When tech meets workplace, your soul's at stake

Joshua Ferris, author of the workplace satire "Then We Came to The End," talks about contributing to a Xerox collection on the pains and pleasures of working life.

Nicholas Tufnell Associate Editor
3 min read

The workplace is constantly evolving. Tear-off calendars, rotary phones and typewriters -- once essential for any work environment -- are now little more than quirky novelties.

While a few stalwarts have stood the test of time (I'm looking at you, paperclip), major advancements in technology have changed how we all work in ways that would have seemed unimaginable a generation ago.

But where is the modern workplace heading?

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Joshua Ferris contributed to "Speaking of Work" with a chapter about a countercultural bohemian who discovers office life. 


That's a question Xerox asked 14 award-winning authors as part of Set the Page Free. In partnership with 92nd Street Y and Worldreader, the project seeks to support global literacy while tapping into Xerox technology (such as ConnectKey and DocuShare) to help writers and creatives collaborate.

The result is a new, freely available 200-page e-book called "Speaking of Work," with offerings from Joshua Ferris, Lee Child, Billy Collins, Roxane Gay, Aimee Mann and others.

The authors muse on workplaces old and new in the form of short stories, music, poetry and personal memoir. The narratives take place in both familiar and unfamiliar settings, offering a multifaceted and diverse depiction of working life.

Joshua Ferris, author of "To Rise Again at a Decent Hour" and "Then We Came to the End," a satire of work life in a Chicago advertising agency, contributed a snapshot of a larger upcoming novel. His book chronicles the awakening of a countercultural bohemian who gradually gets sensitized to the benefits, pleasures and powers of being in an office.

"There's a kind of science fiction and murder mystery element, it's not just a critique," Ferris says. "It starts off very real, and I want it to feel like one thing and then constantly start to shift it."

Ferris famously examined office life in his 2007 debut novel "Then We Came to The End," which he describes as having an equitable approach to "both the soul-sucking, deadening quality of working in an office versus the almost transcendent love that passes between co-workers on a day-to-day basis."

But for Ferris, technology doesn't seem to be the answer to ridding the workplace of its soul-devouring qualities. 

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In "Speaking of Work," 14 authors muse on workplaces old and new. 


"First of all, I don't work in an office," he says. "But from my relatively discrete vantage point it seems to me there's a lot of noise about technology increasing communication, bringing people together, maximizing synergies, that sort of thing, when in fact it only seems to make us more isolated."

Ferris has little presence on social media, which he says too easily lets us create our own private echo chambers and has failed to provide the promise of reaching a wider audience and connecting with others.

"I don't doubt that [social networks] have extraordinary benefits for the human being and for the human community but I don't for a moment delude myself into thinking that they won't exacerbate what is already awful about those two things," Ferris says.

Despite Ferris' reservations about the efficacy behind certain communicative and collaborative qualities of technology, Jeff Jacobson, Xerox CEO, calls the Set the Page Free project a creative expression of the ways his company helps today's employees switch freely between physical and digital worlds.

"No matter if you are an author penning pages, a salesperson prepping for a customer visit or a small business owner looking to expand, people need to work seamlessly wherever they are," he says. "This project brings those connections to life." 

As a boy, Ferris had an uncle who worked as an electrical engineer at Xerox.  

"I always thought of Xerox and their legions of engineers as being the epitome of productivity, efficiency and employment -- a kind of shiny 1950s world of perfection and purpose," he says. "So I had these good sentiments where Xerox was concerned and that probably helped in wanting to make Set the Page Free as good as it could possibly be. 

"And I was touched, frankly, that a corporation who might not ever need to consider writers, did."

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