There was an awful story in the news yesterday: a county employee in Los Angeles died at her desk, in her cubicle, and was not found until the next day by a security guard. The police think she may have been dead for as long as a full day before her body was found.
The story sounds like the over-the-top plot of an Office Space knock off, but unfortunately it is true. Think for a moment about what that story means. For hours, apparently, no one passed by the worker’s cubicle and noticed her condition. No one stopped by to visit or interact or checked to see why she wasn’t showing up for a meeting or returning phone calls. When everyone left for the night and turned out the light, no one saw that she still was there, slumped over her desk. For anyone who works in a large office environment, it is the ultimate nightmare.
What does it say about the solitary and empty nature of cubicle work in a modern office if a worker can die at their desk without someone — anyone! — noticing for a full day? In view of this kind of story, can anyone really wonder why so many people find their cubicle existence a cold, separate, unsatisfying, soul-deadening experience?
Yesterday our computer system at work was painfully slow — so slow, in fact, that everything I tried to do was greeted by the dreaded spinning circle. If you work on a network, you’ve probably experienced it at some point. You’ve tried to save a document or move from email to Word when, instead of instantaneous responsiveness to your keystroke or mouse click, you see the circle with the light moving around the edge.
The circle is supposed to reassure you that the system is diligently working on the command you have sent. Instead, it immediately plunges every white collar worker into the blackest pits of despair, because you know that you are likely well and truly screwed. You realize that the spinning circle means you have probably lost what you were working on. And then, after a few seconds, the circle simply serves as a colossal unending annoyance. You can’t help but repeatedly pound the return key with increasing force in hopes of somehow getting the damn circle off the screen before it causes you to become cross-eyed.
On our system at work, the circle replaced the tumbling hour glass as the “looks like there’s a problem” icon. As between the two, I prefer the tumbling hourglass, but in reality neither the circle nor the hourglass adequately communicates the awful import of a frozen computer. Why not a depiction of vultures alighting on their perch, or a laughing, taunting death’s head instead?