With this review of an historical view of the workplace known as "the office," The Jillster took this blogger back to one of the darker times of his life in the groves of the Collegium Excellens. A new VP for Facilities at the Collegium attempted to make his bones by moving this blogger's department out of individual rooms with doors and bookcases to an "office landscape" of fabric covered interlocking panels to form cubicles (some with doors and others without) with seven-foot walls. Suffice it to say that this blogger got the hell out of Dodge and connived his way back into the old suite of offices (with a door and built-in bookcases). Working in a cubicle was hell in a very small place. If this is a (fair & balanced) revolt against social engineering, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
Away From My Desk
By Jill Lepore
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
In the middle of the last century, C. Wright Mills bought a contraption called a Shopsmith, an all-in-one, five-foot-long workbench that included a lathe, a disk sander, a table saw, two drill presses, and a jigsaw. He was waiting for Oxford University Press to send him galleys of his new book, White Collar (1951, 2002), a study of office workers. He paid for his Shopsmith with royalties he earned translating from German into English the essays of Max Weber, including one on bureaucracy. Then he bought an old farmhouse on five acres of land in Pomona, New York. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, he’d ride his motorcycle from the farm, where he hoped to grow vegetables, to Columbia University, where he taught sociology. (He’d built the motorcycle himself, in a factory in Germany.) Back at the farmhouse, he’d take out his tools and get to work. He was making an office. “I’ve a built-in flat file with 30 cubbyholes by one end of the 8 foot desk slab of plywood,” he told his parents. He used five hundred dollars he was paid for an interview about his upcoming book to buy wood, and, with plans he cribbed from the furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames, he built a sixteen-foot-wide cabinet called a “space divider,” along with a thirty-foot wall of bookshelves. Then he covered the ceiling and the walls with acoustical tile, for soundproofing. He liked to roar, though also: he liked quiet.
White Collar, which appeared in 1951, is Mills’s account of the splitting of work from life—and of meaning from existence—in the new American middle class, a mass of white-collar office workers, salesmen, bureaucrats, professors, and salaried executives who, as Mills saw it, were so profoundly alienated from everything that mattered that they had no past, no politics, and no culture, and were so numbed by the paper-clipped pointlessness of their days that they had been anesthetized to their own alienation. “The white-collar people slipped quietly into modern society,” he wrote. “Whatever history they have had is a history without events; whatever common interests they have do not lead to unity; whatever future they have will not be of their own making.” They had the cheerfulness of robots, having lost the capacity to feel misery, or, in truth, anything—except boredom.
Nikil Saval’s first book, Cubed (2014), is, he says, “inspired by and is an homage to C. Wright Mills’s White Collar.” Saval doesn’t discuss Mills much (he doesn’t mention Mills’s Shopsmith or his plywood cubbies, for instance), except to distinguish their approaches; Mills’s was sociological, Saval’s is historical. “Subjecting Mills’s synoptic portrait of the office to the claims of history reveals ideologies and classes being made and unmade, along with fundamental notions of how and why we work,” Saval writes. It’s not immediately clear what that means, which is a problem that Mills sometimes had, too.
Mills was interested in the people who work in offices. Saval, an editor at n+1, is interested in the office as a place: filing cabinets and photocopiers, rolling chairs and cubicles. With the rise of the office, Mills argued, came the invention of leisure, which he considered both a scourge and a swindle: “Each day men sell little pieces of themselves in order to try to buy them back each night and week end.” Much of White Collar is Mills’s yelp of nostalgia for a (mostly imaginary) pre-industrial order in which the craftsman controls his own work and learns from doing it, as opposed to the new bureaucratic order, in which the white-collar worker has no control over his own work and crafts are commercially packaged, leisure-time “hobbies,” like the prefab kits you can buy, these days, to brew beer or can pears. Saval, who believes that the age of the office is nearly at an end, wonders what will happen when the last sliding door at the last office park glides shut. About what was happening to work, Mills was furious and pained; Saval is amused and hopeful. The cover of White Collar consists of stop-sign-stark white letters over a nearly black photograph of a tiny little man, a Willy Loman in hat and trenchcoat, passing by the massive granite columns of an office building. The smiley-face-yellow cover of Cubed features a friendly cartoon of a Dilbert-era office cubicle. Mills’s book was subtitled “The American Middle Classes”; the subtitle of Saval’s book is “A Secret History of the Workplace.” This is a misnomer: tracing the history of the office from the desk of Bartleby the scrivener to the rumpus rooms at Google HQ is a neat idea for a book; that doesn’t make it a “secret history.” Most of what Saval has to say is not only familiar but derivative; as he admits, his book is “chiefly a work of synthesis.” Still, Cubed is cleverly pieced together and much more subtle and sophisticated than its fun-facts-in-a-box P.R., which bills it as a book about “a vast amount of stuff you only thought was boring,” as if readers, like Mills’s glassy-eyed white-collar workers, find everything boring.
