March 9, 2006 7:24 AM   Subscribe

Robert Oppenheimer agonized over building the A-bomb. Alfred Nobel got queasy about creating dynamite. Robert Propst invented nothing so destructive. Yet before he died in 2000, he lamented his unwitting contribution to what he called "monolithic insanity."
posted by PenDevil (47 comments total)
That bastard. If he wasn't already dead, I'd kill him!
posted by antifuse at 7:38 AM on March 9, 2006

*lovingly caresses his office door*
posted by Cyrano at 7:42 AM on March 9, 2006

"You always knew that dull, boring cubicles could suck the joy out of work, but now there's evidence that they can change your brain. Not mentally or emotionally, no, we're talking physical structural changes."
posted by Plutor at 7:44 AM on March 9, 2006

He ultimately made Scott Adams a rich man, if nothing else.
posted by Gator at 7:49 AM on March 9, 2006

I hate servedby.advertising.com
posted by elastic.scorn at 7:51 AM on March 9, 2006

Fascinating article — sounds like he blamed himself for something that wasn't his fault. (Well, his fault was that he was dealing with corporations, and forgot to consider money.)

But inventions seldom obey the creator's intent. "The Action Office wasn't conceived to cram a lot of people into little space," says Joe Schwartz, Herman Miller's former marketing chief, who helped launch the system in 1968. "It was driven that way by economics."

Great name, "the Action Office," almost as catchy as Cube Farm.

Like Propst, people are still wondering if cubicle productivity is an open or shut case.
posted by LeLiLo at 7:52 AM on March 9, 2006

Don't blame Probst or Herman Miller, blame Steelcase, Knoll, and Haworth.
posted by caddis at 7:54 AM on March 9, 2006

Now that I share an office with three others, I have to admit, I miss my cubicle.
posted by furtive at 8:07 AM on March 9, 2006

"Propst's workstations were designed to be flexible, but in practice they were seldom altered or moved at all. Lined up in identical rows, they became the dystopian world that three academics described as "bright satanic offices" in a 1998 book, Workplaces of the Future."

For those who don't get the reference, compare "bright satanic offices" to the "dark satanic mills" in Blake's And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time (also known as Jerusalem), a reference to the working conditions during the Industrial Revolution in Britain.
posted by jodrell at 8:11 AM on March 9, 2006

Yet before he died in 2000, he lamented his unwitting contribution to what he called "monolithic insanity."

So he said that before his death, you say?
posted by waldo at 8:13 AM on March 9, 2006

Wow, cubicles were originally intended to allow for some work while staning up? I have been fantasizing/plotting about how to work that into my current set up for a while now.
posted by tentacle at 8:16 AM on March 9, 2006

Gator writes "He ultimately made Scott Adams a rich man, if nothing else."

For that alone he deserves a horrible afterlife.
posted by OmieWise at 8:20 AM on March 9, 2006

"It is the Fidel Castro of office furniture."

posted by OmieWise at 8:20 AM on March 9, 2006

I actually love the Action Office, and have always wanted one.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:32 AM on March 9, 2006

furtive; i'm in the same boat. We do a kind of mass media software development and have 12 computers, 13 monitors and 4 live bodies in the room. It's impossible to keep cool. The worst is when someone comes in during the weekend and leaves a tuna sandwich in the trash. It smells like a dead human in here.
posted by the theory of revolution at 8:38 AM on March 9, 2006

Does anyone remember the rumor that cubicles were invented by a company that designed prisons? That was a good rumor.
posted by goatdog at 8:39 AM on March 9, 2006

Interesting article, thanks. I've spent very little of my life in what I call a job-job. I had an on-site gig a few years ago where I was assigned a cube in a big cube farm. On an abstract level, my reaction "wow, interesting, there are so many people who work like this every day and I'm just now being exposed to it." On an immediate level, my reaction was "ewww."

[derail]This passage in the article really annoyed me for that journalistic refusal to make a categorical statement: "Brand created The Whole Earth Catalog, which became the bible of environmentally aware living and arguably had a much more benevolent effect on American culture." Arguably, huh?[/derail]
posted by adamrice at 8:39 AM on March 9, 2006

I have an office with a door. There are noisy people in the hallway. There is no window. It feels like a storage closet. I am going to go work by a window in the library.
posted by craniac at 8:44 AM on March 9, 2006

I've seen some offices that made great use of translucent "half" cubicles. You could see your officemates, but there was still a level of privacy for your personal stuff. An excellent blending of the divergent psychological needs for privacy and openness.

Anyway, cubicles don't kill people, office managers kill people.

