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Workers of the World, Rise Up!

Living longer and looking sillier in the age of the exercise desk. 

The office of the future.

A vision of the near-future? A man and his hamster desk.

 

Until fairly recently, the only person I'd heard of who had a chronic fear of sitting was a character in a Beckett novel. His phobia was “deep-seated and of long standing,” and even when exhausted, he stood “bolt upright in the centre of the room, his bowler hat on his head, his scarlet choker tightly knotted, his glass eye bloodshot, sliding his middle fingers up and down the seams of his baggy moleskins just above the knee, saying, 'I do be turned off, I do be turned off,' over and over again.”[1]

The world turns. Swap out the bowler and the glass eye for a gray hoodie and Google Glass, and that could be Sergey Brin at a standing treadmill desk. Acathisia—the “inability to sit down because of the intense anxiety provoked by the thought of doing so,” per Campbell’s Psychiatric Dictionary—is no longer a niche neurosis. It’s the well-founded fear of an informed public. We are all acathisiacs now,[2] and with good reason—the statistics are simply staggering. If you haven’t heard, you may want to lean against something sturdy for this: Sitting is now associated with everything from diabetes and depression to cardiovascular disease, any number of cancers, and a radically shortened life span.

The office ergonomics industry has proposed a number of “solutions,” most of which work best for the self-employed or those with an office door that locks. If you’re going to spend your workday on a giant rubber ball, for example, it helps if you’re not too proud. Ditto for Balans chairs that shift weight to your knees. I used one for a spell after throwing my back out in a stressful management job, and I speak from experience when I say that it is difficult to delegate, castigate, or in any other way lord it over subordinates when you’re rolling up to them in a kneeling position.

The most common so-called solution to the shortcomings of sitting is the standing desk, which doesn’t make you look foolish so much as extraneous—like a customer or barista, or a friend who’s popped in to say hi. Moreover, just standing at the desk might be no better than sitting. Alan Hedge, a Cornell University professor who specializes in ergonomics and has called standing desks “the high heels of the furniture industry,” tells me that “the key is to get people moving more during the day.”

Hence the recent interest in treadmill desks, which renowned Mayo Clinic endocrinologist James Levine has done so much to popularize. They are an excellent idea in theory but in practice raise thorny questions, including “What the fuck?” Wing-tipped treadmillers look many things: eager, obliging, multitasky, moist. But they do not look executive.[3] They do not look like people you’d trust with blueprints, investments, or prognoses if you had serious things like building plans, financial assets, or cancer. I’ve Googled scores of images, and the only one that inspired confidence in the user’s professional abilities featured Jimmy Kimmel, the late-night comedian. Toddling in his tailored suit coat, collegiate tie, and boxer briefs, he looked sort of like a thickset child centaur and very much like an idiot.[4]

The world of exercise desks has its doomsday physicians, ergonomics experts, and pioneering celebrities. What it has lacked thus far are artists and real designers, people of wit and insight who understand that the fate of the body is implicated in the life of the mind.

This is where Robb Godshaw and Will Doenlen, creators of the Hamster Wheel Standing Desk—which is as much an installation piece and a jeu d’esprit as a functional answer to the dangers of sitting—come in. And they do not come in dressed like little clowns, thank god. They dress in the reassuringly conservative attire of San Francisco’s power elite: sneakers and hoodies.

Godshaw and Doenlen are both based at Pier 9, where Autodesk—the architecture and engineering software design company—runs a sort of Santa’s workshop, complete with lathes, textile makers, machine tools, and 3-D printers for the production of design prototypes. Godshaw is an Autodesk artist-in-residence, and Doenlen is a developer at Instructables (a website, now owned by Autodesk, spun out of Squid Labs, San Francisco’s seminal inventors’ warehouse and “free-form ramshackle business incubator,” that “lets you explore, document, and share your DIY creations”[5]).

The hamster wheel that the two men introduced this fall is not merely less lame-looking than a treadmill desk: It’s positively beautiful. Made with “four sheets of 3⁄4-inch ply- wood, four skate wheels, two pipes, 240 wood screws, a pint of glue, and a good attitude,” it’s all flush surfaces and functional simplicity. Two feet wide and about six and a half feet in diameter, it spins hypnotically around the worker, who shuffles in place in front of a desktop cantilevered in from the side. It looks modernist, or futuristic, as if Star Trek had been set in Scandinavia instead of outer space.

