CUBED: The Artificiality of Work
The title of Nikil Saval's book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (Doubleday, 2014), denotes borders, defined spaces with fixed barriers that set them apart from that which is outside. More subtly, the word suggests a negative inventive, as in, "We've been cubed." Saval's impressively researched study combines a history of office work from the time of nineteenth century clerks, through the social ramifications resulting from the move of millions from farms and factories to desk jobs, through the integration of women into the office, and through the great expansion of the managerial class. He also considers the architectural designs of workspace and entire buildings to accommodate all those employees and supposedly enhance their functioning, usually failing to do so. In many senses, the relocations of human men and women and the many reconfigured floor plans are shifting borders. But behind them all, I find the most profound border upheaval that underlies all others the one between work and life.
Saval begins the evolution of office work by describing the role and location of clerks in the early 1800s, the clerk close by the employer, if not at the next desk, making entries in a thick ledger with a quill pen. Melville's Bartleby, the scrivener, becomes an archetype for him, although few of his peers would have defied a work order with, "I would prefer not to." For job security, the overwhelming majority would have emulated a Dickensian clerk such as Uriah Heep in David Copperfield, who brought finger to forelock and claimed to be very umble as he masked the resentments that festered within. Heep reveals the source of his bile: "They used to teach at school (the same school where I picked up so much umbleness), from nine o'clock to eleven, that labour was a curse; and from eleven o'clock to one, that it was a blessing and a cheerfulness, and a dignity, and I don't know what all, eh?"
The complex tangle of curse and blessing runs through Cubed. Starting with his introduction, Saval refers to the "bland anonymity of the contemporary white-collar landscape," noting the satirical bleakness of the comic strip Dilbert that many office workers have adopted as a pressure outlet. Yet, for our society the office workplace, more than any other, in contrast to the factory floor, has been "a constant source of hope about the future of work," with its possibility of rising through the ranks. The white collar also conveyed a form of social prestige. Those wearing ties and jackets to work, or later on the female equivalent, became the sources of the middleclass lifestyle—a house in the suburbs, a shiny car or two in the garage, and economic security. Yet, Saval claims, offices turned into "white-collar sweatshops," the promises of freedom and uplift betrayed.
Saval notes this book is a homage to C. Wright Mills' 1951 White Collar, which argued that the title workers didn't realize how much "they were enslaved to large companies," while they thought they were furthering their own interests. Although Saval does not mention the essay, I'm reminded of Karl Marx's "Alienated Labor" from his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Marx, of course, was writing long before mass office work existed, and the laborers whose exploitation he condemned exhausted their lives in what William Blake called "dark Satanic mills," producing goods that had greater value than the worker. Yet he shares a conclusion with C. Wright Mills and Saval, namely that "the work he [the worker] performs is extraneous to the worker [...] is not part of his nature; therefore he does not fulfill himself in the work. [...] Only while not working can the worker be himself ..." Most likely those devoting their lives to physical labor in those bleak Victorian factories knew they were being exploited but endured because they had no alternative. The twentieth-century office employees enjoyed much shorter workdays and much greater creature comforts, just grumbling their frustrations with the system
In his discussion of "Bartleby" Saval notes that Melville's story, like other works of the time about office life, depicted it as "unnatural." Nothing was produced in the office, unlike the output of factories and farms. All that the hours spent at desks turned out were words on paper and numerical tabulations. Those in the white collars endured the tedium for the rewards of the good life when their evening commute brought them home.
Although Saval does not mention Uriah Heep or any other Dickens character, the one who strikes me as the archetype for such a split life is Wemmick, the clerk who serves the foreboding lawyer Jaggers in Great Expectations. Pip, the narrator, on first meeting Wemmick on the office describes him as a short, dry man. But that man turns out to be a friend and supporter, willing to warn Pip of grave danger. He also invites Pip to his home away from the city, called The Castle, where he lives as a smiling alter ego with his aged father, The Castle set off by a moat and drawbridge. Not only is that moat a physical border, it separates Wemmick's work persona from the pleasant, happy man he is in familial surroundings.
