A Modern Panopticon
The modern software industry touts the open-plan office as an effective way to improve communication and productivity leading to higher quality and more innovative software products. This despite all evidence to the contrary. A 2009 study by A. Kaarlela-Tuomaala, et.al. published in Ergonomics concludes:
The results suggest that the open-plan office is not recommended for professional workers.
A 2013 study from the University of Sydney by Jungsoo Kim, et. al. published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology is pretty clear:
[…] our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction.
In addition, a 2015 twelve-month longitudinal study by Jessica Bergström, et. al. published in Work shows perceived decreases in productivity when creative workers are moved from private offices to an open-plan office. These suggest that creative professionals, like engineers, are most productive in offices with doors that can be closed allowing them to concentrate in silence and which open into a common area where they can talk with peers and explore ideas.
So why is the open-plan office still the only (to a first approximation) office layout used in 2020? Is it because it’s cheap? Well, a persuasive bit of calculation by Geoffrey James in 2016 suggests that even that is not the case. So why do Facebook, Google and Apple swear by this approach? I would like to propose a possible explanation. Could this be an unconscious throwback to the Puritan notion of virtue, a virtue that is constantly reinforced by communal observation, a virtue twisted to mean unfailing support of the company’s stated goals?
Eighteenth Century philosopher Jeremy Bentham spent nearly twenty years developing the concept he called the Panopticon. It was an innovative form of imprisonment which placed the prisoners in cells surrounding an observation tower. The cells were constantly lit sufficiently to assure that the activities of each prisoner could be observed from the tower at any time. The guards in the tower were obscured in such a way that their actions could not be observed by the prisoners. This meant that no prisoner would be able to determine if he was being observed at any given time. It was possible he was being observed constantly. Maybe there was no observer at all. He had no way of knowing.
This was considered a very humane and progressive approach to incarceration. Bentham was a brilliant polymath. Philosopher, utilitarian, abolitionist and humanitarian, his intent, with this invention, was to train these criminals to self-observe and self-regulate in reaction to the possibility that any inappropriate act may be surveilled. The external observation would eventually be internalized causing the malefactory mind to mutate into a self-conscious well-ordered mind. In other words, the persistent external conscience would irradiate and nurture a new self-sustaining internal conscience.
Despite Bentham’s prestige, he never managed to build his Panopticon. Modern corporate prisons borrow some of his concepts but not enough to verify its effectiveness. While Bentham’s goal was benign and his concept revolutionary, it is likely that rather than produce a personal conscience in the prisoners, the intense sensation of always being watched would instead manifest as severe neurosis.
Does the open-plan office represent a grubby simulacrum of the Panopticon in the modern workplace? The employees are arrayed at technologically advanced picnic tables, always exposed, always possibly under observation. Unlike in a collection of private offices, before the accountant searches the web for the meaning of a word he suspects he should already know, he will look about in hopes he is not being observed. Before the developer looks at the Java API to review the methods on an object with which she should already be familiar, she will check for any hope of privacy. More likely, each will proceed without verification and hope the spell checker or IDE will enlighten them.
I suggest that the modern Panopticon is intended to provide the same benefits as Bentham’s: to assure proper behavior among all inmates as a result of potential constant scrutiny. Like Bentham’s Panopticon it tends, instead, to induce a cautious overly-reflective behavior which inhibits risky creative thinking. To launch into an experimental Python program to test an advanced concept would be spotted and questioned by any technical manager looking over the developer’s shoulder. “What are you supposed to be working on?” would be the question to which the answer would reveal the developer’s iniquity.
At Sun Microsystems (a company that provided small individual offices opening into common areas for creative exercises and discussion), this statement was often overheard: “Every engineer at Sun is working on two projects, the one his boss knows about and the one his boss doesn’t.” The one the boss didn’t know about was often the one that provided a new vision for a long-murky project or proved out a faster way to compile complex equations.
The Sun culture followed the principles laid out by our U.S. founders. Secrecy is not, in itself, vile. Indeed, it is necessary for free people to keep secrets. Libertarians may plan their march in secret without inviting suggestions from local Socialists. When an engineer thinks she has a good idea but isn’t sure yet, her exploration of that possibility is rightly kept secret until the concept has matured to the level of a supportable proposal. People must feel free to theorize with abandon and disciplined whimsy without the interference of outside observers questioning each crazy creative turn.
The open-plan office bans secrets and drives all inmates to a constant, consistent norm. This is the reason for the cynical contrivance called the innovation sprint wherein developers are periodically given two weeks to “innovate.” The developers crave a creative outlet and management must assure that it doesn’t disrupt the established process, so a minimally disruptive process is provided. The problem with the innovation sprint, of course, is its implicit identification of innovation as a necessary threat that must be isolated within a protective zone. Like human excretion, yes it has to happen but there’s a time and a place for it and we don’t talk about it after the deed is done.
Innovation is the quality behind every great advance in human understanding and prosperity. It is valued and revered in science, mathematics and even politics. There are many employee behaviors that may result in problems for a company. Such behaviors are often addressed in informal ad hoc ways as if management is entirely unaware of them and surprised when they arise. It is interesting to note that innovative behavior is frightening enough to actually anticipate and formally control.
If modern software development is a simple accounting job wherein a specific task is assigned and coded up followed by another task and another batch of code, then a panopticon, while annoying, is probably harmless. If reflection, innovation and risk-taking are not among the processes permitted in software development, then perhaps we should automate the entire thing. For that matter, perhaps we are.
Julian S. Taylor is the author of Famine in the Bullpen the new book about bringing innovation back to software engineering.
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