Workzone: Considering the cubicle in a ‘nation of clerks’

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We have become a “nation of clerks” — effete, passionless weenies, sitting at our desks, typing all day, drowning in paperwork and email.

About 60 percent of us work in cubicles (93 percent would rather be working in another setting, by one survey’s accounting), and many more of us work in our own offices that are, effectively, slightly larger cubicles, with a locking door and perhaps a window or a potted plant.

But you’re still pushing papers, on the phone, typing away. At the end of a day, a clerk is a clerk is a clerk, no matter the size of your desk.

How did this come to pass?

Nikil Saval explains it all in his new book, “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace” (352 pages, Doubleday, $26.95). Or, at least, he explains what he is able to. The development of the 20th century workplace somewhat escaped the eyes of historians; “The white-collar people slipped quietly into modern society,” he says, quoting C. Wright Mills’ seminal workplace sociology text, “White Collar.”

“People first began to notice offices in the middle of the 19th century, when such places were first called countinghouses,” Mr. Saval writes.

Their effect on men (nearly all office workers were men at this stage) was said to be uniformly deleterious, as they entered the office setting “in the prime of health and exited shrunken and phthisic. ... the office [was] weak, empty and above all boring,” a far sight from where real men did real work, in shipyards and iron mills, subject to and tested by life’s physical hardships. 

Yet over the 20th century, the office — even if it trafficked in “dry, husky business” — transformed into a proving ground of sorts, offering the middle class a “promise of upward mobility. The clerk in his dismal cell might one day rise up to the top; the accountant marooned out in the snake pit of data-processing [could], with pluck, become the president of his company.”

Mr. Saval has developed a unique interest in, and an expertise around, the American workplace. In his spring 2014 essay that appeared in n+1 magazine (which he also edits), he ponders the meaning of the stand-up cubicle desk — not just its implications for our long-term health (and lower back pain), but also its historical place within the Western economy: 

“Sitting used to be considered essential to the West; it was presumed that the ’great divergence’ came because those in the East did not have chairs. A British colonialist in 1851 was disgusted to see Indians squatting while they worked,” Mr. Saval writes.

“A real civilization, it was believed, would learn to sit. As recently as 50 years ago [the] Japanese postwar economic miracle was ascribed by some Western experts to the abandonment of tatami mats” and the acquiescence to office chairs.    

The most important development in the rise of the cubicle is, of course, the personal computer, which, despite its promise as a liberator — we’re still waiting on that paperless office, and most of us still can’t telecommute as much as we’d like — ended up tethering us to our desks. Computers are less workplace tool than soft-glowing umbilical cords: 

“The computer swallowed everything it could: account books, correspondence, files, even human conversations. It became a tonic to have a meeting — you could leave your windowless desk and go into a windowless room for a spell.

”But those were anxious hours; you fidgeted because you knew that eventually you would have to return to your desk, where the monitor’s glow with its pileup of work and letters was masked by an endless animation, a ‘screen saver,’ which often tried to dupe you into thinking you were hurtling through space.”

Outer space, that is. Your work space is just a felt-lined cube.

Bill Toland can be reached at or 412-263-2625.

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