In this article published in The New Atlantis in 2008 David Franz explores the history of the cubicle, the origins, and what it meant for office life. He traces the transition from walled offices to cubicles as first a utopian development, one that held great promise for office life, and yet ended up in the banal oppressive work landscape of Dilbert.
He describes how at the outset the cubicle seemed poised to resolve problems of the workspace, to flatten the hierarchy and improve efficiency, not only be reducing space, but by reducing barriers and empowering workers to manage themselves.
Offices in the 1970s and 1980s seemed to their critics burdensome remnants of an older age, symbolic shackles of bureaucracy—a system as inhuman as it was ineffective. Cubicles, by contrast, seemed to lack the fixity, and the constraints of bureaucracy of the old office. Moreover, cubicles eliminated the hierarchical distinctions between managers and workers; every cubicle had an open door, everyone was equally a worker. Empowering and humane, cubicles seemed to create a workplace with a soul.
Separate offices encouraged self-importance and unproductive groveling before the lordly egos of bosses. They created insular silos of knowledge and turf battles between them. Paperwork gummed up tasks that would better be handled with a little common sense and informal conversation. Good ideas were stalled in the system of procedures. In short, bureaucracy hindered human agency.
But as we all know, the story did not end this way. He goes on to examine the outcome.
The utopian visions of the cubicle have been crushed by reality. However, while the cubicled office no longer seems brave or new, an aspect of its original moral impulse remains. Indeed, the experiential facts of cubicle life are not so much in contradiction with the ambition to humanize the office as the revelation of the dark side of this effort.
Somehow current moves to even more open offices seem to make the same promises, but we wonder if they will arrive at the same troubles.