Reading Cubed is like visiting a museum holding an exhibit called “The Office Through the Ages”; each gallery is a period room as fussily appointed as the sets on “Mad Men,” down to the last gooseneck lamp and matte-beige telephone. You begin in the dimly lit counting house of a manufacturing firm, in a small corner furnished with a single, wooden, high-backed, cubby-holed Bob Cratchit desk, circa 1840. There had been scriveners and bookkeepers and amanuenses for centuries, bent, ink-stained men who kept books and copied documents for merchants and lawyers and scholars. (A secretary is something else; historically and etymologically, a secretary is the person you trust with your secrets.) But the clerk, as a phenomenon, was born only with the rise of the factory and then of modern business, which, as Alfred Chandler long ago argued, separated making and selling into inventing, manufacturing, banking, accounting, insuring, shipping, and retailing, each with its own clerk. “They had all slightly bald heads, from which the right ears, long used to pen-holding, had an odd habit of standing off on end,” Poe wrote, in “The Man of the Crowd,” in 1840. The growing number of clerks depended, too, on the rise of the common school and the spread of literacy. Herman Melville described the life of mid-nineteenth-century men as “pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.” Melville wrote “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in 1853; a New York census taken two years later reported that clerks were the third-largest occupational group in the city. “Office-worker” entered the language in 1856. Gaslight replaced candlelight, and by the end of the century the quill and the cubby desk had gone the way of the periwig and the spittoon. The typewriter was first sold commercially in 1867; the vertical file cabinet dates to the eighteen-eighties. Clerks worked long hours in far better conditions than people who worked in factories, whose exhaustion was physical, but they worked in conditions of drudgery all the same. At first, when there was a clerk here and a clerk there, clerks might hope to raise their station, to become, one day, the boss; they weren’t a separate class, or, at least, they didn’t think of themselves that way. In 1889, Parker Brothers began selling a board game called Office Boy; the object of the game is to become Head of the Firm. By then, the odds of making that rise had grown long.
The museum’s second gallery would be the headquarters of a railroad company, in a steel-and-elevator skyscraper in Chicago, circa 1920, cluttered with row upon row of steel desks topped with stacks of memos and organized, for the first time, by department. When business became big business—conglomerates employing hundreds and even thousands of people—companies divided themselves into still smaller units. What was once accounting became accounts payable, accounts receivable, auditing, and the comptroller, each with its own office. In 1880, Saval reports, clerks made up less than five per cent of the nation’s workforce, or a hundred and eighty-six thousand people, nearly all of them men; by 1910, more than four million Americans worked in offices, and almost half were women. They punched time clocks and sat on chairs with wheels. The Modern Efficiency Desk, a metal slab topping file drawers, a set on each side, was invented by the Metal Office Furniture Company (now Steelcase), in 1915. It has all the warmth of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s stopwatch. Furniture made of wood—carved, dark-stained, and brass-knobbed—was reserved for the higher-ups. In some companies, the corridor of leather-wood-and-cigar executive offices (picture your Levenger catalogue) is still known as “mahogany row.”
As with the factory, so with the office: in an assembly line, the smaller the piece of work assigned to any single individual, the less skill it requires and the less likely the possibility that doing it well will lead to doing something more interesting, and better paid. In the eighteenth century, servants and artisans called ladies and gentlemen “people in ruffles,” because they wore ruffled cuffs, to make clear that they had no need to work with their hands. A century and more later, office workers wore white collars and cuffs as badges of their aspiration. Upton Sinclair popularized the modern usage of the phrase “white collar” in 1919, when he wrote, “It is a fact with which every union workingman is familiar, that his most bitter despisers are the petty underlings of the business world, the poor office-clerks, who are often the worst exploited of proletarians, but who, because they are allowed to wear a white collar, and to work in the office with the boss, regard themselves as members of the capitalist class.” Although, sometimes, a collar is just a collar.
Moving along the hallway of “The Office Through the Ages,” you’d follow the clatter of the typewriter and the click of high heels on linoleum to enter a factory-style office—say, on the eleventh floor of the Metropolitan Life Building, on Madison Avenue, circa 1930. By that time, nearly all typists, receptionists, stenographers, file clerks, and switchboard operators were women, many of them trained in schools modelled on the one that Katharine Gibbs had opened in Providence in 1911. Saval argues that the culture of the office shaped the culture of flirting and, in the course of the last century, has defined the relationship between men and women. In the 1933 film “Baby Face,” Barbara Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, who gets a job at the Gotham Trust Company, in an Art Deco skyscraper, and then works her way from the bottom floor up, floor by floor, by seducing her bosses. “For better or worse,” Saval argues, “the office engineered so much of the sexual world we now inhabit.”
