Tag Archives: Sweden

Why We Work in Starbucks

(this is a copy of my Loose Wire Service column, syndicated to newspapers; hence no links.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Why do we work in Starbucks? It’s a question I ask myself every day, because I usually find myself in one at least once. This despite having an excellent home office replete with cappuccino machine, music, ergonomic chair and, most importantly, sofa. But lo, every day I wend my way to a Starbucks, or one of those other chains, and park myself in an uncomfortable chair and too-low table, dodging the students with their bags strewn across space they’ll never use, the dregs of a smoothie enough to make it look as if they’re paying their way, babies screaming blue murder by the sugar dispenser.

Why? Why do I do it?

Well, I think it has to do with noise. And a cycle that goes back 300 years and, importantly, has to do with organ grinders.

So first, the organ grinders.

Next time you look out of your window and you don’t see an organ grinder making his way down the street, you can blame Charles Dickens. And Tennyson, Wilkie Collins and 28 authors, painters, engravers, illustrators, historians, actors, sculptors, musicians, architects and scientists. All of them, in 1863, co-signed a letter that “in their devotion to their pursuits—tending to the piece and comfort of mankind—they are daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad, by street musicians.” Most gave their home and work address as the same. The letter was the centerpiece of a 120-page bill submitted before the British parliament by one Michael Thomas Bass. The letter, and dozens of others, reflect a single themes: a rearguard action to defend the home as workplace against the slings and arrows of street noise.

This was no idle irritant. The streets of central London had become a sea of itinerant workers, musicians and hustlers. Those who didn’t like to have their ears assailed by the noise could either pay them off or complain. But the latter was not without risk. One of Dickens’ friends confronted two street musicians and was insulted, in the words of a friend, “in the choicest Billingsgate.” Another, Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine, waged a guerrilla war against street musicians from Manchester Square and was not popular for it: mobs, some numbering more than 100, would pursue him, leave dead cats on his doorstep, break his windows and threaten his life.

The Street Music Act was passed the following year, and decimated the itinerant musician community—among them violin-players and street bands, Irish and Scotch pipers, a German brass-bandsman, a French hurdy-gurdy-player, Italian street entertainers, and percussionists and minstrel singers from India and the United States. Many were gone by the latter years of the century—but so were most of the knowledge workers, who upped sticks to the suburbs or took refuge in offices.

The truth is that knowledge workers, or whatever we choose to call ourselves, have long struggled to control the level of noise in our world.

I’ve waged my own noise battles over the years—dogs in Hong Kong flats, car alarms in Singapore, firecrackers in Indonesia. But at issue is not the pursuit of silence, per se, but to find a place where the noise is conducive to work. And that’s trickier—because we’re not sure what it is.

Which is where the coffee house comes in.

Starbucks likes to portray itself as a “third place”—a term purloined from Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, who mourned the demise of informal public gathering places. The idea is that your local Starbucks fulfills a role beyond just providing  you with coffee, but connects you to others in your community, along with sparkling conversation and wit.

The truth is this doesn’t happen—at least not in any Starbucks I know, a point made by historian Bryant  Simon, who hung around in more than 400 Starbucks trying to strike up conversations with strangers. Despite what Starbucks would like us to believe, with its Annual Report covers of friendly people chatting in their outlets, faux artwork and lame noticeboards, and a short-lived community magazine called Joe, we don’t come to Starbucks to chat. Well, not with strangers.

That dream pretty much died long before Dickens got hot under the collar about the racket-making riff raff . Back in the 1700s there were things called coffee houses, all over the place. They were the place where men met—women were usually banned—to drink coffee, read the paper, discuss politics and basically to get away from things (meaning the house.)  These were vibrant, noisy places and there were lots of them. Samuel Johnson called them ‘penny universities.’

But they began to die out, ironically, when newspapers became cheaper and more plentiful, and were delivered to your home. Then the reason for someone to go to a coffee house declined, and our knowledge workers began two centuries of toiling, either in a cubicle or alone at home.

