Doing It at the White Board

No new technology company is complete without a White Board. White Boards are now so ubiquitous in Silicon Valley that no one ever stops to question their usefulness. Of course, technology people claim that the point of the White Board is to facilitate group interaction. Perhaps this is so. Technology businesses even more than other kinds of business depend on groups of people sitting around together, thinking out loud. The White Board offers a place to gather their brain squalls and turn them into storms. But I have now seen many hundreds of these boards, bearing the remnants of some recent group meeting, and I cannot recall ever seeing anything on them remotely resembling a thought.

In seems to me more likely that the White Board is necessary to make everyone in a meeting feel as if they are doing something. I have seen the ritual performed so many times that I have ceased to think it strange. I am ushered from the reception into a poorly decorated office with indifferent furnishings rented from people who rented it from other people. The entrepreneur greets me, then sets out to explain exactly how he plans to conquer the world. As he reaches the third minute of his explanation he rises, snatches up a red felt Marks-a-Lot, and goes to his White Board. Up till now his explanation has been perfectly clear; there is no need for him to draw pictures to clarify. It’s as if he has grown tired of talking and must now do something. He has reached the limits of language and must digress to signs.

And so, onto his White Board, he draws a big circle, or a box, or a rectangle, or perhaps a row of parallel lines. He then attempts to use these patterns to illustrate what he means. But more often than not his drawing obscures his meaning. Soon enough he has forgotten what it was he was trying to say, and is obsessed with perfecting his drawing. After a bit he becomes frustrated, drops the Marks-a-Lot, and leaves the White Board behind.

I believe that the only people who use White Boards actually to make money are the people who make White Boards. “White Boards are the new, upcoming thing,” explains a nice woman at the Quartet company, based in Skokie, Ill. “And there are many, many kinds.” In addition to the many species of White Boards the company makes cork boards, easels, shredders, binding machines, chalk, pastels, and other things too. “But White Boards is our fastest growing business,” she says. “We’re buying up a lot of the smaller companies due to the fact that we are top dog.”

The company is like one of those merchants in the San Francisco Gold Rush who made more money selling supplies to 49ers than any gold miner ever saw. Recently Quartet itself was acquired by the General Binding Corporation. “But even though they own us,” boasts the corporate spokeswoman, “we are the most profitable part of their company. Everyone’s buying our White Boards.”