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“It was orderly, like the universe. It had logic. It was dependable. Using it allowed a kind of moral uplift, as one’s own chaos was also brought under control.”*…

(Roughly) Daily has looked before at the history of the filing cabinet, rooted in the work of Craig Robertson (@craig2robertson). He has deepened his research and published a new book, The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information. An Xiao Mina offers an appreciation– and a consideration of one of the central questions it raises: can emergent knowledge coexist with an internet that privileges the kind “certainty” that’s implicit in the filing paradigm that was born with the filing cabinet and that informs our “knowledge systems” today…

… The 20th century saw an emergent information paradigm shaped by corporate capitalism, which emphasized maximizing profit and minimizing the time workers spent on tasks. Offices once kept their information in books—think Ebenezer Scrooge with his quill pen, updating his thick ledger on Christmas. The filing cabinet changed all that, encouraging what Robertson calls “granular certainty,” or “the drive to break more and more of life and its everyday routines into discrete, observable, and manageable parts.” This represented an important conceptualization: Information became a practical unit of knowledge that could be standardized, classified, and effortlessly stored and retrieved.

Take medical records, which require multiple layers of organization to support routine hospital business. “At the Bryn Mawr Hospital,” Robertson writes, “six different card files provided access to patient information: an alphabetical file of admission cards for discharged patients, an alphabetical file for the accident ward, a file to record all operations, a disease file, a diagnostic file, and a doctors’ file that recorded the number of patients each physician referred to the hospital.” The underlying logic of this system was that the storage of medical records didn’t just keep them safe; it made sure that those records could be accessed easily.

Robertson’s deep focus on the filing cabinet grounds the book in history and not historical analogy. He touches very little on Big Data and indexing and instead dives into the materiality of the filing cabinet and the principles of information management that guided its evolution. But students of technology and information studies will immediately see this history shaping our world today…

[And] if the filing cabinet, as a tool of business and capital, guides how we access digital information today, its legacy of certainty overshadows the messiness intrinsic to acquiring knowledge—the sort that requires reflection, contextualization, and good-faith debate. Ask the internet difficult questions with complex answers—questions of philosophy, political science, aesthetics, perception—and you’ll get responses using the same neat little index cards with summaries of findings. What makes for an ethical way of life? What is the best English-language translation of the poetry of Borges? What are the long-term effects of social inequalities, and how do we resolve them? Is it Yanny or Laurel?

Information collection and distribution today tends to follow the rigidity of cabinet logic to its natural extreme, but that bias leaves unattended more complex puzzles. The human condition inherently demands a degree of comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity, as we carefully balance incomplete and conflicting data points, competing value systems, and intricate frameworks to arrive at some form of knowing. In that sense, the filing cabinet, despite its deep roots in our contemporary information architecture, is just one step in our epistemological journey, not its end…

A captivating new history helps us see a humble appliance’s sweeping influence on modern life: “The Logic of the Filing Cabinet Is Everywhere.”

* Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

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As we store and retrieve, we might recall that it was on this date in 19955 that the term “artificial intelligence” was coined in a proposal for a “2 month, 10 man study of artificial intelligence” submitted by John McCarthy (Dartmouth College), Marvin Minsky (Harvard University), Nathaniel Rochester (IBM), and Claude Shannon (Bell Telephone Laboratories). The workshop, which took place at Dartmouth a year later, in July and August 1956, is generally recognized as the official birth date of the new field. 

Dartmouth Conference attendees: Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon, Ray Solomonoff and other scientists at the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence (Photo: Margaret Minsky)

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“Pam, this is from corporate. How many times have I told you that there is a special filing cabinet for things from corporate? Called the waste paper basket!”*…

The subject of this essay emerged by chance. I was researching the history of the U.S. passport, and had spent weeks at the National Archives, struggling through thousands of reels of unindexed microfilm records of 19th-century diplomatic correspondence; then I arrived at the records for 1906. That year, the State Department adopted a numerical filing system. Suddenly, every American diplomatic office began using the same number for passport correspondence, with decimal numbers subdividing issues and cases. Rather than scrolling through microfilm images of bound pages organized chronologically, I could go straight to passport-relevant information that had been gathered in one place.

I soon discovered that I had Elihu Root to thank for making my research easier. A lawyer whose clients included Andrew Carnegie, Root became secretary of state in 1905. But not long after he arrived, the prominent corporate lawyer described himself as “a man trying to conduct the business of a large metropolitan law-firm in the office of a village squire.” The department’s record-keeping practices contributed to his frustration. As was then common in American offices, clerks used press books or copybooks to store incoming and outgoing correspondence in chronologically ordered bound volumes with limited indexing. For Root, the breaking point came when a request for a handful of letters resulted in several bulky volumes appearing on his desk. His response was swift: he demanded that a vertical filing system be adopted; soon the department was using a numerical subject-based filing system housed in filing cabinets.