Starbucks—and other things—have brought us full circle. Starbucks was never what Starbucks would like us to think it is: It is, primarily, a solo-friendly environment. You can go there on your own, order something and sit there on your own and no-one is going to bat an eyelid. Social phobics feel uncomfortable there, but less uncomfortable than pretty much any other eatery. Indeed, the size of tables, the size of the chairs, the layout of the place, is designed to cater to someone alone.

Which is why it has become the perfect workplace. It’s not just the free Wi-Fi, the power outlets, the no-nag policy, although that helps. It’s a complex social and psychological thing. For students, libraries are too quiet, too noisy, too old, too full of friends. You are less likely to fall asleep in a Starbucks. For those who work at home, they feel they might be missing something. Or they like to watch other people. It’s a place for introspection, a refuge from the city, from the kids, from everything: There are people around you, but with no obligation to talk to them. The barista can be as friendly or as taciturn as you want her to be. It’s not a sexy environment, and it’s relatively safe: Leave your belongings while you visit the washroom and they may well still be there when you get back.

For people who work in an office it’s refuge from the boss, the people hanging around your cubicle, the greyness of it all, the phones ringing. In libraries it’s people whispering—loud enough to hear them whispering, but not loud enough to hear what they’re whispering about.

So it’s actually often about noise. It turns out we actually need noise. We just need a certain kind of noise.

JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a cafe. Stephen King writes to AC/DC or Guns n Roses. Xerox chief researcher John Seely Brown did his doctoral thesis in a bar.

Researchers in Sweden found that actually a certain level of white noise actually helped kids with Attention Deficit Disorder concentrate better. Apparently it’s something to do with increasing the levels of dopamine activity in the brain.  Canadian researchers found that masking noise—adding white noise to their work environment to reduce the intrusion of things like ringing phones—also helped office workers. Kodak issued a manual a few years ago advising offices to do just this—48-52 decibels is the best level, they reckon. Perhaps Dickens and co could have saved themselves the wrath of the mob if they’d installed a white noise machine or invented the iPod.

It’s also related to the way we work, and communicate, today. It’s tempting to imagine Dickens hunched up in the corner scribbling Nicholas Nickleby. But while we knowledge workers have something in common, our tools are quite different, and what we’re asked to do with them: we’re all touch typists, of a sort, which means we write dozens of words a minute. We answer emails as if we were flicking dust off our coat. We write proposals, reports, requests for proposals  that not long ago would have taken teams a month to write. Laptops are lighter, with better battery life, and connected to a communications network. We are our office. Companies realize they don’t need to shackle people to their desks all day—less than 40% of our time, according to one property consultancy, is actually spent at our office desk.

We operate in a supercharged environment, which makes the coffee shop of today a perfect setting. Visual and audible stimulation, but with none of the distraction of having to be sociable. Oh and the coffee. It’s no coincidence, I suspect that caffeine also increases the production of dopamine in the brain. A double whammy of noise and caffeine.

If you’ll excuse me, I need to head off. You know where you can find me.

Concentration in the Public Space

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Why do we work in Starbucks? It’s a question I ask myself every day, because I usually find myself in one at least once. This despite having an excellent home office replete with cappucino machine, music, ergonomic chair and, most importantly, sofa. But lo, every day I wend my way to a Starbucks, or one of those other chains, and park myself in an uncomfortable chair and too-low table, dodging the students with their bags strewn across space they’ll never use, the dregs of a smoothie enough to make it look as if they’re paying their way, babies screaming blue murder by the sugar dispenser.

Why? Why do I do it?

Well, I think it has to do with a cycle that goes back 300 years and, importantly, has to do with organ grinders.

So first, the organ grinders.

Next time you look out of your window and you don’t see an organ grinder making his way down the street, you can blame Charles Dickens. And Tennyson, Wilkie Collins and 28 authors, painters, engravers, illustrators, historians, actors, sculptors, musicians, architects and scientists. All of them, in 1863, co-signed a letter that “in their devotion to their pursuits—tending to the piece and comfort of mankind—they are daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad, by street musicians.” Most gave their home and work address as the same. The letter was the centispiece of a 120-page bill submitted before the British parliament by one Michael Thomas Bass. The letter, and dozens of others, reflect a single themes: a rearguard action to defend the home as workplace against the slings and arrows of street noise.

