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RIP, Desktop Computing as a Metaphor

Any casual computer history fan will know that the desktop computing metaphor sprang from Xerox PARC in the 1970s, and the great leap of insight it embodies is taking one model of working that people already understood -- their flat furniture surface was the place where layers of work and files full of information lives when not being used -- and overlay it on top of a computer. People took the attributes they understood from a physical desktop -- for example, arranging things sometimes helped workers manage the flow of information or of serial tasks -- and were able to replicate those workflows on a computer. It didn't matter that beneath the desktop layer, how information was entered, processed and stored was different. What mattered is that end users were able to take the scaffolding of the familiar and use it to incorporate new technologies and new responsibilities into their jobs.

The desktop metaphor is great, but like all metaphors, it has its limits. The widespread enterprise adoption of mobile computing and cloud computing means that our work doesn't stay limited to a computer desktop; we can access it anywhere, on anything. If we were to go back to a physical desktop to explain this, we'd have to say, "Okay, imagine you're doing all your work on a lap desk, and you hang that lap desk around your neck the minute you get up in the morning, and sometimes more work falls onto that lap desk while you're doing something else, and sometimes you take that lap desk and put it on top of your desk and move work between them."

The metaphor sounds mildly batty when you bring it into the modern workplace. It gets even more ridiculous when one considers how offices have changed -- thanks to the pandemic-prompted shifts in how offices are configured, people don't even have desks any more, just bland little spaces they reserve on their in-office days.

So it's a perfect time to ask -- what's the new metaphor for this technical environment in which so many of us work? When I read Beth Schultz's latest piece for No Jitter, "Connected Workspaces Getting Smarter and Smarter," I felt like got a clue. Schultz explains that a connected workspace has three core functions: as an accessible repository of centralized knowledge; as a platform for iterative, collaborative knowledge work; and as an organizational management system for project and task management.

Schultz's framing shifts from the old-school metaphor based on the idea that work is what you do in a specific place, and toward the idea that "work" is a situationally-specific set of task flows defined and completed in an always-connected environment. I'm not sure what metaphor we can use to explain the shift in one or two words -- "telephone operator, but with to-dos?" "wired tinker toys?" -- but I'm confident the thought leaders who have written for WorkSpace Connect and for No Jitter will articulate it. Watch this space.