The shift from bound volumes to filing systems is a milestone in the history of classification; the contemporaneous shift to vertical filing cabinets is a milestone in the history of storage…

It is easy to dismiss the object: a rectilinear stack of four drawers, usually made of metal. With suitable understatement, one design historian has noted that “manufacturers did not address the subject of style with regard to filing units.” The lack of style figures into the filing cabinet’s seeming banality. It is not considered inventive or original; it is simply there, especially in 20th-century office spaces; and this ubiquity, along with the absence of style, perhaps paradoxically contributes to the easy acceptance of its presence, which rarely causes comment…

But if it appears to be banal and pervasive, it cannot be so easily ignored. The filing cabinet does not just store paper; it stores information; and because the modern world depends upon and is indeed defined by information, the filing cabinet must be recognized as critical to the expansion of modernity. In recent years scholars and critics have paid increasing attention to the filing systems used to store and retrieve information critical to government and capitalism, particularly information about people — case dossiers, identification photographs, credit reports, et al. But the focus on filing systems ignores the places where files are stored. Could capitalism, surveillance, and governance have developed in the 20th century without filing cabinets? Of course, but only if there had been another way to store and circulate paper efficiently. The filing cabinet was critical to the infrastructure of 20th-century nation states and financial systems; and, like most infrastructure, it is often overlooked or forgotten, and the labor associated with it minimized or ignored.

The vertical filing cabinet was invented in the United States in the 1890s, and quickly became a fixture throughout North America and around the world. It spread globally because it provided a way to store large amounts of paper so that individual sheets could be retrieved easily. The technique of using drawers for storing a sheet of paper on its long edge was significant because loose papers cannot stand upright on their own. Put another way, the filing cabinet technology enabled loose paper to stand on edge so that more sheets could be stored in less space but still be accessed with minimal difficulty. It allowed loose papers to do the work of paperwork…

The filing cabinet had at least two inventors — and likely several others who remain lost to the historical record. The current accepted version attributes the invention to the Library Bureau, the Boston-based company founded in 1876 by Melvil Dewey, inventor of the eponymous decimal system of library classification. Although the Library Bureau would proudly claim the invention, critical developments happened elsewhere. It was the secretary of a charity organization based in Buffalo, New York, a man identified as Dr. Nathaniel Rosenau, who provided the initial impetus for construction of a vertical filing cabinet. Inspired by the use of cabinets to store index cards on their edges, Rosenau sought a bigger container for papers.

In 1892, he took his idea to the Library Bureau’s Chicago office, which built a prototype. But no matter the inventor, the turn of the 20th century saw the filing cabinet develop as a part of the rapid growth of an office equipment industry in which dozens of companies manufactured practically identical products with little respect for the hundreds of patents issued for products and parts. To underscore their uniqueness and modernity, this industry explicitly labeled its products “equipment,” “appliances,” and “machines” — not furniture. And it made these products indispensable to offices, and thus helped to constitute the office as a “modern” workspace. The office with a vertical filing cabinet was decidedly not a 19th-century office…

The filing cabinet was critical to the information infrastructure of the 20th-century; like most infrastructure, it was usually overlooked– an oversight that Craig Robertson (@craig2robertson) rectifies: “The Filing Cabinet.”

* “Michael Scott,” The Office (Pilot episode)

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As we savor storage, we might spare a thought for Malcolm Purcell McLean; he died on this date in 2001. A transportation entrepreneur, he parlayed his experience as a trucker into the development of the modern shipping container— which revolutionized transport and international trade in the second half of the twentieth century. Containerization led to a significant reduction in the cost of freight transportation by eliminating the need for repeated handling of individual pieces of cargo, and also improved reliability, reduced cargo theft, and cut inventory costs (thus, working capital needs) by shortening transit time.

When McLean died in 1987, then Secretary of Transportation Norm Minetta said:

Malcom revolutionized the maritime industry in the 20th century. His idea for modernizing the loading and unloading of ships, which was previously conducted in much the same way the ancient Phoenicians did 3,000 years ago, has resulted in much safer and less-expensive transport of goods, faster delivery, and better service. We owe so much to a man of vision, “the father of containerization,” Malcolm P. McLean.

In an editorial shortly after his death, the Baltimore Sun wrote that “he ranks next to Robert Fulton as the greatest revolutionary in the history of maritime trade,” and Forbes Magazine called McLean “one of the few men who changed the world.” On the morning of McLean’s funeral, container ships around the world blew their whistles in his honor.

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“Isn’t Baldwin a well-known pervert?”*…

 

Your tax dollars at work: the FBI’s files on James Baldwin…

Baldwin was “Jimmy” to most of his friends and to himself as well when he meditated on the various aspects of his personality. The numerous “strangers called Jimmy Baldwin,” he observed of his own diversity, included an “older brother with all the egotism and rigidity that implies,” a “self-serving little boy,” and “a man” and “a woman, too. There are lots of people there.” This secret FBI summary made the mistake of treating variations on Baldwin’s name and identity as a set of potentially criminal pseudonyms. For the Bureau, “James Baldwin,” “James Arthur Baldwin,” “Jim Baldwin,” and “Jimmy Baldwin” were “aliases” needing correlation and correction.

More memos on “aliases,” sexuality, and The Blood Counters at: “A look inside James Baldwin’s 1,884-page FBI file.”

* J. Edgar Hoover

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As we shake our heads, we might recall that it was on this date in 1868 that Christopher Latham Sholes, Samuel W. Soulé, James Densmore, and Carlos Glidden received the first patent for a commercially-made typewriter.  This early version looked like a piano with ivory keys for the alphabetical keyboard. The patent was sold to Remington & Sons who began production and later developed the Remington Typewriter with the now standard Qwerty layout.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 23, 2017 at 1:01 am

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