This was no idle distraction. The streets of central London had become a sea of itinerant workers, musicians, hustlers, and, well humanity. Those who didn’t like to have their ears assailed by the noise could either pay them off or complain. But the latter was not without risk. One of Dickens’f riends, John Leech, a writer and cartoonist for Punch, confronted two street musicians and was insulted, in the words of a friend, “in the choicest Billingsgate.” Another, Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine, waged a guerrilla war against street musicians from Manchester Square and was not popular for it: mobs, some numbering more than 100, would pursue him, would leave dead cats on his doorstep, broke his windows and threatened his life.

Bass’ Street Music Act was passed the following year, and decimated the itinerant musician community—which numbered at least 1,000, including English violin-players and street bands, Irish and Scotch pipers, a German brass-bandsman, a French hurdy-gurdy-player, Italisn street entertainers, and numerous percussionists and minstrel singers from England, India and the United States. Many were gone by the latter years of the century—but so were most of the knowledge workers.

Some stayed put—one Thomas Carlyle built a soundless room in his attic in Chelsea—but most moved out to the suburbs where things were altogether quieter. It’s not clear who won, but the first battle between knowledge worker and concentration had been fought.

The organ grinders have gone, but the knowledge workers are still around. But our search for a conducive work environment goes on.

Which is where the coffee house comes in.

Starbucks likes to portray itself as a “third place”—a term purloined from Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, who mourned the demise of informal public gathering places. The idea is that your local Starbucks fulfills a role beyond just providing  you with coffee, but connects you to others in your community, along with sparkling conversation and wit.

The truth is this doesn’t happen—at least not in any Starbucks I know, a point made by historian Bryant  Simon, who hung around in more than 400 Starbucks trying to strike up conversations with strangers. Despite what Starbucks would like us to believe, with its Annual Report covers of friendly people chatting in their outlets, faux artwork and lame noticeboards, and a short-lived community magazine called Joe, we don’t come to Starbucks to chat. Well, not with strangers.

That dream pretty much died long before Dickens got hot under the collar about the racket-makingriff raff . Back in the 1700s there were things called coffee houses, all over the place. They were the place where men met—women were usually banned—to drink coffee, read the paper, discuss politics and basically to get away from things (meaning the house.)  These were vibrant, noisy places and there were lots of them. Smanuel Johnson called them ‘penny universiteies.’

But they began to die out, ironically, when newspapers became cheaper and more plentiful, and were delivered to your home.

Then the reason for someone to go to a coffee house declined, and our knowledge workers began two centuries of toiling, either in a cubicle or alone at home.

Now that is all changing. For lots of reasons. Laptops are lighter, with better battery life, and connected to a communications network. We are our office. Companies realise they don’t need to shackle people to their desks all day—less than 40% of our time, according to one property consultancy, is actually spent at our office desk.

Starbucks cottoned on early to this. It started out just selling coffee beans or ground but realised that people lingered after their purchase, and so gave them chairs and tables and put in a coffee machine. As crime in the inner cities fell in the 1990s the middle classes wanted to get out of their homes and feel their way back into the city. And Starbucks was the place they went—familiar, safe, but further away.

Starbucks was never what Starbucks would like us to think it was, however: It is, primarily, a solo-friendly environment. You can go there on your own, order something and sit there on your own and no-one is going to bat an eyelid. Social phobics feel uncomfortable there, but less uncomfortable than pretty much any other eatery. Indeed, the size of tables, the size of the chairs, the layout of the place, is designed to cater to someone alone.

Which is why it has become the perfect workplace. It’s not just the free WiFi, the power outlets, the no-nag policy, although that helps. It’s a complex social and psychological thing. Here’s what I found from forums and surveys of users of places like Starbucks:

For students, libraries are too quiet, too noisy, too old, too full of friends. You less likely to fall asleep in a Starbucks. For those who work at home, they feel they might be missing something. Or they like to watch other people. It’s a place for introspection, a refuge from the city, from the kids, from everything: There are people around you, but with no obligation to talk to them. The barrista can be as friendly or as taciturn as you want her to be. It’s not a sexy environment, and it’s relatively safe: Leave your belongings while you visit the washroom and they may well still be there when you get back.

