Articles

(No.23) Value of Information and Office

Prologue

In 1987, two senior engineers at San Jose, California were chatting about the quality of colleges in the US.

Engineer A:

In the US, many high quality colleges seem to be located in the north. Why?

Engineer B:

Many believe that a moderate climate might be important for human intellectual activities. Look at Nobel Prizes inscience and chemistry. Many researchers from the north-east, mid-west and northern California have received the prize. This tendency changed, however, after the 1960s. I think air conditioning was the main reason.

Engineer A:

Indeed. This is consistent with the emerging "good" colleges in the south, like University of Texas at Austin in the field of computer science.

It is apparent in history that certain important information is sometimes critical to life and death. Long ago, when the Black Sea was isolated from the Mediterranean Sea, the water level of the Black Sea was about 130 meters lower than it is today. The Black Sea's coastal area is reported to have been mild with a good living environment. About 7500 years ago, the Black Sea was suddenly connected to the Mediterranean Sea. The inrush of water pushed up the water level about 130 meters within two years; the average increase was estimated at about 20 cm/day. If someone knew the Bosporus channel was forming, the massive flood of the Black Sea's coastal area was preordained, comparable to divine prophecy. Some scholars consider this event to be the origin of the Noah's Ark story in the Old Testament ( http://www.religioustolerance.org/ev_noah.htm).

In modern society, nobody objects to the tenet that information is king. Here are some examples: philosophical textbooks inherited from ancient age like Discourses of Confucius, religious scriptures, pragmatic health care books, encyclopedias and strategic principles of national security. All valuable information is created by humans. With contributions by many, a wealth of information has been collected. Inherited knowledge is valuable in itself, but not always useful when environments continue to change, such as changes brought about by political change or war.

Use of Important Information

How have people coped with these difficulties? The most urgent examples are war or emergencies that require political decisions that result in life or death. In modern society, economic activities also require urgent decisions. Well trained experts use appropriate reference data to make decisions under fluidly changing conditions and fluctuating environments. If the data falls short, they collect knowledge stored in individual members' memories. Thus, valuable information is gathered and can be used. In the end, related experts debate what they've found before drawing conclusions. The gathering place is today's office. In ancient China, a king often kept knowledgeable people around him by supporting their lives.

Valuable Information and Determining Current Status

Past knowledge has been preserved as documents after the Han Dynasty, eliminating the need to rely on memory alone. The knowledge was expressed as language, then stored as written documents on bamboo or paper. However, there was no other means to determine current status without human comprehension. Since the invention of paper around the second and third centuries, people have been able to transfer knowledge from afar or from the past made permanent on compact media. At that stage, a king or governor needed a large "office" to assemble scholars or experts for discussion. The size of the office reflected the number of people assembled. Also, the office had to store many documents to serve scholars and experts. Document storage requires special devices to preserve them, especially in the case of paper documents.

Documents Propel Evolution

Buildings provide places to live and offer protection, so they must be of strong materials like brick and stone. As civil services progress, information value increases, and stored information increases. These increases force the office to become more convenient for document storage and quick retrieval. It was during the Tang Dynasty that large volumes of documents were issued for civil services in China. A typical Tang Dynasty building was of wooden frame with wooden inner walls covered by clay or brick. Roof tiles were also improved and came to be more elaborate. They were lighter and offered more protection against water leakage. As a consequence, larger roofs covered larger offices to protect larger amounts of paper documents. One of the most advanced offices of this type is in the Photo, an office building in the Forbidden City.

Fig.1: An example of Big Office in the Forbidden City
Fig.1: An example of Big Office in the Forbidden City
The Forbidden City is a Beijing palace constructed in the15th century.
It was the center of politics during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and it was the most advanced office at that time.

About 20 years ago, an American friend asked me why the Japanese did not use stone for ancient buildings. I thought it might be because of earthquakes. Now, however, I am fairly confident that wooden buildings alone were appropriate in Japan. After the Era of the Ancient Tomb, from which Japanese culture evolved, many people of high rank emigrated from the Asian continent and brought paper documents with them. For civilized people, knowledge is always an important asset, so documents have been carefully preserved. Japan has high humidity, so only wooden buildings provide adequate storage for paper documents. This is the main reason that, even now, we continue to discover ancient diaries more than 1000 years old stored in wooden structures. The structures are mud-walled wooden warehouses or old temples with spacious rooms covered by large roofs. Both types afford excellent protection against humidity. This is a good contrast with Mesopotamian clay documents preserved within adobe buildings and left pristine in a dry environment.

The Computer Age

It was 20 to 30 years ago that the computer began to play key roles in the office. As its use spreads even more, air conditioning and a smoke-free environment are musts. Many documents are created in electronic form from the beginning, and more and more office workers support these documents. Computers have become an indispensable office tool. The office has been redesigned to accommodate both computers and people - hence the air conditioned office. As the human is the only creative function in the office, it is reasonable to provide a comfortable environment. It is a happy coincidence that the best temperature for office workers is also good for the computer, between 21 degrees and 26 degrees (Olli Sepparen, et al. http://repositories.cdlib.org/lbnl/LBNL-53191/). In the mid 1990s, wide area networks (Internet) became available in most major countries. At the same time, office size stopped increasing. In the well-connected network environment, physical size of the office is no longer important. Many experts can contribute to creative office jobs assisted by the Internet. And it was the Internet that triggered the evolution of a new office, 1500 years after paper documents emerged.

Key Players in the New Office are Non-experts

After the year 2000, much greater change came about. The network came to be shared by many people in the world, and anybody can contribute to the creation of new knowledge. Highly skilled experts and the uninitiated alike provide partial knowledge, which can then be integrated into a high quality knowledge base using sophisticated knowledge retrieval software. Any member of this networked society can contribute to focused topics if interested. It means the large office is no longer effective. Individual small offices now play unique roles, depending on what they can offer.

These days, many global companies maintain distributed offices, like a product development office in China, a well focused basic research laboratory in Europe, or a marketing research office in the US. The ultimate goal of the distributed office may be a small office or home office where a few people can offer their unique contributions. It is the first time in history that offices of every size will shrink. As key players in the office are always humans, humans should work in well-equipped air conditioned offices distributed throughout the world.

(Ej, 2007.05)

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