« The Curse of the Modern Office | Main


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Sherwood Botsford


Hmm. Some qualifying statements:

1. While databases often run 24/7 they are very efficient. A typical computer can handle 1 to 3 4U rackmount disk packs each with 20 disks. If you are running some form of redundancy you still end up with 100 to 150 terabytes per cpu. A spinning disk that's not active is something like 4 watts. Active it's about 3 times that.

2. My computer is a 4 core Mac Pro. I've got 4 internal drives, and 2 external ones. With the monitors off it consumes 120 watts. With the monitors on it uses 200 watts. I run three 23 inch 1920 x 1280 pixel monitors, and find that quite sufficient. I'm more of a power user than most people, as I do a fair bit of photo editing. For the surf and write crowd, a dual screen setup and lighter weight cpu would be ample. It would be easy to bring the total power down to 75W/desk

By comparison the typical T8 fluorescent bulb in an office fixture consumes 32 watts per 4 foot bulb. These are distributed at a rate of more than one per desk, so we are already at the stage where the room lighting takes more power than the computers in the room.

3. I've written essays on electric typewriters. You will rip my word processor out of my dying hands. And then I will haunt you. I don't think linearly enough to use a typewriter. I took me a minimum of 5 drafts to get a "B" grade essay, and often twice that many.

4. The design of office buildings at present is dehumanizing. With large buildings they need to cool them year round. Just takes less cooling in the winter. But again, it's not clear if this is waste heat from the lights/photocopiers/printers as much as the computers. Smaller buildings are more problematic for winter use.

5. Carbon paper! Spare me. If I *NEVER* see another carbon it will be an hour too soon. The time to file, retrieve...

6. Most paper is printed, look at, discarded. Little is filed anymore. It's cheaper to reprint it, than to file it. What we need is a print media that is long term re-useable. Something that you could use a magic brush and brush off the letters.

7. The electronic book needs to be integrated into our systems. These systems run for months on a set of batteries. Even as a power user, with 3 monitors I often have manuals 3 deep. Having one screen that was capable of updating fast, and could track mouse movements, and one screen that used e-paper technology that could display manuals would be a godsend.

Jan Steinman


You left out this lovely gem:


The Curta could add, subtract, multiply, and divide, to eleven or fifteen digits (depending on model) all while fitting in your palm! With no batteries!

I would love to have one, but they run from $700 for a beat-up one to perhaps three times that much for a mint one.

So I make due with another manual tool you neglected to mention, at about 4% of the cost of the cheapest Curta:


I have a Gilson like this one, but it better shape. This 9" disk has the equivalent resolving power of a 24" linear slide rule.

(PS: I also use an automatic mechanical chronograph watch and a 35-day wind-up wall clock.)

Request for an urban transit blog post


I look forward to articles on this blog. I consider this blog to be a jewel. I have found some of the blog postings on this blog to be extremely illuminating. The author has demonstrated that he is knowledgeable, clever, insightful, imaginative, and painstakingly diligent.

But this blog post is silly. Very silly.

Although its market share is generally still small, inexpensive renewable energy technology is already widely deployed around the world today primarily in the form of hydro, wind, and solar. Furthermore, its implementation is expanding rapidly around the world.

In the case of energy in particular and goods and services in general, the world does not have a production problem; the world has a fairness problem (justice problem).

The world is awash is a sea of plenty that is horded by the powerful few. The problems of fair resource distribution aren't essentially technological they are essentially political/social/economic/religious. And these problems are not new. They are ancient.

If the poor were to conserve, and the rich were to simply take that which was saved for themselves then what would be the author's answer: conserve more? This blog posting reminds me of the saying, "When you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

This blog posting reminds me of the absurd dystopian book called "The Population Bomb" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Population_Bomb and the ridiculous dystopian nonsense proffered by James Howard Kunstler https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Howard_Kunstler

This blog posting seems like a like an extreme liberal version of the extreme conservative "preppers" who proclaim we need to stock up on guns and have a huge cache of food to survive the upcoming apocalypse.

Some of the technology blog postings on this blog have illuminated me and shaped my thinking. I am grateful to have read them. But I dislike the barely disguised, misguided political claptrap of this blog posting. It is half-baked and nonsensical.

I am half-anticipating a future blog posting on the virtues of anarcho-syndicalism vs fascism as they relate to George Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homage_to_Catalonia I can imagine the article concluding with a sentence written in Catalan about how the great and righteous masses in Barcelona must unite to throw off 500+ years of suffering under the yoke of the craven and wicked Madrileños.