For people who work in an office it’s refuge from the boss, the people hanging around your cubicle, the greyness of it all, the phones ringing. In libraries it’s people whispering—loud enough to hear them whispering, but not loud enough to hear what they’re whispering about.

So it’s actually often about noise. It turns out we actually need noise. We just need a certain kind of noise.

JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a cafe. Stephen King writes to AC/DC or Guns n Roses. Xerox chief researcher John Seely Brown did his doctoral thesis in a bar.

Researchers in Sweden found that actually a certain level of white noise actually helped kids with Attention Deficit Disorder concentrate better. Apparently it’s something to do with increasing the levels of dopamine activity in the brain.  Canadian researchers found that masking noise—adding white noise to their work environment to reduce the intrusion of things like ringing phones—also helped office workers. Kodak issued a manual a few years ago advising offices to do just this—48-52 decibels is the best level, they reckon. Perhaps Dickens and co could have saved themselves the wrath of the mob if they’d installed a white noise machine or invented the iPod.

It’s also related to the way we work, and communicate, today (it’s also helped shape it.) It’s tempting to imagine Dickens hunched up in the corner scribbling Nicholas Nickleby. But while we knowledge workers have something in common, our tools are quite different, and what we’re asked to do with them: we’re all touch typists, of a sort, which means we write dozens of words a minute. We answer emails as if we were flicking dust off our coat. We write proposals, reports, requests for proposals  that not long ago would have taken teams a month to write.

We operate in a supercharged environment, which makes the coffee shop of today a perfect setting. Visual and audible stimulation, but with none of distraction. Oh and the coffee. It’s no coincidence, I suspect that caffeine also increases the production of dopamine in the brain. If you’ll excuse me, I need to head off. You know where you can find me.

Pen Computing Is Still About the Pen

Livescribe

I’ve always loved the idea of pens that work with your computer, either transcribing our hand-written notes, or faithfully reproducing our drawings on our computer, but the promise has always dwarfed the reality. Is LiveScribe different?

LiveScribe, launched at last week’s D conference, differs from previous digital pens in several ways: instead of merely trying to capture what you write, it captures what it hears, and is able to link what is written with what is recorded. Tap on a word you’ve written and it will jump to that part of the recording. Write something and have the pen translate it into Japanese or Swedish [sic].

All of this sounds amazing. It’s the sort of thing that has the potential for revolutionizing the way we work. Its inventor, Jim Marggraff, says “we can see this changing the world.” Even my colleague Walt Mossberg got so excited about it, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, he “was so determined to have the scoop on the pen, and to unveil it at his conference, Marggraff said, that [New Yorker’s Ken] Auletta (who was writing a profile of Mossberg and in the room when Marggraff was giving a demo) was not allowed to write about it.” Walt doesn’t get excited about stuff very often.

But what I find interesting is how hard it has been to get the pen– or paper-based computing thing to where we are now. LiveScribe, for example, is the vision of Marggraff, but also incorporates a lot of technology that came before. He himself was the inventor of the LeapPad (1999), “essentially a cross between a talking book and an educational videogame console,” in the words of a WIRED profile of Marggraff from 2005. It made LeapFrog, the company behind it, the fastest growing company in history.

Then Marggraff came up with the Fly, a kid’s version of LiveScribe, which used technology provided by Sweden–based Anoto, the company that developed the technology behind other pen– or paper-based computing systems, including Logitech’s own io Pen

By then the company’s fortunes had taken a serious dive, so a lot was riding on the Fly. Oddly, and I can’t find an explanation for this, Marggraff then quit the company and joined Anoto (before the WIRED article had actually hit the streets). A year later Marggraff again left to form LiveScribe, although Anoto remains a partner of LiveScribe, according to this press release. (Anoto helps develop and market the pen in return for cash and royalties. Hence the Swedish translation, I guess.)

