"The white-collar people slipped quietly into modern society," C. Wright Mills writes in White Collar (1951), his classic sociology text, as if he were describing a race of wan termites. Nikil Saval's excellent new book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, was inspired by Mills' book, and it's a fresh and intellectually omnivorous extension of its themes.
I've spent about half my working life sitting in, and loathing, cubicles. You've probably spent years in one, too. About 60 per cent of us work in cubicles, and 93 per cent of us dislike them. You may ask yourself, as David Byrne sings, well, how did I get here? Cubed will supply answers. Most of them will not make you happier.
In Cubed he walks us through the invention of a few of our favourite things: the vertical file cabinet, the suspended ceiling, the fluorescent light bulb, the elevator, the Dictaphone, the human-resources department. He introduces us to many of the major figures in the development of modern office culture, including Frederick Taylor, the first widely influential efficiency expert; Katharine Gibbs, who ran finishing schools for young women (Gibson Girls) who wanted to enter the workplace; Willis Carrier, who invented modern air-conditioning; and Robert Propst, who developed the rudiments of what would become known as ergonomics and inadvertently gave us what would become the modern cubicle.
In 1964 Propst introduced what he called the Action Office, a flexible, semi-enclosed work space that had some style and wit to it. He meant to liberate workers. But the Action Office never caught on.
Companies saw the benefit of small, one-size-fits-all work spaces. The modern cubicle was born.
Saval describes the image we have of the cubicle 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." Standard 6-by-6 sets of them became known as six-packs.
If this book has a downside, it's that reading about mostly unhappy people doing vaguely unhappy work isn't always an invigorating experience. It's not like reading about lumberjacks and crop-dusting pilots. It's hard to make monotony fascinating. Saval closes by observing that, with the rise of freelancing and other forms of what he calls "precarious employment," work "appears to be moving not forward but back: back to an earlier era of insecurity." Many of the career paths once taken for granted are vanishing. "A new sort of work, as yet unformed, is taking its place."