Welcome to the Electronic Coffin


From Joe (Summer 1999)

by Douglas Coupland

Have you ever flown over a city and noticed a graveyard down below? Little tiny grids of the Dead off in the distance. It's all so abstract, isn't it? So formal, so clean. But, humans being human, we mentally erase what we know are the thousands of jewelled and wigged skeletons six feet beneath the grid, all of them encased in an aspic goo born of formaldehyde, meat and worms. (For further research on this subject, watch the final 30 minutes of Poltergeist with JoBeth Williams trapped in the unfinished swimming pool during a rainstorm.)

And so it goes with the generic office work cubicle, the place that, for the bulk of the population, defines the spatial boundaries of everyday life. With temperaure-regulated ease, the sterile, ordinary gridliness of work cubicles seduces us into ignoring the physical decay that transpires within (although I did once note the slow-motion erosion of an older, cocktail-loving coworker's liver) and blinds us to the mental and spiritual decay that must be the inevitable result of dwelling amid fabric-covered baffles dotted with cat calendars, photos of the staff Christmas party and The Far Side cartoons. This then produces a dark, unperky suspicion that maybe there's a stronger link between graveyards and work cubicles than one might have suspected. It might just be, in fact, that work cubicles are nothing more than coffins with training wheels. Sure, they're a pleasant dusty rose or teal color. Sure, they're the foundries of the Information Age economy. But perhaps they're also the wired, color-coded, modularized proto-crypts that subtly prepare us for that long-term coffin that lurks just a few decades down the flow chart of life. The evidence is compelling. Let's have a look.