So while there may seem to be a buzz about this product (and there should be; it’s got some great features) it’s actually just the latest offering in a series of innovations that, at least for the adult/professional market, has dazzled more than it has actually won over. For some reason pens aren’t as exciting to users as the idea of pens that do more. Walt may be excited by the product, and so am I. But I’ve learned that’s not always enough: journalists (well, me) have been excited by earlier incarnations of the digital pen and they don’t seem to have caught on either.

Why? I think it’s a few factors. Part of it is that all these products seem too fiddly, or at least require a change of habit. Another is Dependability: we need to know they’ll always work or we won’t trust them to do the job alone (recording interviews and writing notes are the sort of things you don’t want to mess up.) Thirdly, it’s because we’re weird about our pens: We either have pens we love and wouldn’t part with, or else we buy a particular brand we like by the truckload and lose them. In either case it’s because we like the way they write, and the ioPen and its cousins all failed to understand that, giving us just a basic Biro-type nib that doesn’t make us want to write. It’s like selling us a beautiful new laptop with a keyboard from WalMart.

So, my soapbox lesson for the day: Paper– or pen-based computing is a great notion, and may yet have its day, but developers need to understand that whatever the gizmo can do, it’s first and foremost a pen. (Like a smartphone, however snazzy, is first and foremost a phone.) So make it a great pen first, and then add the bells and whistles. Offer all sorts of different cartridge types and colored inks/gels. Make it a pleasure to doodle with, and then add the technology. Then we’ll grab a hold of the rest of the technology, and this time we may not let go.

Why You Should Never Give A Company Your Data

Here’s a great example of why you can never really entrust your information to anyone but yourself.

The Register’s John Leyden reports that Pointsec Mobile Technologies, a data security company, has obtained via eBay a hard disk apparently owned by ”one of Europe’s largest financial services groups”. On the hard disk were, in the words of Pointsec, “pension plans, customer databases, financial information, payroll records, personnel details, login codes, and admin passwords for their secure Intranet site. There were 77 Microsoft Excel documents of customers email addresses, dates of birth, their home addresses, telephone numbers and other highly confidential information, which if exposed publicly could cause irrevocable damage to the company.” The disk cost Pointsec £5 (about $8).

The purchase wasn’t just a one-off, either. Pointsec says they bought 100 hard drives as part of research into this kind of problem, and found they were able to read 70% of them, despite the fact that all had supposedly been reformatted to wipe off data. They also visited airports in Sweden, the U.S. and Germany where laptops lost in transit were being auctioned off. In one case, using password recovery software, Pointsec was able to access information on the laptops even before purchasing the laptops. In Sweden the company bought a laptop on which they found ”four Microsoft Access databases containing company- and customer-related information and 15 Microsoft PowerPoint presentations containing highly sensitive company information.”

Ouch. I can’t find anything on Pointsec’s website about this but John’s report gives us enough to show this kind of problem is not an obscure one. Not only does it raise serious questions about company (and government) data security, but it also highlights how stupid we are to give any of our information to a company unless it’s absolutely necessary. This would, sadly, include folks like Plaxo, who may be sincere when they say they’re doing their utmost to protect our data. But what happens when they replace one of their hard drives?

Personally I think Pointsec should name the companies whose data they have retrieved: The Register says they won’t, and they’ll destroy the hard drives. This kind of research may prove to be good for Pointsec’s business, since they can take the data to the companies in question and offer to fix the problem, but what about all the thousands of other companies that don’t think it’s their kind of problem? Unless they are named and shamed I don’t think there’s enough incentive for companies to double check their data security and privacy policies.

News: Beware The Mobile Phone

 I have long believed that we use mobile phones too much, considering what little we know about the effects on our health. Why is why I like handsfree sets and SMS. Most studies that say they’re bad for us have been pooh-poohed. Here’s another one to throw out because we don’t like what it says.
 
The Independent quotes a new study from Sweden as saying mobile phones and the new wireless technology could cause a “whole generation” of today’s teenagers to go senile in the prime of their lives. Professor Leif Salford, who headed the research at Sweden’s prestigious Lund University, says “the voluntary exposure of the brain to microwaves from hand-held mobile phones” is “the largest human biological experiment ever”. And he is concerned that, as new wireless technology spreads, people may “drown in a sea of microwaves”.