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post #1 of 3 (permalink) Old 06-06-2008, 07:01 PM Thread Starter
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Dilbertology

The Utopian Origins of Dilbert’s Workspace

David Franz

Few arenas can match the business office for its combination of humdrummery and world-shaping influence. Sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote of office workers, “Whatever history they have had is a history without events.” The history of office technology seems especially uninspiring: the invention of double-entry bookkeeping, calculators, and spreadsheets are unlikely material for a captivating History Channel feature, to be sure. Yet the importance of the business office and its techniques is undeniable. Max Weber saw the office’s methods of organization, its rationality, and its disciplines as hallmarks of modern capitalism, making possible dramatic gains in efficiency and forever altering the economic and cultural landscape. Perhaps even more significant in our time, when millions of American workers spend most of their waking day in an office, is the sense that the organizational technologies of office life provide a kind of moral education, that offices shape character, that they create a certain kind of person. And perhaps no aspect of today’s office is more symbolic of office life and office lives than the cubicle.

Mills, in his 1951 attack on corporate bureaucracy, White Collar, imagined each office as “a segment of the enormous file.” Honeycombed floors of skyscrapers organized the “billion slips of paper that gear modern society into its daily shape.” Mills’s book was soon joined by The Organization Man and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit in the decade’s series of attempts to assess the damage office life inflicted upon the worker. The composite picture that emerged was of a character driven by petty desires: for a slightly bigger office at work, a slightly bigger yard at home, and modest respectability everywhere. The man of the office was a middling figure without passion or creativity. These images of the office and its inhabitants were joined in the 1960s and 1970s with the counterculture’s critique of the stifling bureaucracies of the state, the corporation, the university. Standing on the steps of Berkeley’s Sproul Hall, Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio echoed Mills’s condemnation of the great bureaucratic filing machine, now symbolized by IBM punch cards, and suggested to his fellow protesters that they put their “bodies on the gears and wheels” to stop it.

For many, this soullessness of office life is now most aptly represented by the cubicle—that open, wall-less, subdivision of office space. Beginning in the late 1960s, the cubicle spread quickly across the white-collar landscape. A market research firm estimated that by 1974 cubicles accounted for 20 percent of new office-furniture expenditures. In 1980, another study showed that half of new office furniture was placed in cubicled offices. According to Steelcase, one of the largest cubicle manufacturers, nearly 70 percent of office work now happens in cubicles.

The rise of the cubicle is surely due in part to its economics. Partitions are simply a very efficient way of organizing office space. Construction for cubicle offices is standard and cheap, made and assembled in large quantities and with minimal skilled labor. The building shell, lighting, and air conditioning can be set up with little consideration of interior walls, allowing contractors to build economical big white boxes to be filled in later with “office furniture systems.” Perhaps most importantly, cubicles maximize floor space, granting workers only the necessary square footage—a number that is shrinking all the time. According to brokerage surveys cited in National Real Estate Investor, the average office space per worker in the United States dropped from 250 square feet in 2000 to 190 square feet in 2005. Some observers expect this number to drop another 20 percent by 2010. This shrinkage not only saves space, but time as well—time wasted walking to restrooms, the coffee pot, and the marketing department, for example. Supervision is made more efficient too: with no walls to hide behind, slackers have to work or at least imitate work in a convincing way.

The cubicle is the very essence of efficiency—the kind of office only a spreadsheet could love, one is tempted to say. But not quite: alongside the economic arguments that brought the cubicle into ascendancy, there were also moral arguments. Offices in the 1970s and 1980s seemed to their critics burdensome remnants of an older age, symbolic shackles of bureaucracy—a system as inhuman as it was ineffective. Cubicles, by contrast, seemed to lack the fixity, and the constraints of bureaucracy of the old office. Moreover, cubicles eliminated the hierarchical distinctions between managers and workers; every cubicle had an open door, everyone was equally a worker. Empowering and humane, cubicles seemed to create a workplace with a soul.

more at: The New Atlantis » The Moral Life of Cubicles

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post #2 of 3 (permalink) Old 06-06-2008, 08:02 PM
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post #3 of 3 (permalink) Old 06-06-2008, 09:01 PM Thread Starter
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The biggest problems we are facing right now have to do with George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all and thats what I intend to reverse.

~ Senator Barack H. Obama
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