It's the idiocy of cramming the maximum number of people into a limited space that makes the cubicle so awful. Pretty much like being in prison. Carla Speed McNeil, in her comic Finder, did a great job of taking this to its logical conclusion.

About working while standing: the Herman Miller levity workstation was the greatest thing ever. Sadly, it was taken off the market as people removed their heavy monitors from the desk before adjusting the weights that made the whole thing rise and fall. I guess a few missing teeth ruined it for everyone.
posted by aladfar at 8:48 AM on March 9, 2006

The last place I worked at had cubes with walls that were constructed so that you could neither pin nor tape anything up on them. A rough-weave fabric strung over a metal skeleton with no backing. The chief executives selected them for just that quality. They didn't like the look of people pinning personal pictures to their cube walls.
As if one needed to work at making a cube even more dehumanizing.
And they were the types of cubes where you had to sit with your back to the open side.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:54 AM on March 9, 2006

Honestly, I think I'd rather have a cubicle than my current arrangement at work, which is sharing an "office" (windowless back room) with someone who drives me insane.

But then, I tend to be a loner, and the fewer people I'm around, the less stressed/anxious I am.
posted by Godbert at 8:57 AM on March 9, 2006

I am not saying that you could not improve upon cubicles, but I was watching The Apartment (1960) with Jack Lemmon? He works in an office much like mine- hundreds of people at desks all in one enormous room.

The difference?

They didn't have cubicles, just a field of desks as far as the eye could see.

I'm just saying, I'd be a lot worse off in 1960 than 2006.
posted by Lord Kinbote at 9:16 AM on March 9, 2006

the one plus side to cubicles and my soul-crushing corporate job: I can now read metafilter for approximately 5 - 6 hours of a given workday. Ironically, we recently moved to new offices with new lower cubicle walls, so everyone is more visible, and I've become even less wary of people seeing whats on my computer (I suppose they must think that 4 open IM windows means I'm working 4 times as hard). We had a fire drill today, and they passed out these cards we're supposed to put under our phones so that if someone calls me with a bomb threat, I'm supposed to ask them these 9 questions (from When is the bomb going to explode? to What is your address?) and then fill out a few checkboxes about their race, the sound of their voice, background noise etc. I think the actual conversation will go something more like this: "When is the bomb going off? I see. I'm going to transfer you to my supervisor who can better assist you with this matter..." So in other words, I'd like to say that i don't think its just the cubicle that blocks neurogenesis, but rather the entire corporate culture of dumbness. That's the real monolithic insanity. Oh god, i just felt another part of my brain die.
posted by jrb223 at 9:17 AM on March 9, 2006

Cubicles are good for call centres and for telemarketing; anything where lots of people are doing the same thing over and over again and have to be talking while they do it. They aren't very good for many other things that they are used for. I think the office/bullpen/conference room works better.
posted by I Foody at 9:23 AM on March 9, 2006

I wonder if there was a time when cubes seemed quaint and fresh and cool. Like maybe a few months before they became this horrid nexus of technology and money hell bend on crushing us. When I think about the cube, thank god I'm no longer in one, I often think of this image from the movie 'The Apartment':

posted by PHINC at 9:23 AM on March 9, 2006

That was EXACTLY my thought, PHINC. I even recalled the specific shot from that specific movie. When I stop to think of the office configuration that came before the cube, I have a hard time believing the the cube is somehow worse than that.
posted by psmealey at 9:35 AM on March 9, 2006

quaint and fresh and cool

I had my pedantic snark all ready ("You can't be all three at the same time.") but then I looked it up. Turns out you probably can - the association I had between "quaint" and "picturesque" or "old fashioned" is looser than I thought. The Middle English root is just "clever", from "cognitus". So aside from Common Usage, there's no reason it can't be something fresh and new that's never been done before at all, thought I think it should still be somewhat "peculiar" or "oddly endearing".

Less off track - the only thing that would be worse than my nice cube with pavlovian window feature would be to actually share an office with my neighbors. So I'm not certain I buy that cubes are the hell that they seem cast as. Though it was cute when my dad visited the office and kept (unintentionally) calling them cells...
posted by freebird at 9:37 AM on March 9, 2006

I never hated cubes, I think a lot of people project the misery of their jobs onto them.
posted by zeoslap at 9:38 AM on March 9, 2006

Yes! Yes! Yes! "The Apartment!" How about that Christmas party scene, with the woman doing a striptease on top of the desk, and thousands of people milling around, and everyone drunk and making out, and all those desks still stretching out to infinity. What a movie!