My own direct experience of being a cubicle worker is minimal, the few years after my graduation from college, although for a many years I did communication and writing consulting for a number of companies, shared a home with a wife who endured a daily communicate to corporate trenches, collaborated on projects with a friend who is an industrial psychologist, and taught students who shared tales of their offices. I believe I have a sense of the territory.
While I wouldn't go as far as calling office employment unnatural, I do consider much of what goes on in cubicles, open floor plans, or executive suites make-work, even the tangible outcomes of pages in binders meaningless. Some examples. When in my brief post-college career as an advertising sales trainee, I was put in charge of producing multi-volume proposals for multi-million dollar contracts, immersed in 100-hour work weeks, sharing duties with others who also gave up personal lives to devote their waking hours to the project. Once after one such proposal was completed and shipped, I happened to sit in the lunchroom with a man I barely knew; but I told him about what I considered my accomplishment. "Oh, that contract's going to company X," he told me. "We got one recently, and now it's their turn. We just have to make a show of it and turn in a proposal."
Years after while moonlighting from teaching for the needed money, I produced a procedures manual for a supermarket chain. Hundred of copies were printed. Months later when I met my internal contact to discuss another project, I asked her how the manual was received. It was, she reported, still boxed in a storage closet, her vice president not sure if she wanted to use it. My contact rolled eyes, as she did every time she mentioned that vice president. She also revealed secrets of the company culture, like the many people who stayed long after the official day ended just reading the newspaper so that their cars would be seen in the parking lot to give the impressive of total commitment. Workers for many companies share that ruse.
I also taught weeklong writing–communication workshops for one of the country's then largest organizations. During one session a young woman, an unusual presence among the group of mainly middle-aged male longtime employees, complained how upper management suddenly cancelled a project to which she had devoted an entire year. A whole year of her work life wasted. The seasoned men just laughed, and one said, "I've been with this company thirty years and never had a project that wasn't cancelled."
Of course, businesses accomplish something and do it often—new smartphones, new fast food recipes, better vacuum cleaners, drugs brought to market, successful monetary investments, and the like. But I wonder with the meetings after meetings that come to nothing and with the layers of management required to sign off on each stage of a project, how much real work in people and time is really necessary for these results.
During my first job, when I wasn't exhausting myself turning out meaningless proposals, I sat in a cubicle with three other young men proofreading ship turbines manuals typed on IBM Selectrics with, in the first typing, a count of unused spaces in each ragged right line. We'd proof, then each page was retyped to make any corrections and insert sufficient spacing for right margin justification. How much did turbine operators really need those sharp edges? We also devoted about half a day to working, spending the rest at our desks pretending to work but having conversations and playing games like hang-the-man. While I thought we were sluggards, it turned out that we set new records for productivity.
What we and those typists did is long obsolete, replaced by the digital revolution, as have many white collar jobs, certainly with more to come. A large number of the office workers let go following the 2008 recession haven't been rehired. It turned out they weren't needed, not even when business picked up. Many probably long for the tedium of make-work and the salary received even if they realize they weren't accomplishing much. But, then, machines have reduced farm employment to a fractional number of workers, and robots have replaced the humans on assembly lines. So many jobs are now extraneous.
Certainly, there are tasks to be done—like stocking shelves, waiting on diners or customers, mowing lawns, transporting physical goods and humans from one place to another, taking patients' temperatures, emptying bed pans, teaching children. No doubt many of these tasks will also become automated.
The artificial partitions of the cubicle are rapidly becoming borders of the past, objects to be reassembled for museum displays, along with quill pens, rolltop desks, and typewriters. Where will the future of work take place? The screen of a smartphone? What new functions will be created? Millions assigned to securing national borders? But will any of those jobs break through the border that separates the worker as a functionary from the human worker as a fulfilled self?