“That’s it! It’s like high-end Ikea!” I gush down the phone at both men. After some silence comes a soft, polite groan.

 

Deep-Seated Anxiety: Confronting Modernity’s “Chair Sentence”
While the hamster brothers regain their composure, perhaps you’ll allow me a brief digression. The medical stuff about the dangers of sitting is serious, and I don’t take it lightly—being obnoxious just helps me cope with bad news. Flaubert said that “one can think and write only when sitting down,” and I heartily agree. Indeed, I would add drinking coffee to the list of things that I can’t do properly unless in that position. So the news that the gluteal approach to the contemplative life “is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting,” as Levine recently put it to the Los Angeles Times, is about as bad as it gets. Not to mention galling—because it would seem, on the face of it, that sitting is nothing if not a modest, risk-averse, altogether responsible pursuit for a father of two.

To be sure, the sedentary life has always had its critics. Nietzsche blasted Flaubert as a “nihilist” on the matter, maintaining that “only thoughts which come from walk- ing have any value.”[6] And it’s not like anyone ever thought that office life was healthy. Way back in 1802, a Londoner by the name of Pocock took out a patent for an adjustable “elevating table” designed to “accommodate every person who writes, reads, draws, or studies,” because prolonged sit- ting “is very wearisome, greatly injurious to the health, and often ruinous to the constitution.”[7] Conventional wisdom used to hold that regular exercise offset the deleterious effects of sitting. But experts now zero in on a fat-burning enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, levels of which dramatically decrease during sedentary inactivity and do not bounce back after a trip to the gym.

This last year seems to have been a watershed for what Levine calls “the stand up movement.” The first wave of bad news for seated types came when the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published its meta-analysis of 43 studies on the effects of sedentary habits. The next came with Levine’s publication of Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It, the title of which captures something of its author’s buoyantly alarmist prose style. It is a peculiar book: In the face of what he calls modernity’s “chair sentence,” Levine jauntily describes the death and decay that steal irreversibly over you—body and soul—as you sit there reading it.

By page four, I have just about aced Levine’s “chair quiz.” “Have you ever shopped on the Internet?” Yes. “If you go to a party, do you seek out a chair?” You bet I do. “Have you ever fantasized about or engaged in sexual intercourse while in a chair?” None of your goddamn business, but yes. And so on. He even wants to know if there are butt prints on my sofa—and to that question, dear reader, after a cursory inspection, I am pleased to answer no. But by this point, I’ve had enough. When Levine diagnoses me as a “chairaholic,” I slam the book shut on its author’s high spirits and begin to pace. I hyperventilate. I vow to remain erect for the rest of the day—nay, for the rest of my life. I will sleep standing up, like a horse.

With an iPhone in one hoof, I resume my research. “Making people stand all day is dumb,” Dr. Hedge, the Cornell professor, is telling the Washington Post. “Standing increases torso muscle activity and spinal disk pressure, increases the risk of varicose veins, increases the risk of carotid artery disease, and increases the load on the heart.” I fire off a distressed email to Professor Hedge asking what the hell, then, I should do. He writes back and tells me to sit for 20 minutes, stand for 8, and exercise for 2. I decide instead to curl up in the fetal position.

So there I am in my beanbag, reading the online magazine Vox. Author Joseph Stromberg is saying that every sedentary hour takes approximately 21.8 minutes off your life. Which means that there’s more death in an hour of sitting than there are commercial minutes in an hour of network television—and I tend to do the former while watching the latter, so I’m getting double-charged. Turning back to Levine, I find that he bills at an even higher rate: “For every hour we sit, two hours of our lives walk away—lost forever.” This strikes me as outrageous, even mathematically impossible. At some point, with no future hours left to delete, you’ll have to start rubbing out past hours, and since some of those will have been spent sitting, does the process go into reverse? Hope springs eternal in the human breast...along with heart palpitations, cold tremors, and acid reflux.

 

Hamster Desks Are Only The Beginning
This is the fragile state of my mind and body when I stumble upon the hamster wheel contraption. Imagine how my spirits pluck up when I read Mr. Godshaw’s exuberant blurb for it on the Instructables website: “Rise up, sedentary sentients, and unleash that untapped potential within by marching endlessly toward a brilliant future of focused work!” Now that’s more like it: equal parts Maoist exhortation and entrepreneurial mysticism, stirred together with just a dash of near-death experience—a bracing cocktail, very Bay Area. I decide that I’m going to like this Godshaw. He may even have a sense of humor. I call him up.

