"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Life In A Cubicle Or Help! Get Me Out Of Here!–Life’s Nasty But Desperately Needed Boxes

There once was a Senior Vice President of a well-known Washington consulting firm who tried to explain to her staff the reasoning behind the new office configuration – the elimination of all individual offices and the creation of ‘congenial, cooperative’ work stations, i.e. cubicles.  It was all for the sake of increased collaboration, integration, and respect.  Ideas in such an open office environment would flow more easily and each individual would flourish.  Stagnancy, ‘silo’ thinking, and piggish rooting would be gone.  A brave, new world she said.

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Of course there were objections and not a few of her minions saw the irony of her illiterate reference to the dystopian world of Aldous Huxley, a world manipulated by overseers through genetic engineering, eugenics, and environmental ‘adjustment’ to become more ideal, more practical, and more cooperative.  This idea of reconfiguration was no less that Huxley’s.  Both had little to do with individual benefit, but collective productivity in the interests of management. Huxley’s society is one in which power is concentrated in the hands of a few, communication of information is meticulously managed, and endless distractions prevent people from thinking, reasoning, or imagining.

Cubicles were the first alterations of normal reality towards Huxley’s authoritarian world.  They were Skinner-esque, conditioning elements to exert communal authority in the guise of a happier work experience.  They were Orwellian in their double-think, positioned as means of collaboration and examples of the value of human interaction, but designed to eliminate individual thinking.  The Senior Vice President was eloquent in her praise of the new work environment and broke the news of the reorganization one day over pizza.

“The Open Work Environment”, she began, “is an opportunity.  For far too long we have labored on our own plot of land – our little kitchen gardens tended with our own water and care.  We loved our tender leaves of lettuce, our carrots, and our modest patch of spinach; but we admired our neighbor’s tall tomato plants, winding green beans, and flowering squash so much more.  Now with one large communal garden we can all share in the planting, the care and the harvest; and the bounty will be far more and far better than any one of us could produce individually”.

Image result for images Huxley Brave New World

One senior staff member wasn’t fooled by the SVP’s folksy homily.  He had labored for five years in the Ronald Reagan Building downtown – a nightmarish, Kafka-esque warren of cubicles that stretched for city blocks, floor upon floor, from east to west, avenue to avenue. Acres of beehives and post office box offices; and one of the reasons he had joined this  relatively small firm was to escape the assembly line, depressing environment of RR. “It was hell”, he said.

Any survivor of the Reagan Building had the same stories to tell – tales of confinement, constant noise, interruption, bad lighting, and dry, stale air.  The layout was scary. Whole floors of identically small cubes. The only difference between the modern office cubicle and the sweat shops of the Lower East Side was the machine – a computer rather than a sewing machine.

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Despite management’s flowery, inspirational appeal, the workers were having none of it. The era of the modern cubicle coincided with the I-Phone, and cubicle workers simply plugged in and tuned out everything and everybody in the office.  If these young assistants were isolated before reorganization, they were ten times more removed from communal sharing than ever before.  Almost in spite, they cluttered their cubes with stuffed animals, raver nipples, Jim Morrison posters, and Indian tie-dye.  The floors were stacked with files and books. The desks jammed with coffee cups, pencil-holders, and faux paperweights; and the flimsy composition cube dividers pinned with baby pictures, beach pix, and Mom.  The effect was of a hundred cluttered playrooms.

Management was having none of it, and issued circulars saying, “Forthwith, cubicles shall remain clean and uncluttered; and employees shall not be distracted from their work by extraneous diversions”.

Social critic Harold Rosen has written,

The sad news is, given the ubiquity [of cubicles], how unhappy they seem to be making us: One 1997 survey found that 93 percent of cubicle workers would prefer an alternative, and a 2013 study found that they had "the highest rates of unhappiness with their work setup.

Of course cube workers are unhappy with their workplace environment.  Who wouldn’t prefer an alternative?  Yet it is no coincidence that workplaces in essence haven’t changed since the days of the sweat shop.  Industrial chicken factory workspace is a logically efficient configuration of labor force whose union clout has disappeared, whose supply exceeds demand, and whose skills are easily replaceable.

