The Mile High Club: 37signals, fuck yeahs, and productivity stock-art

I’ve been bemused (and distracted) all day by a little tempest that the ineluctable DHH stirred up in the SVN comments teapot today.

The post was titled You’re not on a fucking plane (and if you are, it doesn’t matter)! The question raised by the article was simple: should web applications really go out of their way to support off-line access, particularly given that most everyone doing real work these days (from cabinet-makers to “thought workers”) is hooked into a big fat bandwidth pipe at home, at work, and in between on a cell phone?

Saying “Fuck Yeah.”

The post encapsulates everything I love about 37signals. As I have written before, their delightful schtick is all about giving businesses the courage to calm down, to ignore the pressure to come off as a credible member of the “enterprise” community when doing so defies your every other intuition, and instead to use a bit of common sense.

In the world of online start-ups and small tech companies, they’re the ones who remind us when the emperor has no clothes, or when we’ve gotten so wrapped up in our own little narratives that we forgot we were naked too.

At the Getting Real workshop, Jason Fried & DHH shared with us their mantra of Done!, and intimated “done” tends to take the form of “fuck yeah” within 37signals. I’ve always loved this tidbit, and we’ve only half tongue-in-cheeckedly adopted it at SHN. Among the many flustered and sanctimonious commenters, my favorite was by one named “whoa,” who said “The title of this post: “you’re not on a fucking plane” is way off brand for you guys.” Notwithstanding how vapid a person you’d have to be to anonymously diss something by calling it “off brand,” I couldn’t imagine anything more to the core of what 37signals represents than what another commenter called the “f-bomb.” The 37signals folks have always argued that you shouldn’t check your humanity at the threshold of your cubicle. People don’t stop being people when they put on a tie. If they do, they stop knowing how to make products that will fit into real people’s lives. The same goes for your language.

Little Sammy Stockart is so Productive

But the broader issue at the heart of this whole acrimonious discussion about whether you need access to your software while on a plane (on the elliptical machine, scaling Everest, on the funicular to Montmartre, etc.) is that companies selling “business” products can’t resist the image of the stock-art “professional”. You know, those people on your online banking site who just look do damn thrilled to be sitting in front of a laptop in a suit reading about their latest finance charges. Or the painfully diverse group of young professionals you see in those de-saturated photos on “B2B” sites pretending to brainstorm up a heap of enterprise solutions.

One of the most salient and ubiquitous of these images is the one of that slick-haired asshole in a monkey suit, who’s often depicted kicking back in business class seat on a plane, one arm up behind his head, maybe chatting on the Sky Phone (which he has patched through his bluetooth headset or something), and all the while dicking around with Lotus notes his Think-pad (the IBM sticker covered with black tape) with his other hand.

You know this guy. The King of the World. The 24 year-old-pretty boy model who somehow manages to be a bit-shot Executive, controlling the universe with his little utility belt of gadgets. It makes you think of Audrey Hepburn’s great line in Sabrina about the tycoon

You press a button and factories go up. Or you pick up a telephone and tankers set out for Persia. Or through a Dictaphone you say, “Buy all of Cleveland and move it to Pittsburgh.” You must be clever.

Companies like Brookstone, Levenger, SkyMall, and PalmOne know that air travelers in particular like to think of themselves as the sort of intrepid, executive, multi-tasking folk we see in these pictures. That’s why you’ll find their productivity and “executive lifestyle” kitsch in Airport concourses and their literature in the seat pocket next to your vomit bag.

Sometimes I think we all secretly want to be that guy who’s so important that if he stops working for 30 minutes it’ll cause a thrombosis on the Hang Seng. But nobody is. I’ve never seen that guy in real life—and I doubt he really exists. Sure, people work on planes. I love to read, brainstorm, write, and even sometimes program on my laptop in flight. But to build an entire software infrastructure around these silly edge cases just so we can think of ourselves as slick road warriors is merely to bow to some marketer’s idea of how real people work. A notion some ad guy invented fifty years ago to sell a Dictaphone.

I’ve bought into this idea myself before. Ever since I was quite young, I’ve been known to lust after a fancy notebook or a swanky phone headset, with dreams of how stylishly productive it’ll make me. (If only I had a space pen in my pocket with me everywhere I went, I could do anything!) But more often than not I’ve learned that my desire for those things grew not out of need, but a misplaced longing to be the guy in the stock-art. (Which I’m happy to say I finally ditched all together.)

Quite simply: people don’t need offline access; they merely want to think of themselves as the sort of people who need offline access.