{ The Revolution Was Now. }
B. Clifford
photos by Dawn C. Bisi

office spaceAllentown or Smolensk it isn't, yet the orphans and detritus of the "new economy" can still be seen on the streets of Herndon, Va. Companies specializing in computer and networking technology in a sense rebuilt this town, and then with alarming rapidity failed, leaving many workers, who often worked eighty-plus-hour weeks, to wander this swath of suburbia with large amounts of debt and no paycheck. The revolution has almost started, but will die a still-born death before it can begin.
   Herndon has several claims to fame. It was surveyed by a young George Washington, who promptly left it behind and went on to better things. Trains once stopped in Herndon on their way to Washington D.C. but now the tracks are a hike-and-bike trail. In the 1960s, the government decided it would be a great place to put an airport named for a CIA director who liked to topple leftist democracies that threatened U.S. supremacy. Sometime in the 1970s, Herndon became a sister city of Runnymede, England, which, I found out on a recent visit, is just an old WWII airfield with a retired soldiers'/widows' home nearby. In the 1990s, information technology brought fame and fortune to our quiet corner of suburbia. And just as quickly as its fruits sprouted, they withered and died, leaving its workers to ponder the dream that funded their fast cars and expensive cocktail hours.
   I don't profess to be a specialist in the theories of Karl Marx: I'm neither a Marxist nor a Marxian (I'm told there is a difference). I have leftist tendencies, for what it's worth, and was a Russian Studies major in college. That said, those looking for vindication of Marx's theories can find it in the collapse of many an IT company of the type that fill the landscape of Northern Virginia. Indeed, almost the entire Marxist progression is demonstrated by the rise and fall of these companies. A grand, innovative idea sparks interest. That idea is wrought to bring great fortune to those who have figured out how to exploit it. These corporate barons hire vast amounts of people, treating them en masse as a faceless asset. The company competes with others for dominance in the industry, extending employees' hours to the point of absurdity in order to lower costs. As the corporation grows and the market becomes saturated, the company begins to crumble under the largess of its success, and then dissolves into a surprisingly egalitarian free-for-all, a to-each-according-to-his-need distribution of assets-in this case office equipment, corporate liquidity, and human resources. The workers take what they and their closest friends need, and those that haven't been designated as a human commodity in the latest merger join their fellow expendables at "pink-slip parties" in the same clubs and bars where they once boasted of their latest corporate, sexual, and automotive conquests. This process aptly incorporates Hegel's dialectic view of history, in that it has a sense of inevitability to it. This cause-and-effect relationship has happened before, it shall happen again, and everyone involved knows the trend they are following.

My friend, we'll call him Wakefield, works for Lucent Technologies, a telecommunications company that quickly and rather successfully changed its focus in the mid-1990s to computer networking and programming. Wakefield originally worked for another company named Chromatis that specialized in networking tools and the like. Chromatis was bought out by Lucent about a year ago. Wakefield expects to be let go any week now, and is one of only three employees remaining from the original company of fifteen. (To ensure that he draws a paycheck for as long as possible, he declined to be formally interviewed or identified for this story.) His office is being slowly but steadily shut down, and tonight he invited my roommates and me over to his office to grab what we need from his company's stock.
   Wakefield works in an industrial office park just off the Herndon Parkway. When I was a kid this area was a collection of farms where Patch Adams once lived. Now it's a ring of one-story buildings that reflect the sun setting behind Dulles Airport and isn't far from the rumored "home" of the Internet. We drive my roommate's truck around back per Wakefield's instructions, and enter through the loading dock's garage door, which is closed but unlocked. Wakefield is waiting inside.
   "Hey guys," he says. "Welcome to what's left of my office. This used to be our half-court basketball room." This first room is now filled with boxes, themselves bursting with thousands of dollars' worth of computers, monitors, cubicle parts, and those rather chi-chi wall hangings based on turn-of-the-century French advertisements. We aren't allowed to take anything in that room, because it belongs to another company that Lucent has recently taken over, and is therefore not really Wakefield's to give away. This is one of the many rules by which we learn to operate this evening. Certain piles are fair game, others are strictly off-limits, based on who was bought-out when. To get out of the former basketball court, we climb over a forklift boxed-in by excess computer parts. When asked what would become of the stuff in that room, Wakefield shrugs. "It'll probably be thrown out in a few months," he says, "after they try and sell it."
   Standing in a large warehouse-style room, we are faced with a thirty-by-fifty-yard space of empty rack mounts, chairs, rolling shelves piled high with fiber optic cable, and other assorted computer innards of various uses. "This used to be our manufacturing department," Wakefield tells us. Behind this area stands a honeycomb of cubicles. To the rear is the forklift and gym-turned-storage space. To the right is a wasteland of desks, chairs, file cabinets, dismantled cubicles, and surge protectors. We ask to see his cube, and follow him through the manufacturing section toward his office as he picks up various cables and boxes and components. "This costs $1,000," he explains, "and we have about thirty of them. These are $200 a piece, and they'll probably get thrown out, unless you guys need forty feet of fiber optic cable. If you guys need any...?" But we don't.
   Wakefield's office is spacious and well-appointed, though one can see a box of belongings sitting pre-packed underneath his desk, just in case. "That computer stashed under there costs $80,000," he says. "The four processors inside cost about $8,000 each." Just inside his entrance sits a box full of Nerf toys, held over from the days when profits were high enough for the fifteen employees to spend entire days on search-and-destroy missions or playing Capture the Flag throughout the office. Those heady days brought the attention of a larger entity, and soon the corporate reality of the bottom line was brought to bear on the employees of Chromatis. War games are no longer encouraged, sodas are no longer free, company lunches consist of bagels.
   Does everyone have a box like this? "No, just me. Most folks just took theirs home and gave Nerf guns to their nieces and nephews."
   Do these ever get used? "I shot a few balls up over toward the sales section over there last week, but got yelled at."
   The mood in the office these days? "Probably halfway between a funeral and a party. I spent all day taking down the cubicles of the folks who were let go last week and putting all the stuff they left behind in my car. I don't think I've turned on my computer or answered the phone in two, maybe three weeks, except to check my email."

