City: Seeyou@theXmasparty - notes from a virtual office

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The Independent Culture
E-mail has transformed the modern office: not just with the endless memos everyone has to wade through, but everything else from politics to romance to practical jokes can now be conducted from the anonymous safety of the terminal. Debbie Barham looks to the end of office life as we know it and, that ultimate of horrors, the virtual office Christmas party.

Before the advent of e-mail and "nettiquette", the biggest social faux pas of office life was the occasional trainee thinking it'd be a wizard wheeze to Xerox his gluteus maximus and fax it to head office, an act generally forgotten within the week. Consider, in comparison, the allegedly true story of a high-flying and technically adept female executive who - attempting to seduce a younger colleague - filmed herself in varying states of undress, digitised it, and e-mailed the resulting code to her beloved. Unfortunately, a misdirected keypress zapped the incriminating LINGERIEMPG file to every employee in the entire organisation - costing hundreds of megabytes of computer space, not to mention any credibility she might have had. Yes, thanks to the global village, workers now have far more opportunity to make global village idiots of themselves.

And even disregarding the fact that the technical prowess of the average boss is roughly on a par with that of the average monkey (indeed, were you to put an infinite number of bosses in a room with an infinite number of typewriters, they'd eventually go to an infinite number of lunches leaving their PA a memo to type up the Complete Works of Shakespeare by that afternoon), the more sophisticated the technology gets, the more frightening its implications for office social life. Forget the Millennium Bug - this is far more serious.

Anyone who remembers their last office party (and if you do, it obviously wasn't a very good one) will be familiar with the primary function of such an event. The one time when colleagues can openly flirt ... mousey secretaries and acne-ridden post-room boys shed their drab workaday apparel, get paralytic and cop a feeble fumble behind the photocopier (or in the case of the real techno-nerds, of the photocopier). But thanks to e-mail, our inhibitions went out of the window long ago.

You can be so much more upfront in cyberspace than personal space - intranet wires are positively buzzing with sexual charge, mostly from those who wouldn't dream of actually telling that secretary, face-to-face, how much they admired her choice of blouse. However, when safely ensconced at a terminal on the other side of the office, behind the alternative persona of npk4320$, even Nerdy Neville can become a veritable E-mail Chauvinist Bastard. And should the object of his desire somehow fail to be aroused by 56 messages "Re: tights or suspenders??" - well, he can always download some porny pictures via his new corporate Internet connection.

It doesn't end there. A recently published dictionary included, for the first time, the word "digibullying" - intimidation via e-mail. The shyest, most unmotivated individual can now progress to the very top of the company career ladder by not having to sack anyone IRL ("In Real Life"). Who cares about effective Man Management and Team Morale, when dismissals are now a simple "To: jim@soulless. org,Re:Bye-Bye!" away.

And, assuming that the office xmas party isn't replaced by the office xmas multi-user video-conferencing session, will it be any fun any more, when the closest relationship you've had with other revellers is a curt digital dispatch "IMPORTANT Re: Unauthorised Usage of Teabag Resources - All Personnel Please Read".

Will we actually possess sufficient social skills to approach the nice young chap in the glasses, offer him a drink and nervously introduce ourselves - "Hi! I'm dBk0432@bartle bartlebartle. But my friends all call me dBk0. At least, they would if I'd succeeded in making any during my eight years' employment with this company."

Maybe the solution is to hold the annual piss-up in a CyberCafe, and small-talk via the stilted shorthand of the net. Hey, there could be advantages. Instead of having to smile yet again at your line manager's appalling joke, you can just type another weary :-) symbol and sue him later for Repetitive Strain Injury.