Godshaw says that he and Doenlen considered adding brakes to their device but decided not to because they really wanted to “force the productivity out of the desk user”—in order to slow down, users have to work against the thing’s momentum. He also tells me that they eschewed preset spin speeds because they wanted to create the experience of “a thoughtless wander, which is a deeper human urge.” As he goes on in this mildly contradictory way, my thoughts turn to childhood memories of loading my pet rat, Roger Martin, into a clear plastic ball and watching him roll around on our deep-pile carpet, his tiny pink feet splayed and his whiskers aquiver. It occurs to me that a hamster wheel standing desk may not be the end of the line—a kind of reductio ad absurdum—but rather the beginning. If a circle increases worker health and productivity linearly, a sphere should do so exponentially. And a worker ball could be opaque, thus providing employees with the dignity and privacy that a pet rat in a clear ball can only dream of. Its entire inner surface would be a single continuous touchscreen, with special tanks providing enough oxygen for a full day’s work. Large company lots on the Peninsula would be ideal for these billiard-like socio-creative kinetics. We could call them iBalls.

Pondering the possibilities, I recall something that Dr. Hedge said to me: Exercise desks fail to take into account “that people can only move and perform certain tasks without interference. For example, you can walk and talk, walk and think, and walk and read,” but when you start trying to walk and type, or bike and mouse, you tend to make a hash of everything. My mother always said that I, like Gerald Ford, couldn’t fart and chew gum at the same time, and I never contested the point. I probably wouldn’t last 90 seconds in Godshaw and Doenlen’s brakeless wonder before potentially catastrophic interference occurred.

Godshaw is still talking when I tune back in. He’s saying something about how much noise “this iteration” of the Hamster Wheel Standing Desk makes. Apparently Doenlen’s cubicle mates are getting irritated. I ask if more serious challenges await them should the invention take off—things like vertigo, facial injuries, laptops bathed in vomit, and class action lawsuits. Godshaw concedes the point, especially the legal part—which is why, instead of actually producing and distributing such a “fundamentally unsafe contraption,” they’re just teaching people how to make one themselves. “We basically decided that it was totally unfeasible to make any money from this,” he says.

But little practical and ethical glitches aside, who is to say that the vision of an endless, Zen-like forced march of modern employment won’t “usher in a new era of unprecedented productivity”? That there won’t be a paradigm shift—one, moreover, that includes not just workers but managers and executives? Might it be possible, in some future world, to project executive power from inside a hamster wheel?

If it’s to happen anywhere, this would be the place. Where else do CEOs dress like skaters and talk like hippies? And there’s a history here. It was a Berkeley scholar, after all—the late Seth Roberts—who invented the treadmill desk in the mid-’90s, almost a decade before Levine popularized it. And even before Bay Area bosses learned to walk in place, they were the first to get up, stand up, and walk around.

 

Management By Wandering Around
Some 37 years ago, two consultants from McKinsey’s San Francisco office, Tom Peters and Bob Waterman, were touring Hewlett-Packard’s offices down in Palo Alto. Peters later recalled how HP president John Young “trotted out” to greet them, showed them his office (a 10-square-foot, half-walled cubicle shared with a secretary), then introduced them to his company’s vision of leadership: “Get the hell out of the office, hang out with the engineers (or purchasing guys or whomever), exchange ideas, and take the pulse of the enterprise wherever the work is done.”

Peters and Waterman were dazzled—“lightning-struck,” as Peters put it. They returned to their offices on the 48th floor of Bank of America’s headquarters on California Street, where CEOs sat at vast desks behind “oaken doors...protected from humanity by a phalanx of underlings in Savile Row” suits. Over the next couple of years, they translated the “life-altering” image and idea presented by Young into a new theory of leadership, one involving less solid oak and more composite shoe leather. Their 1982 book, In Search of Excellence, became one of the most influential bestsellers in busi- ness publishing history and made “management by walking around”—or sometimes “management by wandering around,” but in all cases “MBWA”—a catchphrase of the corporate class.

My first job after graduating from university made me something of an MBWA sceptic. At an office in a building next to the Denny’s in Emeryville, I spent my days X-Acto-knifing tiny pieces of text (dates, the names of cities and hotels), Scotch-taping them onto Mad Libs–like boilerplate forms, and making tens of thousands of photocop ies on paper stock of various colors. The company specialized in hosting professional reaccreditation conferences all over the country. Mysteriously, although the year was 1996 and we were half an hour from Silicon Valley, there were no computers. My desk looked like a nursery school craft table.