Instead of crafting veiled political/social/economic prognostications in the guise of a reasonable technological blog postings, I would like to see this remarkably talented and capable author write a blog posting about an inexpensive form of automated urban transit powered by electricity in which people and freight move about in cabins that are, say, five to eight meters above the ground.

We don't need Elon Musk's Hyperloop or colonies of Earthlings living on a utopia such as Pluto. (Who says it's not a planet? and why only aim for Mars? If we are going to "disrupt" our solar system let's dream really, really big!).

However, we do need something better than electrically powered driverless vehicles replacing conventional internal combustion vehicles. "Driverless cars"are little more than an attempt by Silicon Valley companies to barge in on the lucrative auto finance market.

In much of the world, freight trains chug across continents at, say around 50 kilometers per hour much like they have for over a hundred years. They were an excellent solution. We need a similarly excellent solution built with appropriate technology—some of it pre-19th century technology, some of it 19th century technology, some of it 20th century technology, and some of it 21st century technology— to convey people and freight within cities, towns, and villages that moves about at, say, five to eight meters above the ground.

Mattis Männel


I'd like to say something about obsolete operation systems (OS), hardware (and other software) that would require you to buy a new computer.
I have a 2007-made MacBook which I got from my sister because she didn't need it any more and it wasn't running the most common applications nicely without lags, long delays and so on. There where also no free upgrade/updates of the MacOS X available (they would have made it even slower) and formation the disk didn't help.
When I got it I installed a GNU/Linux distribution, ubuntu to be precise. The installation was as simple as any OS installation and everything (besides the camera) worked very well after the installation. I get all updates and upgrades for free (both as in free beer and as in freedom), there is no need for a virus protection on GNU/Linux based OSes and even 20 years old hardware is supported.
I also removed the CD/DVD-drive from the MacBook which made it ~150g lighter and I mostly use it without the battery.
Considering power consumption: I've never measured it, but the power supply says 60W but that's on charging battery and full-power operation.

To bring it into a nutshell: A GNU/Linux distribution can deobsolete your obsolete computer. If your computer is relatively slow (over 10 years old or a netbook/low-end laptop) you should consider a lightweight distribution (they have a simpler interface with fewer animations and other cosmetics).



I handle lots of documents in my work and I often find myself thinking - "People used to do this kind of things without PCs, with typewriters and paper. If one day there are no computers anymore, no one knows how to go back to the old ways."

I even did some tentative searches on the internet looking for someone specialized in designing paper-based information systems, but all I found were companies advocating abandoning them, in favor of electronic information systems.

I like typewriters and I would like to buy one, but I am afraid that would only be a toy. I can think of no business case to be made for my company to start using typewriters.

Unless, of course, I go work for the enemy:




Also, why do even low-tech gadgets have WI-FI? What's wrong with a cable?



With history as a guide, it suggests that this revolution will lead to more consumption, not less. The people with a typewriter will also have a computer. And next to the dot-matrixprinter there will also be a laser printer...



disc_writes > I handle lots of documents in my work and I often find myself thinking - "People used to do this kind of things without PCs, with typewriters and paper.

Yes, with a much lower productivity. There's no free lunch.

> If one day there are no computers anymore

Not "if" : "when". Fossil fuel and metals are finished resources (metals as used in electronics and today's cars are de facto non-recycable.)




I think the benefits of email, web sites and video will outweigh going back to typewriters and paper.

http://www.projectcaua.org provides a lower power, lower heat setup. John Hall's presentation talks about why the power'heat reduction is important in Brazil and other tropical environs http://www.usenix.org/conference/lisa11/project-cau%C3%A3

In my children's schools the students are using chromebooks and a schoolwide google apps (business?) to do something similar with wireless internet access.



I work from my home office & most of the heating comes from the PCs (two desktops & one laptop) and ancilliary equipment. This is welcome at this time of year but less so in Summer.

When I started work in the late 1970s/early 1980s there was much less office equipment. Typing was done by women in typing pools and cut & paste was literally what you did to prepare docs for typing.

At home I had a manual typewriter which was replaced by a BBC Micro with dot matrix printer in the late 1980s which itself was replaced by several generations of PC & printer. The typewriter still works & is still used for jobs it is very good at.