The idea of conformity, fitting into cubicles is not new, and Brave New World written in 1932 presaged the worst abuses of Soviet communism – the ill-fated, destructive program to neuter independent thought, expression, and activity; to force conformity to a socialist, communal ideal, and to imprison, kill, or intimidate anyone who objected.

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The free world celebrated the tumbling of the Berlin Wall, the demise of the Soviet Empire, and the dismantling of an unmanning, brutal, punitive autocracy; but such celebration is disingenuous at best and ignorant at worst.  Even the freest society is inherently and routinely structured to benefit those who manage it.  While the Hindu caste system has a spiritual basis – in a world of illusion and false promises, it is better to be confined, limited, and ordered so that the mind and soul are not distracted from their search for identity with God.  More cynical historians have said that the caste system which characterized Aryan rule had nothing to do with spiritual value but control.  The more docile, complaisant, and accepting the populace was, the easier it would be to govern.

Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov challenges the returned Christ and says that he, Christ, has deluded mankind in his elevating message of spiritual salvation.  Rather than alleviating hunger, suffering, and penury, Jesus promised only a heavenly reward.  Through me, and only through me, he said, will you find true peace and salvation.  The people, Ivan went on, cheated by their presumed Lord, wanted only Miracles, Mystery, and Authority if no one attended to their earthly needs. Christ’s words to the Devil during his temptation in the desert enabled the rise of the Catholic Church which for centuries manipulated the faithful and created a world power of untold wealth and power.  We create our own destiny, said Ivan, we the credulous; and are satisfied with only the trappings of something more existential.  We deserve what we get.

Image result for images painting christ temptation in the desert

The idea of individualism – true, pure, individualism – exists only in fiction.  The film Jeremiah Johnson is the story of a mountain man living alone, surviving well, needing no one and very little to survive happily.  The lone mountain man is the American; an expression of determined, righteous independence; the embodiment of freedom.  Yet with the exception of those very few on the margins, life is one of cubicles of our own making.  We subscribe to churches, aggressively ambitious corporations, schools, community organizations, causes.  We not only put up with their insistence on conformity, we need it.  We would flounder without social norms of behavior, the camaraderie and justification of groups, strictures, laws, principles, and obligations. 

Of course there is nothing new in this.  Human beings have grouped themselves for efficiency, self-protection, and aggression.  What is new or at least rarely noted, is the depth of the need for belonging, acceptance, and social validation.  We may crow about freedom and liberty, but we want nothing of the sort.  The physical cubicle is only the most visible sign of self-abnegation.  Without the cubicle we would still be willingly beholden to a bottom-line, unremittingly demanding and self-serving management and Board of Directors.  It is no surprise that, as Rosen has illustrated, that the vast majority of workers in cubicles want out.  It is not pleasant to work under such debilitating conditions; but worse to be forced to realize the most nasty bits of our human nature – the need to conform and to belong.

One of the most respected leaders of the progressive movement in America and one to whom all comers turned to for advice, counsel, and support was a Big Tenter par excellence and devised ingenious financial instruments to centralize donor funds. Everyone with a gripe, whether it be against the One Percent, Wall Street, Walmart, or the XL Pipeline, contributed the The Global Warming Fund of America was welcome.  He was a PR genius who understood the wisdom of what he called ‘idea collectivization’. By identifying and stressing the links between the many and variegated progressive causes in America and proudly raising the Global Warming banner overall, he made millions. He was the best carny barker that America had ever produced.  “Come one, come all”, he shouted and pointed at the great multicolored circus tent behind him.  “Its all inside, my brothers and sisters.  Salvation for you and the world.”

Image result for Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show On Earth

By joining in ‘The Movement’ one could conveniently forget that one was only substituting a Big Tent for a cubicle, and that they were as indoctrinated, manipulated, and directed no less by Progressive gurus than Senior Vice Presidents.

The problem with cubicles is that they are too obvious.  While they are little more than physical reminders of our need for social order, discipline, and authority, they crossed the line.  They are too harsh reminders of our sorry lack of individualism; but we go to cubicles on Sunday, send our children to cubicles every Monday morning, and harness up in cubicles to fight Global Warming, Injustice, and Greed on the weekends.

What a waste of time.  How much time and effort we spend trying to deny our very human nature and the thousands of years of history which affirm it.  Sit quietly and realize that life in your office cubicle is no worse than any other.

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