Jewish World Review July 10, 2014 / 12 Tammuz, 5774
By Paul Greenberg
JewishWorldReview.com | The scene would be familiar to those of us of a certain age: a gray sea of metal desks at which clerks sit from 9 to 5 clacking away at typewriters or old-fashioned adding machines, making carbon copies (remember them?) of letters or records that no one may ever look at, or recording rows of figures to be filed away.
If it were a landscape, such an office could be entitled the Sea of Futility, a place
But nothing so fast and dramatic could happen at this kind of corporate shrine to ennui. The typical office in those days was
To appreciate or rather apprehend the dismal quality of that kind of modern office, all it takes is a scene or two from a latter-day movie like "The Apartment" (1960), in which an innocent schnook -- lovable
Every office seems to have one: the villainous climber to whom the little people out there are just furniture to rearrange from time to time.
In another but similar movie, "Office Space" (1999), one of the characters captures the wisp of despair that seemed to hover over such places. "We don't have a lot of time on this earth," he says. "We weren't meant to spend it this way."
Lining this Bay of Boredom in the 1960s were private offices for those slightly higher in the pecking order, the kind of offices with doors that could actually be shut -- and which afforded a minimal privacy where middle managers could study their spread sheets when they weren't giving full attention to office politics. Those offices were coveted, and there's no telling how much ingenuity was expended in conniving to get one.
All that changed, or at least took on a different configuration, as the Sixties melded into the Seventies, and
What to do? Mr. Propst had the answer, or thought he did. Just change the design of the office! For what are we but the products of our built environment? Change our offices, change ourselves. Make the office more human and we would all be human again. Voilą!
So was born the concept and reality that would change the office world, and become the most dreaded word in the American lexicon, Cubicle.
That's a lot of weight for a single word, and idea, to bear. Especially when the cubicle was so simple an innovation: just a three-sided, open-ended box that was supposed to assure privacy and at the same time invite cooperation ("meaningful traffic"). What's more, the sides of the box could be moved around to fit the status of its occupant at the time, small or great, little cog-in-the-wheel or big cheese, as he -- or she -- rose or fell in the corporate structure. For a personal touch, the only thing needed was a family photograph or two, a few unread books, and maybe a fern.
No wonder Action Office II, introduced in 1968, was born to rave reviews. Eureka! By 1985 the
When interviewed for a job at
We spent most of the interview talking about J.D. Salinger and
By the time Time came through with a job offer, I was already headed back South in not so quiet desperation. It was no surprise to learn years later that the exec at Time, a nice enough fellow of no particular talent, had been squeezed out. The walls had literally closed around him. The cubicle had claimed another of its own.
As for the father of the cubicle,
"The dark side of this," he commented a couple of years before his death in 2000, "is that not all organizations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes. They make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places ... I never had any illusions that this was a perfect world." Any more than his famous/infamous design was perfect.
The fault, it seems, lies not in our office design but in ourselves that we are underlings. In the end, we must rely not on our furniture but on our own code, if we still have one, to stay human. And the surest guide through the modern malaise of the office remains an old, simple one called manners.
"Be nice," as Ma used to say, "and they will be nice to you." Being an immigrant to this country, she may have had a romanticized view of America, having escaped
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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