I wouldn't want to go back to the pre word processor era but the manual typewriter has much to recommend it. It is very good for address labels, envelopes & form filling. I also use it for typing up notes which can if necessary be scanned in with OCR software. It works anywhere, can be used in full sunlight and can not be hacked or get a flat battery. Its easy to maintain & repair.

So much modern technology is not very resilient. The electric goes off and that's it. If the broadband goes down offices grind to a halt.

I think we need to build more resilience into our lives and be less dependent on fragile networks to supply us with electricity, food, communication etc.

Baksa Péter


I think you forgot one of the most important office tools: email. One don't have to wait until the other party can pick up the phone, and the email can be archived on the recipient side. Why add paper to this workflow?
What I like is the Rapsberry idea, word processing with computers is not evil, we just don't need that much computer power to do it. Coupling that with some e-paper screen would be wonderful: noiseless, small, portable, yet easy to update functionality.



Going back would mean double the work force.
Yes you can use carbon paper to duplicate your text but you cannot make even one typo. OR you have to use the correction paper ten times. Typing was a very tedious jobs and so even lower charges had their secretary which typed the text. Now everybody is typing their own texts.
Also to arrange a meeting with several people required many phone calls. Again the secretary would call another secretary to find a suitable date.
Ordering parts was very troublesome and time consuming. For transaction you had to queue in the bank or post office.
There was internal mail. Guys just running around the office and collecting and distributing papers. If a few persons had to read and sign a Paper it took its time until everybody signed it.
And dot matrix printers. Come on they are just rubbish and thats why they disappeared. Even thermoprinters are better. Also you forgot to mention telex and especially the telefax which allowed to send pictures and characters which couldn't been made by a typewriter. How about the Asian market? Typewriters only work for languages which have an alphabet.
Computers save so much time and can do the task you would need a dozen of other devices.Even with two screens you can operate them with less than 100W. Just replace the light bulbs with LED and you will use less energy than 40 years ago.



Speaking as a professional technologist of @ 30 years, and one who studies technology history in diverse fields:

The key problems here are energy consumption, obsolescence, and user experience (distraction vs. focus).

First, recent studies support the premise that a black-and-white screen causes less distraction than a color screen (sorry I don't have a citation for this). Thus one can envision a device with internet connectivity and a large enough screen (21" diagonal) to enable seeing two pages side-by-side or one full page for reading and one full page for writing. Using "electronic paper" technology, the energy consumption would be a small fraction of what it is with a color screen.

The obsolescence of devices and software is a moral obscenity of nonrenewable materials wastage, and is also hated passionately by device users and technical workers alike (with rare exceptions that highlight the rule). It serves one primary purpose, and that is the profit of the manufacturers, in an economic ecosystem that looks almost like a conspiracy but is the emergent convergence of self-interests.

By contrast, the common desk telephone is anti-obsolescent: traditionally designed for a service life of 40 years, and after a trip through a reconditioning workshop, another 40 years. As with typewriters, thousands to tens of thousands of 20th century models, even dating back to the 1920s, are still in service as working antiques that are used every day.

Using the design philosophy of the telephone administrations (the Bell System, GPO Telephones, the various PTTs, etc.), one could develop a computer that was robust, reliable, resilient, and could be reconditioned and returned to use rather than melted down for low-grade electronic scrap. The closest we have to that today is the Panasonic Toughbook, designed for utility workers and first-responders, and easily capable of lasting a decade or longer in the field. (It's not cheap, but cost per year is substantially less than an obsolescent machine.) (And at the opposite end of the spectrum, Apple's hardware has gone from being bulletproof to being not-quite-sneeze-proof: pathetically fragile.)

All of these devices should be wired rather than wireless, with exceptions for devices that must necessarily be mobile. Wireless bandwidth is finite and easily saturated in an office environment; wireless communication is always far less secure and private than wired communication; and wireless devices consume more energy pushing radio-frequency signals through the air.

With the above reforms in mind, we can envision the shape of a new machine: Rugged, capable of being repaired and reconditioned, resistant to obsolescence, and optimized for writing and numerical tasks. Raw materials throughput would be substantially reduced, and the "digital paper" monitor would contribute to very substantial reduction in power consumption compared to current devices.