And cubes are great.
posted by Faze at 9:49 AM on March 9, 2006

Interesting link. His remorse makes me chuckle a bit. Still, having worked in an old-school open bay office and several cube farms, I have to say that for all of it's soul-crushing badness the cube is much better at promoting slackitude. Cubes also make rubber band and nerf warfare a lot more interesting by introducing the need for indirect fire.
posted by Fezboy! at 9:57 AM on March 9, 2006

I worked in a cubicle for 7 years, and I can say with great confidence that the griping about them is misplaced — people confuse “I hate my job” with “I hate my cubicle.”

You could do much, much worse than be stuck in a cubicle. It’s a step up from the “open bull pen” that it replaced. Having many work surfaces (as opposed to one desk, sans shelfs) is a boon. Having limited privacy is better than no privacy. And it’s a damn sight better than digging ditches or working in a coal mine, for most people (which is not meant to degrade the coal miner or ditch digger: that’s honest work). You get your own phone and computer, even as the lowest clerk, in many modern corporations. I mean, come on, you’re going to complain about that?

And people don’t really think that if they didn’t have a cubicle, they’d have an office, do they?

I really just don’t get the griping.
posted by teece at 10:01 AM on March 9, 2006

I hated working in a cube. Then we moved offices. While the new cubes were being constructed, they created a series of long tables out of boards and sawhorses, gave everyone a phone and that was it. It looked like a PBS pledge drive. I never knew how grateful I could be for those three flimsy walls.

Unfortunately, however, the owners hired an inhouse "design" team whose mission was to keep everything as uniform as possible. Eventually, even houseplants were forbidden. My SeaMonkee aquarium shaped like the space shuttle was, therefore, RIGHT OUT. That was the soulsuckerouter, not the cube itself.
posted by jrossi4r at 10:11 AM on March 9, 2006

They didn't like the look of people pinning personal pictures to their cube walls....

There's a major local employer 'round these parts who has some policies like this. They used to strictly regulate the number of items of personal memorabilia you could have on your desk; I think it was a maximum of two family pictures, and three personal items. There were strict rules about having papers on your desk after hours. The office was regularly spot-patrolled every night and people were written up for discplinary action if their desks did not conform to company standards.

And yet, for some reason that I understand at an intellectual level but will simply never grok, that company has consistently been listed among America's best places to work.

Go figure.

As for cubicles: I've enjoyed the few times I've had a hard-walled work office. But I've also had a main work desk that was in the middle of a room with no barriers at all. Choosing between that and a cube? Easy: The cube, hands down.
posted by lodurr at 10:50 AM on March 9, 2006

Office cubicle = Veal Fattening Pen (Generation X, Douglas Coupland). Nuff said.

So how many on this thread are call center workers (Raises hand)?

Most call centers I've worked at had a half-wall design where you could see your fellow co-workers, which made it easier to exchange info or just visit or just know there was another human being close by. The most recent job was full-wall which really contributed to this feeling of isolation amongst co-workers. It was like working with pod-people. Glad I'm gone from there. . .
posted by mk1gti at 10:51 AM on March 9, 2006

I like my cube, but it's not a standard office cube, it's mostly made of nice wood and our office has really high ceilings. Also, I love my job - I'm a concept artist at a videogame company - and my cube is good for drawing on both paper and computer, and allows me to focus on my work with minimal disturbance when necessary. We have no fluorescent lights here, I have small halogen drawing table lamp table lamp so the lighting is warm and subdued, and doesn't cause that crazy flicker on my monitor that I see in so many other offices.

Plus our office isn't really that big and I can always get up and go socialize a bit when I'm at the point of beating my head against the wall.

Oh, and I have a Playstation 2 in my cube, we all do. A nice round of Katamari Damacy is great for a work break!

I guess the only thing I'd really like is an Aeron chair!

If I had a job that I didn't like much wearing a shirt and tie working in the standard flourescent-bathed monitor-flickering cube farm, I'd be a very, very unhappy man, and I'd need glasses within 3 months.
posted by zoogleplex at 10:53 AM on March 9, 2006

I'd only read through about half the article when I made my first comment -- I hadn't gotten to this gem:
Having taken over the world, the cubicle defeated several attempts to dethrone it. One of the most ambitious assaults came in 1993, when Jay Chiat, chairman of ad agency Chiat/Day, declared a sort of Bolshevik revolution when he moved his employees into newly renovated space in Venice, Calif. The design "was loungy, like Starbucks," remembers Stevan Alburty, then head of technology. "It was 20 years ahead of its time."

