(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘work

“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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“An office is a place where dreams come true”*…

Working late at the W.R. Grace Building in NYC, 2019

If You Believe the Headlines, the Office Has Been Dying for Half a Century…

August 1969: “We can now provide each individual with a choice of … working at home, where he can carry out his duties for all his assignments through computer access.” (“You’ll Never Have to Go to Work Again,” Washington Post)

April 1974: “Homework. The word conjures up the overworked executive. But everybody’s doing it. Part time. Full time. Some time.” (“The Home Office: Nice Work If You Can Stand It,” New York Magazine)

May 1982: “One joy of the coming telecommuting age is that people will be able to choose to have virtually no government by congregating with like-minded neighbors.” (“Why Men Die,” The Economist)

April 1989: “We may be at the very end of the tremendous boom in office construction and office rents that was triggered when Napoleon III created the modern city’s prototype in 1860 Paris.” (“Information and the Future of the City,” Wall Street Journal)

July 1990: “Is it possible that the shining new skyscrapers towering proudly above American cities could become the next industrial wasteland, as outmoded as the rusty factories that were the symbols of American productivity a few decades ago?” (“Are Skyscrapers Becoming Obsolete in the Computer Age?” Oregonian)

November 1995: “A few companies have tried ‘hoteling,’ in which office workers are given a space temporarily, on an ‘as-needed’ basis.” (“A U.S. Irony: Demand for Tall Buildings Is in Short Supply,” Chicago Tribune)

February 1996: “Across the US, 500 million square feet of office space stand empty, much of it in skyscrapers built during the 1980s building boom. Some experts are now predicting that this oversupply might never be absorbed.” (“Death of the office?” Irish Times)

October 2001: “More people are asking to work from home, wanting to avoid high-rise offices and be closer to family.” (“Telecommuting From Terror,” San Francisco Chronicle)

September 2014: “On 30 June the business world changed forever. From that date the government gave employees across the UK the legal right to ask for flexible working. For business leaders, including the IT team, this may have been greeted with horror, with visions of desolate offices and a mass exodus of staff, with all kinds of weird-and-wonderful home-working tech requests flooding in.” (“Legal Right to Flexible Working Spells the End of the Office,” Legal Monitor Worldwide)

May 2020: “What will become of the office buildings themselves? There are already concerns that bacteria is building up in their plumbing systems, which were never designed to be left unused for this long, leading to risks like Legionnaires’ disease.” (“The End of the Office As We Know It,” New York Times)…

As we await the verdict on post-pandemic work, a look back at 150 years of cubicles, corner offices, all-nighters, and the holiday party: “Remember the Office?” (soft paywall)

* “Michael Scott,” The Office (Season 5 Episode 13: “Stress Relief”)

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As we contemplate recommencing commuting, we might recall that it was on this date in 1973 that The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (recorded in Abbey Road Studios) hit number one on the Billboard chart, beginning a record-breaking 741-week chart run (957 weeks in total… so far).

Side Two opened with the band’s first top 10 hit in the U.S., “Money.”

You get a good job with good pay and you’re okay

Money

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 28, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking”*…

A century ago, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030, our workweek would be only 15 hours long. What happened? We’ve crossed all the technological thresholds Keynes identified, so why aren’t we living in the economic promised land? Well, if Keynes were here today, he’d probably blame our unshakeable instinct to work. He believed that human beings are cursed, that we have infinite desires, but there aren’t enough resources to satisfy them. As a result, everything is, by definition, scarce. Today, economists refer to this paradox as the “fundamental economic problem,” and they believe it explains our constant will to work. We make and trade resources as a way to bridge the gap between our infinite desires and our limited means.

That may sound like a reasonable theory, but there’s a problem: It doesn’t square with what we now understand about our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Until the 1960s, anthropologists believed hunter-gatherers led short, difficult lives. Only through incremental advancements in technology, the thinking went, were our ancestors able to secure greater wealth, tranquility, and free time. But when anthropologists began studying the world’s remaining hunter-gatherer societies, they came to a striking conclusion: Hunter-gatherer life wasn’t nearly as bad as everybody thought. One anthropologist, for instance, found a tribe that only spent 30 hours a week hunting and doing chores. The rest of the time, they made music, socialized, gossiped, and relaxed. They didn’t spend all their time working to satisfy their infinite desires. In fact, their desires weren’t infinite at all; they were limited, and easy to satisfy. This revelation suggests that the “fundamental economic problem” is not, as Keynes believed, the eternal struggle of the human race. It’s just an unfortunate recent development…

One of five take-aways from Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, by James Suzman (@anthrowittering), a social anthropologist based in Cambridge, England, where he directs a think tank called Anthropos that uses anthropological tools to solve economic problems. His first book, Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen, draws on the three decades he’s spent living with the Ju/’hoansi, one of the oldest hunter-gatherer societies in the world.

More at Next Big Idea Club (@NextBigIdeaClub): “Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots.”

* John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

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As we rethink the rat race, we might send exquisitely-constructed birthday greetings to a man whose work continues to inspire and amaze, Johann Sebastian Bach; he was born on this date in 1685. Known both for instrumental compositions such as the Brandenburg Concertos and the Goldberg Variations, and for vocal music such as the St Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor, he sits at the apex of the Baroque period, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 21, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all”*…

In the early two-thousands, Merlin Mann, a Web designer and avowed Macintosh enthusiast, was working as a freelance project manager for software companies. He had held similar roles for years, so he knew the ins and outs of the job; he was surprised, therefore, to find that he was overwhelmed—not by the intellectual aspects of his work but by the many small administrative tasks, such as scheduling conference calls, that bubbled up from a turbulent stream of e-mail messages. “I was in this batting cage, deluged with information,” he told me recently. “I went to college. I was smart. Why was I having such a hard time?”