The years 2000 and 2001 saw the big and fairly well publicized decline of the IT industry, with massive and brisk layoffs, plummeting stock values, and cubic miles of abandoned office space. Only the residents of Herndon know the local denouement, that the cycle is repeating itself. Many IT companies still exist and are thriving. The profits are not nearly as high as they once were, nor are the hirings and layoffs as extensive. However IT companies keep on manufacturing product and ideas, while the workers, now fewer in number, continue to slag their way through long work weeks. Salaries are lower and benefits packages are less lucrative, yet the system dangles enough of a carrot in front of the workers to forestall the revolutionary end to the cycle.
   As we shuffle off to the space filled with desks and file cabinets spread out for the taking, something crashes to the floor and a vacuum motor starts up a few cubicles away. We jump. "That's the cleaning crew," Wakefield says. "Just remember that I'm taking this stuff home, not you." The entire night has some clandestine feel to it, what with driving around back with our lights off, opening a large garage door to meet our "guy on the inside", quietly hauling things out for which we didn't pay, all illuminated by a few parking-lot lights. At the same time, the entire exercise is perfectly legitimate and even expected given Lucent's financial situation. Although we're expropriating from this flagging corporation some fairly nice office furniture, following the lead of many before us, there are still, apparently, rules to be followed. As long as employees and their friends adhere to those rules, they are doing said company a favor. If one doesn't need twelve surge protectors, it is very bad form to take twelve surge protectors, even if one intends to pass them out to friends and family. My roommates and I simply need a desk and an office chair, and therefore taking the translucent cubicle walls lying in a pile that would effectively enclose my music nook in the family room is strictly forbidden. It would be nice, I could indeed put them to use, but my need is not considered great enough. My roommate, however, has no desk, and my desk chair is broken, so those needs allow us to take those things from Lucent.
   Do your co-workers take staplers or oscilloscopes home when they get fired? "No, not unless they need them. And who needs an oscilloscope really? Besides Mr. Wizard, I can't think of anyone."
   Our presence causes no alarm in the cleaning crew, or even the two other co-workers who come in to grab a few things out of their offices in anticipation of "the list" being released this Friday. Though the official line is that Wakefield is taking these things and we are helping, his co-workers know we are taking the desk and chair, and are complicit in the plot, as they and their friends have gone through the same song and dance. We load up a large desk for the roommates and an exceptionally nice desk chair for me (I rolled a good seventy-five feet while sitting when Wakefield pushed me).
   "Yeah, it really is kind of sad," Wakefield says. "Six months ago, maybe eight, we were building network boards and shipping them all over the world. Now people won't even pay shipping on free, unused computers. This tool here is $2,000. It's a hydraulic crimper, used for compacting thick-gauged cable. All of this stuff has to be out by Wednesday. Sorry I took so long to call you. Most of the stuff has been combed through and the good stuff taken." We are nevertheless grateful. Lucent, even as its revenues decline and overhead is reduced, has enough largess to provide free furniture of definite value to three starving civil servants.

Wakefield is good enough at his job that he will probably stick around until Lucent closes this office. He has his name written on tape stuck to the backs and sides of several cabinets and rolling rack mounts for when there is no longer any product or supply to store there. Wakefield will have no problem finding a job when Lucent finally lets him go. More likely than not he will sign on with another company that is itself somewhere very far along the dialectic, hiring him because he can do the job for less pay and lower benefits than the equally-competent IT proletarian he is replacing. I would feel sorry for him, if he hadn't sped off that night in his German-engineered sports car.
   Corporate scandals aside, when faced with the human side of the equation, one can't help but simultaneously feel a smug satisfaction and an uneasy sympathy for the decline of the IT economy that in a sense reestablished Herndon, Va. Herndon isn't quite a proletarian hotbed of discontent. The players know how the game is played and accept the rules. Some find work in the same field right away, while some are forced to sit out a few hiring cycles. This tacit resignation, bolstered by high credit card limits and foreign cars, is what breaks the dialectic and continues the cycle of boom-bust. Lucent and its corporate brethren will be able to pay enough people enough money to keep their businesses going, until they are soon bought out by the next company to come along with a great idea. I just hope they have comfortable chairs.

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