The Disappearing Space Crunch

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Jan. 1994

Several years ago I wrote an essay about the problems of managing space in engineering laboratories and offices -- about how there was a perpetual space crunch because of the way engineers tended to accumulate, hide, and protect excess square footage in their working domains.

That was then, but things have a way of changing. Now when I visit labs and offices I see empty rooms and disused equipment everywhere. No one talks about the space crunch anymore. Why is this?

One popular theory is that the present surplus of space is really the visible manifestation of another trend, simply that there are getting to be too few people. Engineers are disappearing, and as in the behavior of semiconductors, they leave holes behind in the form of empty offices and laboratories.

In an equilibrium condition these space holes are greatly attracted to incoming engineers, and a mating occurs which eliminates the hole along with the transient engineer, accompanied by a slight release of energy. However, in the present disequilibrium there is an insufficient number of new engineers to mate with the drifting office and lab holes. This results in a positively charged atmosphere.

As I walk down the empty corridors I occasionally stagger and lose my footing in the near field of attraction from the empty labs and offices. I hear the groaning and feel the shifting of the building superstructure under the unbalanced gravitational forces emanating from the sides of the corridors.

Where have all the engineers gone? (This phrase can be sung to music as a refrain if you are old enough.) Alas, they have been "downsized." This is an inoffensive word that means that the company has fired a bunch of people. We speak of the "company" as downsizing in order not to imply that people are making these decisions. No real person is to blame.

Why does the company do this? Well, the company looks around and sees that its competitors have downsized, and therefore in order to remain competitive it too must downsize. Moreover, downsizing is fashionable, and proves how macho the management is. As a result of all the companies in a given market having downsized, they remain relatively as competitive as they were before. The only difference is that society has a lot of surplus people to support. (There is obviously something more here that I fail to appreciate.)

I realize that downsizing is the popular explanation for the empty space, but I am prepared to advocate another theory. Before I explain my theory, let me tell a story that leads down the path towards my inspiration.

Some years ago I was speaking to a group of younger engineers, and as older engineers are thoughtlessly prone to do, I began speaking of "the good old days." In the good old days, I recounted, we used to roll nickels down this very corridor. I waved vaguely at the seemingly-endless passageway that disappeared off towards the horizon. We would listen to the hum as the nickel sped its way down the flooring, with our ears keenly tuned to the clinking that would precede the nickel crashing and burning at the side of the corridor. Whoever got the longest run from his nickel was the winner of whatever it was that was at stake.

The younger engineers looked at me blankly. "This is what you used to do?" they were saying to themselves. "This is how you get ahead in this company?" I sensed a failure in communication.

"Don't you people do anything crazy now?" I asked anxiously. "I mean, ... does anyone have any fun anymore?"

There was a long pause. Then one of the engineers cleared his throat hesitantly. "Well, now that you ask...," he started, and then proceeded to tell me an incident of revenge that had been provoked by the arrogance of a newly-promoted supervisor.

The new supervisor, as befitting his lofty rank, had moved into a large office, where he held audiences with his former friends, now his subordinates. After taking about as much of his loftiness as they could handle, the subordinates conceived a plan. Every night after he had left, they moved the partitioned walls of his office inwards a few inches, giving him an ever so slightly smaller office.

At first the effect was not noticeable, but even after there had been a substantial reduction in his space they heard no complaint. After all, what could he say? Imagine going to your supervisor with the complaint that your office was getting smaller! This stalemate continued until there wasn't enough room in the supervisor's office for his chair; only his desk fitted within the narrowed walls. Then of course the game was up, but what a run it had been, the young engineer bragged! "Of course we have fun," he said to me. "You just don't know about it."

Now what does this have to do with the empty offices we now encounter everywhere? There is a simple explanation. My theory is that the buildings are getting bigger. This is happening slowly at night when we are not looking. It happens at the time when the paper clips in our desk are mating and committing unspeakable acts with each other. It is the time when odd socks are leaving home and umbrellas are taking wing. It is the time when inanimate objects rebel against human control.

There is, of course, a scientific explanation for this phenomenon. It is a direct consequence of the big bang and the subsequent expansion of the universe. The red shift and Hubble's constant are involved, but that is getting too technical. The resultant expansion of buildings is difficult to measure because, diabolically, the measuring equipment is also getting larger. It is only we who are being left behind.

Tomorrow when you go to work look carefully at your building. It probably looks innocent enough, but if you examine it closely, see if you cannot discern a smirk of concealed satisfaction on its edifice. It has grown a tiny bit while you slept. Today may be the day when someone looks at one of the labs and decides that there is enough unused space to partition and create a new empty room. Think back and ask yourself where that empty space came from. Consider the theory of surreptitious, incremental growth. Makes sense, doesn't it?

Robert W. Lucky