Mann wasn’t alone in his frustration. In the nineteen-nineties, the spread of e-mail had transformed knowledge work. With nearly all friction removed from professional communication, anyone could bother anyone else at any time. Many e-mails brought obligations: to answer a question, look into a lead, arrange a meeting, or provide feedback. Work lives that had once been sequential—two or three blocks of work, broken up by meetings and phone calls—became frantic, improvisational, and impossibly overloaded. “E-mail is a ball of uncertainty that represents anxiety,” Mann said, reflecting on this period.

In 2003, he came across a book that seemed to address his frustrations. It was titled “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” and, for Mann, it changed everything. The time-management system it described, called G.T.D., had been developed by David Allen, a consultant turned entrepreneur who lived in the crunchy mountain town of Ojai, California. Allen combined ideas from Zen Buddhism with the strict organizational techniques he’d honed while advising corporate clients.

To someone with Mann’s engineering sensibility, the precision of G.T.D. was appealing, and the method itself seemed ripe for optimization. In September, 2004, Mann started a blog called 43 Folders—a reference to an organizational hack, the “tickler file,” described in Allen’s book. In an introductory post, Mann wrote, “Believe me, if you keep finding that the water of your life has somehow run onto the floor, GTD may be just the drinking glass you need to get things back together.” He published nine posts about G.T.D. during the blog’s first month. The discussion was often highly technical: in one post, he proposed the creation of a unified XML format for G.T.D. data, which would allow different apps to display the same tasks in multiple formats, including “graphical map, outline, RDF, structured text.” He told me that the writer Cory Doctorow linked to an early 43 Folders post on Doctorow’s popular nerd-culture site, Boing Boing. Traffic surged. Mann soon announced that, in just thirty days, 43 Folders had received over a hundred and fifty thousand unique visitors. (“That’s just nuts,” he wrote.) The site became so popular that Mann quit his job to work on it full time. As his influence grew, he popularized a new term for the genre that he was helping to create: “productivity pr0n,” an adaptation of the “leet speak,” or geek lingo, word for pornography. The hunger for this pr0n, he noticed, was insatiable. People were desperate to tinker with their productivity systems.

What Mann and his fellow-enthusiasts were doing felt perfectly natural: they were trying to be more productive in a knowledge-work environment that seemed increasingly frenetic and harder to control. What they didn’t realize was that they were reacting to a profound shift in the workplace that had gone largely unnoticed.

The knowledge sector’s insistence that productivity is a personal issue seems to have created a so-called “tragedy of the commons” scenario, in which individuals making reasonable decisions for themselves insure a negative group outcome. An office worker’s life is dramatically easier, in the moment, if she can send messages that demand immediate responses from her colleagues, or disseminate requests and tasks to others in an ad-hoc manner. But the cumulative effect of such constant, unstructured communication is cognitively harmful: on the receiving end, the deluge of information and demands makes work unmanageable. There’s little that any one individual can do to fix the problem. A worker might send fewer e-mail requests to others, and become more structured about her work, but she’ll still receive requests from everyone else; meanwhile, if she decides to decrease the amount of time that she spends engaging with this harried digital din, she slows down other people’s work, creating frustration.

In this context, the shortcomings of personal-productivity systems like G.T.D. become clear. They don’t directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level. They only help individuals cope with its effects…

From Georgetown professor Cal Newport (@CalNewport2), a history of personal productivity– how it transformed work… and at the same time, utterly failed to: “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done.”

* Peter Drucker

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As we tick our to-do lists, we might recall that it was on this date in 1810 that Baltimore jeweler Peregrine Williamson was issued the first patent for a metal writing pen.  (His patent, #1168, is among the “X Patents,” those lost in the Patent Office fire of 1836.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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“Everybody’s talkin’ about hard times / Like it just started yesterday”*…

Humanity is richer than it has ever been. We live longer than we ever have; people have access to an endless supply of culture, knowledge, and consumer goods, all from a small device in their pocket. So why are we all so pissed off all the time?

That’s the question political economist Mark Blyth and hedge fund manager Eric Lonergan tackle in their recent book, Angrynomics, which examines the economic roots of rising personal stress and growing popular anger. Blyth and Lonergan look at the transformations of our daily lives and the larger economy over the past 40 years, from the deregulation of finance to the rise of big tech, and explain why these steps that have added to GDP have come at the expense of personal stability. What’s pitched as bringing flexibility and dynamism to the economy has translated into constant economic uncertainty for most people, which breeds anxiety and stress, and thus anger…

A conversation with co-author (and Brown University political economist) Mark Blyth (@MkBlyth) about why the economy has made us pissed off at everything: “We’re All Mad As Hell, Thanks to Late Capitalism.”

* Prince, “Ol’ Skool Company”

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As we work to lower the heat, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the Civil Works Administration.  Intended as a short-term agency charged quickly to create jobs for millions of unemployed Americans through the hard winter of 1933–34, it was closed in March of 1934– having provided work for 4 million workers who laid 12 million feet of sewer pipe and built or improved 255,000 miles of roads, 40,000 schools, 3,700 playgrounds, and nearly 1,000 airports.

CWA was effectively replaced by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which operated on a much larger scale.  Almost every community in the United States had a new park, bridge or school constructed by the agency.

220px-Civil_Works_Administration_(CWA)_workmen_cleaning_and_painting_the_gold_dome_of_the_Denver_Capitol,_1934_-_NARA_-_541904
Civil Works Administration workers cleaning and painting the gold dome of the Colorado State Capitol (1934)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 8, 2020 at 1:01 am

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