The head of this ridiculous operation had clearly read In Search of Excellence. Though he had a lavish glass-walled office overlooking 580 and the Bay, he spent most of his time pacing around between workstations asking inane questions, vigorously taking the sluggish pulse of the enterprise, and jangling a set of keys so vast and inclusive that he sounded positively janitorial. One morning he jangled into my cubicle and inquired about how things were going.

“I’m getting the hang of it,” I said, lowering a piece of tape onto the word July. “But I do wonder if you’ve ever considered doing this with computers.”

“Wouldn’t that be fun?” he said, smiling tolerantly, the way you might at a child who’d suggested replacing school buses with roller coasters.

“I could bring in my laptop for a demonstration,” I said. “WordPerfect would make short work of this.”

“Not too short, or you’ll be out of a job,” he winked, backing out with a jangle. He could not have looked sillier had he hopped out on an executive pogo stick. There’s an idea for you productivity-ergonomics gurus, and I won’t even charge for it. Consider it a gift.

 

The Future of Multitasking
People like Godshaw, Doenlen, Roberts, and Levine tend to think more about the form and function of a traditional desk than about its symbolism. But like it or not, our iconographies of power are deeply rooted in the act of sitting.[8] From classical antiquity through the Renaissance, the throne was the symbol of authority. The 18th century saw the rise of bureaucracy—literally, “rule by the desk.” We still refer to city halls, state capitols, and so on as the “seats of government.” Newly enfranchised groups gain a seat at the table. The head of an academic department is the chair. You stand for office, but once you win, you sit your ass down because now you’re the sitting president, and that’s already a bit redundant because, etymologically speaking, you’re the president precisely by virtue of being the one sitting before us.[9] And there you sit until you’re unseated, at which point you bring things full circle by standing the fuck down.

have never felt more powerful as an employee and a man than when I was a beach lifeguard in my hometown of Ventura. Until I was dethroned—OK, fired—for almost drowning during a requalification swim, it was the single most gratifyingly sedentary job I’d ever had.[10] Admittedly, my approach to it was unique. Lifeguarding is thought by many, including my former boss and coworkers, to be the sort of work that regularly offers compelling reasons to stand up and do something. There are people who might need your help in not drowning, for example. I tended to rely on my sister, who worked in lifeguard headquarters behind the beach and high above it, to phone my tower if something terrible began happening on my watch, at which point I’d put down my book and look into the matter.

The general expectation was that lunch breaks would be devoted to exercise, and the explicit rule was that you not leave the beach. My colleagues would swim a mile or jog four, and it wasn’t uncommon to see them doing push-ups or yoga or something equally irritating on the sand near the waterline. I too would begin the lunch hour by setting off on an energetic run, but once past the first rock jetty, off the state beach, and no longer visible to headquarters, I’d make a sharp left and head furtively inland on Driftwood Lane to Monmouth Way and over the wall to McDonalds. As soon as I’d secured a 20-piece box of Chicken McNuggets and a chocolate shake, I’d duck into my VW, which was parked outside like a getaway car, and sit and eat nuggets and read until the hour was up.

I remember that I was reading Nabokov at the time. I remember this because someone had told me that he wrote his novels standing up,[11] and the thought of him standing through his sedentary job and me sitting through my active one had struck me as droll. Why did he stand? Nabokov was no fitness freak, and the true extent of the dangers of sitting were not understood then. My theory regarding Nabokov’s peculiar habit was that having fled the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Nazis in Germany, he wanted to be ready to run again if he had to. He was more prepared at all times for political catastrophe, in other words, than I was during work hours for a rip current.

Nabokov managed not to be killed by revolutions or heavy surf or, for that matter, anything sitting-related. He died, instead, of severe bronchial congestion, which honestly doesn’t sound much better. (If it’s not one thing, it’s another.) His son Dmitri, who was at his side, said that he expired “with a triple moan of descending pitch, just like [the renowned Bulgarian opera singer] Boris Christoff on his Boris [Godunov] recording.”