Now thinking about office telephony, the peak of energy and materials efficiency was the simple "key system" for outside lines, with a separate or in-built "intercom" for in-office conversations. (USA "1A2," UK "Keymaster 2+10," etc.) For larger offices, the manual switchboard with optional night-service connections.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, VOIP (Voice over Internet-Protocol) systems require not only a PBX (in-office or in the "cloud") but also dedicated network switches (in-office). So even with substantial reductions in energy demand by the PBX and the telephone sets (e.g. Panasonic has improved energy efficiency by a factor of 8 since the late 1990s), VOIP still uses more power than a comparable "digital" PBX of the mid 2000s.

I suspect that the energy consumption of PBXs could be further reduced by going back to plain analog telephones for the majority of users (USA "2500 set," UK "BT Tribune," Nordic countries "Ericsson Diavox"). These are robust and anti-obsolescent, and they excel at the core task of conversation without interruption.

My main point here is, if one returns to a smart anti-obsolescent design philosophy, one ends up with infrastructure that very substantially reduces energy consumption and materials wastage, while preserving the advantages of full-screen reading, writing, and editing, resistance to distraction, and ease of conversation.


I agree that there is a role for the typewriter in today's office environment. And one particularly strong role is as a resilient backup system for power or broadband outages.

The news of Russian cyber-attacks on the US election, and Russian malware on an electric utility's laptop, and large-scale attacks on the internet at-large (DNS attacks, DDOS attacks) makes it amply clear that companies and individuals need to invest in resilient infrastructure for use in the event of power or internet disruptions that are likely to become longer and worse in the near future.

For a typical small office of up to fifty people, that would be from two to five plain "POTS" analog phone lines, with plain analog phones (the USA "2500" sets are still manufactured, by Cortelco in Mississippi), and a couple of manual typewriters and spare ribbons.

Thus in a complete outage, a receptionist could answer calls and write messages on a typewriter, people could come to the front desk to make calls, and correspondence could be conducted by postal mail.

In the home, the landline with plain deskphone, and a typewriter with a supply of paper, envelopes, and stamps, could do likewise. When the power cuts out and broadband goes down, make phone calls (proper landlines are powered by the telco's central office switch), and write letters. At night, do it by candle light or wind-up flashlight (Freeplay or similar).

What I have found actually happens when people use these oldschool devices (desk phones, typewriters), is that they find them very pleasant to use for specific types of tasks: writing, long conversations, and so on. So the re-introduction of these technologies into offices is likely to have a similar effect, where they will be adopted for the purposes at which they excel.

That in turn may create some kind of market opening for the more-resilient and more-sustainable computer (that is not also a TV), envisioned above. And that in turn could bring competitive pressure to bear on device manufacturers, for mass-market devices that embody the virtues of anti-obsolescence and reduced energy consumption.


I'll close with a prediction:

In the near future we will see young people take a liking to typewriters and letters sent via postal mail. This will become a stylistic preference and it will not fade with time. At the same time we may also see the return of the landline and the telephone for conversation.

Part of what will fuel these trends is an increasing rejection of the advertising-based economy with its pervasive surveillance and its maddening hyperactive distractions. Ultimately what will fuel these trends is the recognition that communicating with other people, in depth and with focus, is far more satisfying than talking to robot assistants and gazing into a twinkling screen.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

News & Links

Fruit Walls

  • Fruit walls
  • Urban Farming in the 1600s
    From the 16th to the 20th century, urban farmers grew Mediterranean fruits and vegetables as far north as England and the Netherlands, using only renewable energy.

Let's build our own internet

The Chinese Wheelbarrow

  • Chinese wheelbarrow
  • How to downsize a transport network: the Chinese wheelbarrow
    For being such a seemingly ordinary vehicle, the wheelbarrow has a surprisingly exciting history. This is especially true in the East, where it became a universal means of transportation for both passengers and goods, even over long distances.

Wood Gas Vehicles

  • Wood gas cars 2
  • Firewood in the Fuel Tank: Wood Gas Vehicles
    Wood gas cars are a not-so-elegant but surprisingly efficient and ecological alternative to their petrol (gasoline) cousins, whilst their range is comparable to that of electric cars.


Open Modular Hardware

  • Open modular hardware2
  • How to make everything ourselves: open modular hardware
    Consumer products based on an open modular system can foster rapid innovation, without the drawback of wasting energy and materials. The parts of an obsolete generation of products can be used to design the next generation, or something completely different.

Power from the Tap

  • Water motors
  • Power from the Tap: Water Motors
    Just before the arrival of electricity at the end of the 19th century, miniature water turbines were connected to the tap and could power any machine that is now driven by electricity.

Aerial Ropeways

Other Languages

  • Some articles have been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch. Find them here.