towards the heart of the metropolis. After some minutes of disoriented wanderings, past landmarks which were worn out or completely upgraded, Arthur found his way to the old office building. The structure itself was completely transformed. It had shed its glossy floor-to-ceiling windows in favor of more sturdy, soundproof walls to accommodate its residents. He might have completely missed and walked past it, but many of his colleagues were bumbling about before its doors, suggesting some sort of technological mecca. All the employees kept their distance from one another, both to observe their co-worker’s appearances without the screen, as well as keep a safe distance from their acquaintances in the flesh. Arthur stood on a large box to address the group, seeing that no other leader would emerge. As he did so, the contents of the box was disturbed and fell, swinging wildly about, caught on it’s chain-like tail. The crowd as started by the noise, and looked suspiciously from Arthur to the box. Many in the group were young, and unsure of what it was. Arthur noticed their confusion and muttered, “It’s just a stupid old pay phone.”
“Colleagues!” he shouted. “You have come because your communication technology failed!” A murmur of assent rippled through the crowd, though no one seemed to be willing to make direct eye contact. “We have an important meeting, a presentation today. This could mean the survival of our company, and the lifestyle we maintain to avoid meeting like this. Consider the consequences- if you lose your job here, or this company fails, how will we muster the skills and sociability to seek another? Or worse, we could be forced to work in the public sector, carting passengers in taxis, seating in close proximity!” A shudder spread through the crowd like wildfire, and the crowd began to straighten up reluctantly. “I suggest we use this building to carry on our meeting- by whatever means necessary!” Far from the inspirational effect he intended, Arthur finished his speech and charged through the doors of the lobby. The crowd listlessly shuffled after him, forced to bear the burden under the threat of a worse employment experience. After quickly deciding to use the lobby of the building as a headquarters instead of intruding on tenant’s homes, Arthur took charge and went to work. Apartment residents passed the mass of people in surprise. They were unused to seeing other people without a barrier or screens, car doors, or drive through windows; many dropped their laundry or tripped over their own feet while gawking. Having worked in a public office before, Arthur mobilized the troops. He dispatched the most charismatic of men to send personal invitations to the company’s clients, offering them one flippant statement of advice. “Well, you speak face-to-face with your wife, don’t you? Today, these people are equally important!” Next, he devised his part of the presentation into a speech, and suggested that other managers do the same. They had to be convincing without the usual visual props or crutches. The
rest of the group attempted to make the place suitable for guests, re-appropriating any remaining items into seats and tables. Finally, the hand of the old clock on the building’s facade swung around and played a loud tone. Although not many of the men present could read an analog clock, the signal was unmistakable. It was time. Clients trickled in, bewildered as Arthur had been in the physical world arrangement. They took their seats, unsure of what to expect. One by one, each manager presented his report. Some were more animated than others, gesticulating wildly to illustrate profit growth or decline. As time passed, the audience began to nod in comprehension. During Arthur’s presentation, a pair of elderly men in the back began reminiscing about how these presentations were done in “the old days”, unaware of their volume. Their hearing aids had failed with the communication technology. An executive, the most shy of all, attempted to wrap up the meeting by asking, “Any questions?” His statement was almost completely unheard. At that moment, bags in the room began rumbling back to life; the communication network had been repaired. Immediately, everyone rushed to engage with their device, as a desert wanderer rushes to water. The lobby erupted with sound- clients talking to managers through their screens, managers chatting with one another digitally. Arthur slowly turned his device back on, feeling old and tired. They had glimpsed the past, his youth, but had chosen the future. He opened a screen communication with his boss, waving his fingers to ask, “How do we get paid for today’s work?”
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Other Titles by Ellen Channing: Carmageddon Fifteen Minutes …For Art’s Sake Library Help Desk: A Superhero’s Tale Portable Offices Wild Mouse Chase
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