I recently followed a link and watched that Boris performance on YouTube. I must admit, even upright there on his hind legs with no oak desk before him, Mr. Christoff looked pretty commanding. “Farewell, my son, I am dying” was his triple-moaned swan song (not, as I’d half hoped, Beckett’s “I do be turned off, I do be turned off”).[12] Only in the world of opera do you get to die standing up. But maybe this too shall pass—maybe my generation will be the first to multitask while dying. “Just a second,” we’ll say to loved ones gathered for our final words, “I just have to send this text.” Someone should patent it: the world’s first standing deathbed desk. In the life cycle of Homo economicus, why should productivity end before the body’s other functions? As my mind goes toward the light, I think again of the spinning hamster wheel desk. I feel a kinship with its designers. I am older than both men, but Doenlen is not far behind me, and he was seriously concerned about his health and sedentary habits when he and Godshaw designed the wheel. And yet I sense that the wheel is first and foremost a piece of wit. It has as much to say about our existential predicament—the spiritual stakes of that awful cliché, the “work-life balance”—as it does about health and productivity. When I spoke to Godshaw, I asked him if he was sort of kidding when he wrote the bit about “marching endlessly toward a brilliant future,” or indeed when he designed the wheel itself.

“The ‘rat race’ thing did occur to us, but no, we didn’t put all this time and effort into building a joke.”

Come on, Robb.

“Well, you can be serious and tongue-in-cheek at the same time,” he conceded.

On that parting point, we agreed to agree.

 

 

FOOTNOTES
[1] The novel is Murphy, the character, Cooper. He does eventually sit down, once. I describe that climactic moment in footnote 12.

[2] “In acathisia spastica,” Campbell’s goes on to say, “the thought or act of sitting provokes convulsions.” Thankfully, we are not all that kind yet.

[3] “Not one article I’ve read on standing desks has mentioned boner-hiding techniques. I am not getting on board until they offer solutions,” Twitter comedian Vladchoc tweeted last fall.

[4] Google it and tell me I’m wrong.

[5] The quoted description of Squid Labs is from Alec Foege’s fascinating book, The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make America Great. “We’re not a think tank, we’re a do tank” is the company’s slogan.

[6] Both the Nietzsche quote and the translation of the Flaubert quote (from a letter to Maupassant) come from Duncan Large’s translation of Twilight of the Idols. Jacques Derrida thought that Nietzsche was half kidding. Noted Scriptor erectus Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind, and I like to write standing up.” See footnote 7.

[7] This is a quote from the Port Folio, a literary and political almanac published in Philadelphia in the first decade of the 19th century. The full text of the passage is available in Google Books and makes for amusing reading. It’s the earliest evidence I could find of an adjustable standing desk patent. Subsequent decades saw a proliferation of patent applications. Their popularity declined in the 20th century, so much so that when Hemingway wanted one, he had to improvise. “There is just enough space left on top of the bookcase for a typewriter, surmounted by a wooden reading board, five or six pencils, and a chunk of copper ore to weight down papers when the wind blows in from the east window,” wrote George Plimpton when he interviewed Hemingway for the Paris Review. Hemingway stood in front of this rig “in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu” (presumably one that he himself had shot) and typed.

[8] Beckett, on the other hand, totally got what the ergonomics guys don’t, which is why his masters can’t stand and his servants can’t sit. “Every man his specialty,” as Hamm says in Endgame.

[9] See Walter William Skeat’s A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. “Preside. O.F. presider, to preside, govern. — L. præsidere, to sit before.... See Sedentary.”

[10] “Returning lifeguard Curtis Brown of Ventura suffered mild hypothermia during a recertification swim and will have to be retested,” the Los Angeles Times gently phrased it in a brief article on April 7, 1991. The online version of that article does not include the photo that ran in the print edition, which featured me semiconscious, wrapped in a wool blanket, vomiting seawater, and being tended to by my sister.

[11] See Nabokov’s Strong Opinions (the 1990 Vintage edition, pages 107, 137, and elsewhere) for his habit of writing while standing at a lectern. He wrote in pencil on 3x5 cards that he stored in shoe boxes, the crazy coot! It was the job of his wife, Vera, to type them up.

[12] For a more musically intelligent discussion of Nabokov’s deathbed scene and his son Dmitri’s opera references, see Matt Evans’s obit for Dmitri: “I will sing when you’re all dead.” The character in Beckett’s Murphy, incidentally, did be turned off in the end, and it’s a pretty climactic moment: “Cooper did not know what had happened to set him free of those feelings that for so many years had forbidden him to take a seat or uncover his head, nor did he pause to inquire. He placed his ancient bowler crown upward on the step, squatted high above it, took careful aim through his crutch, closed his eye, set his teeth, flung his feet forward into space and came down on his buttocks with the force of a pile ram.” Take that, Dr. Levine.

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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