When the archaeologists of the future dig into the workplaces of today, they'll probably marvel less at the motherboards, monitors, and modems than at the personal paraphernalia — pictures, paper-clip sculptures, and fetish objects — that are enshrined with them. For workers who spend long hours tied to their computers, this ornamentation signifies a defiantly anti-Dilbertian impulse. And it's one that award-winning interactive tool developer Music Pen Inc. http://www.musicpen.com has elevated to a full-fledged corporate ritual. The 50-plus artists and programmers at this Silicon Alley pioneer have transformed their computers into intimate museums of meaningful objects. An animator arrays traditional artist's tools — paintbrushes, paper, chalk — around her monitor. One designer fills his space with images from Japanese science fiction and an array of military figurines; another creates a still life out of fresh fruit — and eats it — every day.
These assemblages combine Net culture with personal mythology to create a unique technoshrine for each worker. Music Pen Cofounder and Director of Technology Philip Y.F. Lui mixes artistic elements and utilitarian objects to reflect his dual discipline of music and mathematics. His computer is crowned with windup toys, plastic creatures, and remote-control robots, along with more earthly tools like X-acto knives, flashlights, and paints. "There is a spirit attached to these objects," he says: "It's an inner world struggling to get out." If the technoshrines uplift, they also ground their creators in real time and space. Localization specialist Mahala Hui says, "I get my news, weather, and stock quotes on the Net. We deal so much with the virtual world, we lose touch with the real one." Personal altars are a constant reminder that it's people, not workstations, who do the work.
Francine Maroukian is a writer based in New York City. Her book, Personal Shrines/Other Altars: The Sacred Life of Everyday Objects, is forthcoming from Beyond Words Publishing in 1998.
A version of this article appeared in the December 1997/January 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.