Contents:

An Obsession with Transportation
Virtual Office Blocks
Putting it All Together
Monitoring Employees
Manufacture and Distribution
Making it Happen with Open Source

© Trevor Turton 2001.
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Open Source Could Build a Safer, Freer Society

Trevor Turton, 2001-09-22

On September 11th 2001 the wild storm of international terrorism that has wreaked such havoc in so many lands finally hit the Eastern seaboard of the USA, causing unprecedented levels of death and destruction in New York City and Washington D.C. The heads of the US and other democratically elected governments have vowed to search out and hold accountable those responsible for these tragedies, and also those who give them aid and succor. No doubt we shall see much of this in the months to come. But for many this will come too late. The damage has already been done. Our high-tech society has been shown to be woefully vulnerable to attack from unscrupulous men. The world has never lacked such people in the past, nor shall it in the future. No matter how determinedly we pursue them, how grimly we punish them, there will always be more. It is surely time to take stock of the kind of society we have built with our new-found technologies, to assess its weaknesses and the high costs that it demands from all of us, and to see how we can change it for the better. I believe that this is entirely possible – that we can start right now to build a safer, freer society, and that Open Source will play a vital part in this transformation.

An Obsession with Transportation
125 years ago the automobile was invented; 90 years ago the airplane. Our society has seized upon these two transportation technologies with a vengeance, totally reshaping itself in the process. Much of the world's business is conducted in high-rise buildings located in megacities. Employees typically spend hours each workday commuting to and from the buildings where they work cooped up in steel and glass cages like battery chickens. Megatons of fuel are used on daily round trips that leave people back where they started from. Megatons of pollution results. Companies send armies of salesmen to win contracts to service and supply other companies in distant states or countries, and increasing numbers of employees commute weekly by plane to fulfill these contracts. On a typical day more than 4,000 aircraft crowd the US sky, carrying about a million tons of aviation fuel which in the best-case scenario burns in the stratosphere to create more pollution. We have seen all too vividly what happens in the worst-case scenario.

Demand for transportation keeps growing, and huge investments of money, land and peoples' time are being made to meet it. Millions of acres of farmland and woodland have been converted into roads and runways, and the rate of conversion keeps accelerating. Even so, the airways are crowded. Larger planes are being designed to ferry more people. The World Trade Center towers were designed to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707, the largest plane in use when they were built. They were no match for newer, bigger planes. What building or community will be able to withstand an impact from the next generation plane? We are using our transportation technologies to generate tremendous wealth, but at great cost to our environment and our quality of life.

Virtual Office Blocks
Imagine a different world. Suppose we could take the World Trade Center buildings and locate each of their 220 floors as separate one-story buildings in small communities scattered throughout New York State and New Jersey. Suppose we did the same thing with the other high-rise office blocks that jostle for space on Manhattan Island. Suppose that the people who worked in these relocated buildings lived in homes nearby, and that these communities also contained convenience stores and services that met most of the community's day-to-day needs. The workday commute would become a ten minute walk or bike ride through leafy lanes.

Imagine a world were you only need to use a car for recreation, and you only take a plane ride when you're visiting family or taking a vacation.

Putting it All Together
Sounds good for the employees, but how could businesses function if the floors of their buildings were spread over two states? Well, we could knit the scattered floors together into virtual office blocks using telephones, faxes, teleconferencing, email, browsers and other electronic collaboration aids. The engines that would do this are optical fibers, switches, microprocessors, RAM and disk drives. They are commodities, available off the shelf. These technologies are becoming smaller, faster and cheaper at a dizzying rate. Their deployment requires no forests to be felled, no meadows to be bulldozed.

These distributed office floors will be networked together to form virtual office blocks. The workers within them will work for many different companies. They would use rather familiar-looking office equipment to carry out their daily tasks – telephones with video added, faxes, and desktop PCs. These would be networked to operate as if they were connected to their company's PBX and LAN. Dispersed employees could think and act together using common office tools as they do today. The only casualty would be face-to-face meetings, which are becoming steadily less necessary as other communications media such as phones, email, and workflow systems supplant them. Video phone calls could take the place of most face-to-face meetings. Virtual office blocks would also contain video conferencing facilities that office workers could use when more extensive communication is needed.

Workers who must service contracts with other companies would have their office equipment networked into both their employer's virtual office and that of the other companies that they service. Their single video phone and fax would appear as an extension on all relevant PBXs, able to respond to a call from any. Their computer equipment would have access to all relevant LANs as if it were present on each one, without however compromising the security of any of these virtual LANs by allowing cross-talk between them.

Monitoring Employees
Good management practice measures employee effectiveness by the outputs produced. Bad management practice does it by observing employee activities – how often does the employee goof off, make long private phone calls, play computer games, visit undesirable web sites and so forth. Real-world managers use both techniques in differing proportions. The virtual office technology will only be accepted if it supports both of these management styles. Sadly, it will have to provide management surveillance facilities so that managers can monitor their employees' phone calls to numbers outside their virtual PBX, the emails that they send and receive through the company's mail server, and the URLs of the web sites that they visit. The workstation could allow management to "see" what the screen is displaying. Employees could be required to clock-in on their workstations when they arrive at work, and clock-out when they leave. The workstation could record extended periods of inactivity. All of this should be made known to employees as part of their terms of employment. If they don't like it, they can always commute to an employer who still uses physical office blocks.

Manufacture, Distribution and Services
People who are directly engaged in manufacture and distribution will still have to go to factories and depots in order to get the job done. People who deliver services will have to go to where their customers are. These industries are far more dispersed than "knowledge workers" who constitute a large and growing fraction of the workforce, and who today cluster in vulnerable high-density buildings. These are the folk who could potentially make use of virtual office block technology to avoid commuting to skyscrapers in cities. Traders who have traditionally crowded onto trading floors are increasingly switching to electronic trading workstations, and could also disperse in the future.

Making it Happen with Open Source
The computer and communications hardware required to build this dream of the future are already available to us, but the other component vital to the realization of this dream is software that would swiftly and reliably knit the scattered pieces together in a kaleidoscope of constantly changing patterns to meet the needs of the business projects that the employees undertake. This software isn't yet in place, and the normal commercial software development model does not give us much reason to hope that a suitable solution will emerge anytime soon. Commercial software often seems designed more to take hostages than to empower users, and would likely give rise to a rash of incomplete, incompatible solutions better suited to the Tower of Babel communications model than the needs of modern businesses which must interoperate or die.

We've probably all heard the proud boast of computer manufacturers that if aircraft hardware had improved as rapidly as computer hardware, we would be able to fly anywhere in the world in ten minute for ten cents. Some aircraft engineers have come back with the riposte that if aircraft hardware had improved at the same rate as computer software, the aircraft crew would have to assemble their plane from parts on the runway prior to each flight, the plane would be fueled by the finest whiskey, and it would be used to haul garbage.

Happily, the Open Source movement provides a robust and reliable alternative to commercial software development. Early Open Source projects developed the key protocols and software components that underpin the Internet, the closest approach that we have today of the universal communications bus that will enable future business built from dispersed employees, customers and suppliers to operate effectively.

One of the benefits that we will realize from this new mode of operation will be a huge reduction in business travel, and the time that this takes out of our lives. Another will be a diminishing need for skyscrapers. Apart from the great personal inconvenience that their occupants must suffer in order to cram into them each day, these will always serve as tempting targets for ruthless men who seek to gain through violence what they cannot gain through reason.


Comments and corrections will be gladly received, and acknowleded if incorporated into this document.