Xerox PARC in the 21st Century

Front-Page Opinion Other

Above is a famous photo taken in 1971 in Palo Alto, California. The photo shows a group of people sitting in a circle on beanbag chairs in a carpeted room, legs out-stretched, and relaxed. It is a picture of Internet pioneer Robert Taylor delivering a lecture to computer science graduate students, presumably from Stanford, who were doing work at Xerox PARC. At the time, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, housed some of the most forward-thinking computer scientists. Together they were tasked with envisioning the workplace of the future, and have been credited with inventing such devices as the computer mouse, the graphical user interface, the laser printer, Ethernet, and the first personal computer. The story behind Xerox’s corporate executives’ failure to see the potential and commercialize the technology is a famous blunder in Silicon Valley that will be talked about for decades to come. Perhaps just as famous is the story about Steve Jobs and the young crew at Apple gaining access to PARC for 100,000 shares of their company pre-IPO in exchange for a sneak peak at this cutting edge technology. Much of what was toured on that day would be built into subsequent Apple computers.

There is something more to this photo however than just a snapshot of what might be considered the golden age of computer science; it portrays a kind of work culture and ethic. We can visualize a day in the life of a researcher at PARC. This insight reveals the kind of environment that led to some of the most important, world-changing innovations of the post-World War II twentieth century. These are the type of innovations that are now found in nearly every office building, school, and home. They have influenced the way nearly every worker does their job, how students learn, and the way people communicate. Tools of the modern world, envisioned, built and proven at Xerox PARC.

While a graduate student at Stanford, Steward Brand (editor of counterculture publication the Whole Earth Catalogue) describes the culture at Xerox PARC in anessay he wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine in 1972. His article describes the culture as “soft, away from hugeness and centrality, toward the small and personal”. He refers to the computer scientist’s research at PARC as akin to that of a hippie’s spiritual exploration. Undoubtedly, it was out of the counterculture movement that modern personal computing was born, and this says something about the spaces in which great technology was harnessed and developed. You need not only brilliant people, but also an environment that is conducive to creativity, open to new ideas, comfortable, yet passionate.

Untraditional work culture as a requisite for great innovation in technology is not a new idea. Consider an essay written by Isaac Asimov on the nature of innovation back in the 1950s. During the height of the cold war, he was called in to help spur the creativity of researchers on an ARPA contract for ballistic missile defense. His essay was only recently published in MIT Technology Review, in which he describes the need for informality, fun, using first names, and a sense of fooling around. He writes, “I think a meeting in someone’s home or over a dinner table at some restaurant is perhaps more useful than one in a conference room.” His essay parallels Brand’s description of PARC, and a common trait of innovation in technology is emerging.

Today’s most beloved tech firms are the epitome of the culture described above. Take for example the Googleplex, the corporate headquarters for Google in Mountain View, California. The work culture famously embodies that fun, informal, open space Asimov described in his essay. You are allowed to bring your dog to work, ride a bike or scooter to meetings across campus, there is no dress code, few closed doors, a flat organizational structure, and you are encouraged to collaborate with others and work on side-projects. In fact, these side-projects have resulted in some great work including Gmail and Google News. This type of work culture is not unique to Google. You will see something similar if you were to visit the headquarters of companies such as Apple, Facebook, or Twitter. Aside from being among the most innovative in the world, they are consistently ranked among the best places to work and attract the top talent.

As we progress into the future, the very nature of work in the tech industry is changing. There will be far greater focus on collaborative and creative innovation. Some have even gone so far as to say that emerging technologies (harnessing the connectivity of the Internet) are rendering traditional offices and eight-hour workdays obsolete. In the future, work in the tech industry will be social, and independent of time and place. To operate on the cutting-edge, there will need to be a re-examination of workspace and culture. There will need to be a transformation into spaces that promote informality and openness. For large corporations inside the tech industry that still enforce a nine to five workday, shirt and tie, and closed cubicle work spaces, the lesson is clear — embrace the countercultural spirit of a 1960s Xerox PARC, or become irrelevant.


1 Comment

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