The museum’s mid-century, C. Wright Mills-era gallery would be a fluorescent-lit, air-conditioned room in a glass skyscraper like the thirty-eight-story Seagram Building, which opened in 1958. The nineteen-fifties also saw one of the first suburban office parks, A.T. & T.’s Bell Labs, in Murray Hill, New Jersey, which employed forty-two hundred people. They operated telephones and Dictaphones, intercoms and mimeographs. Saval sees the mid-century office as a Lonely Crowd-meets-The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit world of luxury and despair, a stifling monotony relieved mainly by sex with the secretary. Mills’s account, a product of the anxiety of the era itself, was far darker. Mills thought the new office, for all its steel and glass, wasn’t all that different from the old factory, of brick and steam: “Seeing the big stretch of office space, with rows of identical desks, one is reminded of Herman Melville’s description of a nineteenth-century factory: ‘At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper.’ ” Melville was describing a New England paper mill in 1855. Mills was describing a modern office in 1951. “The new office is rationalized: machines are used, employees become machine attendants; the work, as in the factory, is collective, not individualized,” he wrote. “It is specialized to the point of automatization.” In the 1957 Spencer Tracy–Katharine Hepburn movie “Desk Set,” written by Phoebe and Henry Ephron and made with the coöperation of I.B.M., Tracy, an M.I.T. scientist who has invented an “electronic brain,” turns up with a tape measure in the research department on the twenty-eighth floor of the Federal Broadcasting Company building. Hepburn, the head of the department, invites him into her office.
“I’m a methods engineer,” Tracy says to Hepburn, introducing himself.
“Is that a sort of efficiency expert?”
“Well, that term is a bit obsolete now.”
“Oh, forgive me,” Hepburn says. “I’m so sorry. I’m the old-fashioned type.”
Tracy has a giant computer installed in Hepburn’s department. Hepburn expects that her entire staff will be fired. Before demonstrating how the machine works, Tracy makes a speech to a group of corporate executives.
“Gentlemen, the purpose of this machine of course is to free the worker—”
(“You can say that again,” Hepburn mutters.)
“—to free the worker from the routine and repetitive tasks and liberate his time for more important work.”
Hepburn: “I think you could safely say that it will provide more leisure for more people.”
The central gallery of “The Office Through the Ages” would be a room full of cubicles. In 1958, Robert Propst, an art professor from the University of Colorado, began working for the Herman Miller Company, as the head of its new research wing. Working out of a laboratory in Ann Arbor, Propst, who’d patented all sorts of devices, from playground equipment to heart valves, set about redesigning the office for the employee Peter Drucker had lately dubbed the “knowledge worker.” (Calling a worker knowledgeable was an attempt to quiet the “Desk Set”-era fear that a computer can do most office work better than a person.) In 1964, Herman Miller launched Propst’s Action Office, a highly designed modular office system, consisting of bright-colored storage units, a table, a chair, a stool, a desk, and a standing desk, meant to be installed in an “office landscape,” a concept imported from Germany. The Action Office II, which débuted in 1968, enclosed the entire “workstation” on three sides with interlocking, adjustable walls, covered by tackboards.
“We are a nation of office dwellers,” Propst wrote in 1968, in a seventy-one-page promotional pamphlet entitled “The Office: A Facility Based on Change.” Saval calls it “a kind of Port Huron statement for the white-collar worker.” Following Drucker, Propst argued that the office had become a “thinking place.” Propst’s walls were meant to join at no less than a hundred and twenty degrees, but that didn’t stop the companies that bought them, or the manufacturers who produced knockoffs, from squaring them off. “They make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them,” Propst said in an interview at the end of his life. “Barren, rat-hole places.”
Throughout the nineteen-seventies and eighties, especially during periods of recession, employees were moved from offices to cubicles. “Dilbert,” written by Scott Adams, who worked in a cubicle for seventeen years, began appearing in 1989. “Most business books are written by consultants and professors who haven’t spent much time in a cubicle,” Adams wrote. “That’s like writing a first-hand account of the experience of the Donner party based on the fact that you’ve eaten beef jerky. Me, I’ve gnawed an ankle or two.” Cubicles, like companies, downsized. “Those three walls had once been meant to liberate office workers, to guarantee their autonomy and freedom,” Saval writes. “But they had finally taken on the image that they have today: the flimsy, fabric-wrapped, half-exposed stall where the white-collar worker waited out his days until, at long last, he was laid off.” In 1997, when BusinessWeek’s editorial staff began the move into cubicles, the magazine reported not only that “some 35 million of the 45 million white-collar workers in this country” were working in cubicles but also that, in a single decade, the size of the average cubicle had decreased by as much as fifty per cent.