But it had a fatal flaw: No one had a fixed place to work. Employees were expected to park their belongings in lockers and check out laptops every morning as if renting a movie at Blockbuster. It quickly sparked a counter-rebellion--many employees simply stopped coming to the office, preferring to work at home. After the firm was acquired by an advertising conglomerate, employees got workspaces again.
I love that story. It cracks me up, and fascinates me to no end, that Jay Chiat can be described as a "visionary" after spending millions of dollars and squandering the goodwill of one of the world's most profitable ad firms with such a painfully obviously stupid, stupid, stupid idea.

mk1gti, I get your points: Yes, it can be good to have interactions with others; but doesn't the visceral negative reaction to scenes like this tell you that most people need some privacy? I've worked in just about every office layout you can describe: Square cubes, curved cubes, open bays, ranked desks a la The Apartment, moving around each day to whatever space no one else was using, having a lone desk in the middle of a library reading room, little cave stuck back in a dark part of a building behind two locked doors that hardly anybody ever went to, and traditional hard-walled office. Cubes per se are very very very far from the least desirable or least productive of those choices.
posted by lodurr at 11:01 AM on March 9, 2006

*reads zoogleplex's comment*

*slowly starts crying, softly*
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:36 PM on March 9, 2006

So how many on this thread are call center workers (Raises hand)?

Yeah, when I worked help desk back in the 90s, I didn't have a cube -- I had a cubby. It was barely big enough for the monitor and a phone, certainly not for the paperwork we had to keep track of (and as the primary Level II person, I got everybody else's paperwork), and there was a bookshelf up top. We all had piles, or two rows of books, since we needed a gazillion software manuals at hand. Fun.

Yes, it did make exchanging information amongst ourselves easy. No, it did not make it easy to concentrate on a remote software support issue.

The one time I had an office, I was "the network guy" so I couldn't keep the door closed and the casual company policy there basically permitted anyone to walk in on me. As I was a contractor, almost any employee outranked me ... *Shrug*

On the other hand, my worst-ever job was doing a network signal audit, and I had a choice -- I could either be stuck in a concrete-wall closet with the ethernet switch, or I could be crawling under cubicle desks. In both cases my assigned assistant was an illiterate, probably retarded "technician" who was the pet of the boss of the perm network admin and therefore had to be tolerated. It didn't matter -- whichever end he was on he would fail to read, comprehend, enunciate, fully plug or unplug a device, or whatever. I swear that network had half the errors we ended up reporting. Um, my point was it could be worse than a cubicle.

Anyway, over at metachat, we decided that a person sharing your cubicle (or nearby) may be referred to as a "cubie". Pass it on.
posted by dhartung at 2:20 PM on March 9, 2006

Good job on crossposting from Slashdot!
posted by cellphone at 2:23 PM on March 9, 2006

What is your point cellphone, and is there any reason to make it in-thread? a) not all of us read slashdot b) have you considered that more than one person might have read the orginal article? and c) regardless of (a) and (b), don't crap in threads.
posted by freebird at 2:43 PM on March 9, 2006

Hell, this one showed up earlier than the article on Slashdot.
posted by teece at 3:58 PM on March 9, 2006

As I was a contractor, almost any employee outranked me ... *Shrug*

I learned yesterday that, as a contractor, summer interns (technically being employees) at my company can approve requests that I can't (and I'm the main IT go-to guy.)

Oh well.
posted by Cyrano at 4:38 PM on March 9, 2006

At one of the offices I work at, everyone who has a desk also has their own bunk bed over it. Not a cube in sight.

Not only is it helpful for deadline crunch "overnighters", but the attitude is, "If you need to take a nap... Just take a nap!"

posted by roguescout at 5:54 PM on March 9, 2006

rouguescout, that's one of the scariest scenarios in this thread. I mean, where's the boundary? Is it work, or is it life? Having your own bunk bead at the office seems to be saying "work IS life!"
posted by lodurr at 10:24 AM on March 10, 2006

And people don’t really think that if they didn’t have a cubicle, they’d have an office, do they?

Why shouldn't they? I had an office before my first evil employer went over to cubicles, which is one of the main reasons I left, and at my next evil employer I had an office again—shared, true, but it was so much better than the cube I almost wept with joy.

All this "what's so bad about cubes?" reaction is what we call the tragedy of low expectations.
posted by languagehat at 7:48 AM on March 12, 2006

Why shouldn't they?

I don't know -- maybe, because offices are more expensive?

All things being equal, I would much, much rather have a cube than a shared office. And I'd much rather have a high-wall cube than a low-wall cube. And any of the above over a bare desk in a matrix of identical desks that stretches to eternity.

Those, of course, are my preferences. Clearly you don't share them. Neither of us is right, except for us. And therein lies a bit of a problem, no?
posted by lodurr at 6:06 AM on March 14, 2006

Yes, but I deeply appreciate your taking that attitude instead of the more common "I'm right and you're a poopyhead."

*doffs hat*
posted by languagehat at 6:08 AM on March 14, 2006

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