An editor of n +1 offers an illuminating study of the modern office and its antecedents.
Many Americans spend most of their working hours in cubicles, but 93 percent of those individuals report disliking their work environments. Yet this Dilbert-esque disgruntlement with office life is nothing new. Saval shows that from the beginning of its existence in the 19th century, cultural observers like Herman Melville and Charles Dickens considered the office a suspect space. The activities that took place there were “weak, empty and above all boring” since they lacked the dynamism of the deal making that went on in the business world they supported. At the same time, the office has also been “a source of some of the most utopian ideas and sentiments about American working life.” Through analyses of historical, sociological and cultural texts, Saval examines the double-edged promise that the office has held to American workers over the last 150 years. In the 19th century, life behind a desk offered social respectability and security while providing an apparent refuge from the physical hardships of factory work. As the business world expanded and work became increasingly rationalized for maximum output and efficiency, so did the office. This gave rise to the hyperefficient offices of the 20th century, where managing workers—down to their very movements and behaviors—as well as data and space became a frighteningly exact science. In the 21st century, technological shifts and global economic downturns have wrought still further changes in office life. Freelancers now inhabit homes and cafes, transforming leisure and living spaces into work spaces. These developments have not only stripped office professionals of the illusion of security; in a wickedly ironic, but perhaps predictable, historical twist, they have also cast them back into the “contingency and precariousness” from which the office was supposed to save them.
Ferociously lucid and witty.