Monday, June 2, 2008

The Moral Life of Cubicles

The office cubicle seems a humble piece of workplace furniture, but if you read the New Atlantis article on The Moral Life of the Cubicle, aptly subtitled "the Utopian Origins of Dilbert’s Workspace," you'll find that it has a surprisingly deep history, and that it was originally intended as a tool for social engineering.

Like so many others fads in modern America, the cubicle was conceived on the West Coast during The Summer of Love. According to the article: "Beginning in the late 1960s, the cubicle spread quickly across the white-collar landscape .... by 1974 cubicles accounted for 20 percent of new office-furniture expenditures .... [by 1980] half of new office furniture was placed in cubicled offices."

That timeline tracks with my personal experience. My workplaces for the 1980s and early 90s had individual offices, and finally went to cubicles around 1995. I last had an individual office while at the World Bank (1998-99), but that was just a lucky break, since I worked in such a remote and overlooked part of the building that my four coworkers and I kept our large and nicely-appointed separate offices after the rest of the building went to "office furniture systems."

There are some utilitarian explanations for the rise of the cubicle. They are a very efficient and flexible way of organizing office space, and developers can write their costs off more quickly than fixed walls since cubicle dividers are considered office furniture rather than a building expense. But all that's secondary to the main motivation, which was a Utopian urge to make life better.

Those with moral aspirations for the cubicle—from countercultural Californians like Tom Peters to Midwestern Protestants like Max De Pree—sought to defend some idea of "humanity" against the inhumanity of bureaucracy. Yet, to say that bureaucracy is inhuman has not always been an objection to it. As defined by Max Weber a century ago, bureaucracy makes its great contribution to the world precisely by ignoring the human spirit. Operating according to fixed rules, policies, and positions, bureaucracy in its purest form functions, as Weber wrote, "without regard for persons." As bureaucracy "develops more perfectly, the more the bureaucracy is ‘dehumanized,’ the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation." The central impulse of bureaucracy is to fashion a world in conformity to the impersonal abstraction and precise relationships of an organizational chart.

So the office cubicle was invented as a way to bring some human spirit back into that impersonal soul-sucking abstraction of a workplace that modern bureaucracy had created? OK, I can see that. But I still won't be happy to work in one until somebody invents a solution to the burnt microwave popcorn problem.

1 comment:

cubicleconcept said...

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