Desktop computers—boxes inside boxes—began appearing in those cubicles in the mid-eighties, electrical cords curling on the floor like so many ropes. Saval is both uninterested in the history of the computer and enamored of Silicon Valley. BusinessWeek began reporting on “the office of the future” in 1975. It would be paperless and “non-territorial”; you wouldn’t have your own office, or your own desk, or even your own little corner—you’d work wherever you needed to. The first desktop computers appeared in stores in 1977. “The effect of the personal computer was equivocal,” Saval argues, “the sort of deeply transformative item that also seemed to leave everything pretty much the same.” That’s a difficult claim to sustain. Computer screens have desktops and file folders and windows and clocks and trash baskets; they’re meant to replace the real ones. Microsoft released its first version of a software program called, simply, Office, in 1990. “Silicon Valley was born in an office revolt,” Saval points out, and he finds compelling the story Silicon Valley tells about itself, in which the office, and work itself, has been wholly reimagined. There are no more desks and no more offices; instead, there are spaces with couches and pinball machines and, in the kitchen, refrigerators full of coconut water and edamame, and everyone is equal, and innovating. Saval writes, “Organizations that insist on hierarchy are becoming harder to defend; the ‘mindset flexibility’ demanded of workers has the potential to transform itself from contingency and precariousness into something that might very well look like autonomy.” Right about there is where you want Katharine Hepburn to speak a line or two written by the Ephrons, about autonomy and mind-set flexibility. I think you could safely say that it will provide more leisure for more people.
Writing White Collar was hard work, Mills wrote to a friend. (In 2000, Mills’s daughters, Kathryn and Pamela, published a collection of his papers; it makes for fascinating reading.) “To write it you have to whip yourself up tight and unwind for four pages; then depression for a month, then whip yourself up and unwind. Repeat. Repeat. And all this makes it sound as if it might really be good, but really you know it isn’t so good. A lot of it is a lot of crap.”
In 1952, after White Collar was published, Dwight Macdonald, writing in Partisan Review, said he found it “boring to the point of unreadability.” Mills wrote to Macdonald and invited him out to the farmhouse in Pomona to talk about it. “You’ll enjoy the country air, you ignorant, irresponsible bastard,” he told him. Macdonald never came. Mills, distressed, wrote to five friends and asked them what he could learn from Macdonald’s review. Richard Hofstadter suggested that he might learn to be less contemptuous of the people he was writing about. Lionel Trilling gave him writing advice. Mills listened better to Trilling than to Hofstadter. He set about writing an essay he called “On Intellectual Craftsmanship”: advice to young scholars about the art of writing. “You must set up a file,” he explained, recommending that they “not split their work from their lives” but, instead, file them in the same cubby.
Mills knew that his analysis explained both too much and too little about the set of arrangements that ruled the lives of the American middle class in the middle of the twentieth century. “It is a total damnation of everything in this setup,” he admitted to a friend, which meant that any reasonable reader of his book is left “to ask how and why the damn setup continues at all.”
Saval, by offering a history of the office as a place, is trying to find an answer to Mills’s unanswered question about why this setup has lasted as long as it has and, if it is dying out, which is what Saval thinks, what in heavens will happen next. He finds inspiration in the breakdown of the traditional office—the swapping out of cubicles for couches—which he takes to be a quiet revolution. “The willingness of workers to discard status privileges like desks and offices is not just a sign of giving in to executive demands for cost control,” he writes. “It also suggests that the career path that defined the white-collar worker for generations—from the cubicle to the corner office, or even from the steno pool to the walk down the aisle—is coming to a close, and that a new sort of work, as yet unformed, is taking its place.”
Whatever that new sort of work looks like, the cleavage that so troubled C. Wright Mills, the splitting of work from the rest of life, likely won’t be part of it, though it’s hard to say whether that’s as good a thing as Saval would like to believe. Leisure may be over, but that’s only because when your office is a cloud it follows you everywhere. The arrangement that began in the nineteenth-century factory and lived on through the twentieth-century office may end soon; if so, the two-century-long separation of home and work will turn out to have been a historical anomaly. Work will no longer be a place, and home no longer an escape.
Before leaving “The Office Through the Ages,” you’d be directed to a room barren but for a socket on the wall and a sign reading “Free WiFi.” There you’d be asked to take out whatever device you’ve got in your pocket and instructed to text the museum’s curator with your idea for what the next office ought to look like. Or you could do that from the coffee shop down the street, or from the subway, on your way home. You could do it anywhere. Ω
[Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University as well as the chair of the History and Literature Program. She also is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her latest books are The Story of America: Essays on Origins (2012) and http://www.amazon.com/Book-Ages-Life-Opinions-Franklin/dp/0307958345 (2013). Lepore earned her B.A. in English from Tufts University, an M.A. in American Culture from University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University.]
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