News / USA

US Worker Bees Toil in Cubicles

Today, module desks are ridiculed as symbols of conformity

A typical cubicle array, or “cubicle farm.”
A typical cubicle array, or “cubicle farm.”


Ted Landphair

Every day, and certainly on Sunday when many newspapers produce a separate comics section, millions of Americans check out the strip called “Dilbert,” created by cartoonist Scott Adams.  It satirizes worklife in white-collar offices, particularly those in which people toil in confined spaces called “cubicles.”

Fortune magazine, which writes about the people who make, well, a fortune, once focused on average "worker bees” in the corporate world who sit inside these "modules," as they're called, separated by partitions, at built-in desks with eye-level shelves, all easily interchangeable.  The movable walls are designed to give workers at least a tad of privacy.

As Fortune lays out the story, Robert Propst, a young industrial designer in the Midwest state of Michigan, dreamed up the office cubicle in 1968.

People who toil in cubicles often try to personalize their limited space as much as humanly possible.
People who toil in cubicles often try to personalize their limited space as much as humanly possible.

Soon office mazes, or "cubicle farms," sprouted everywhere.  It seemed like everyone below the rank of vice president soon worked in one of these office boxes, identical to the next one save for the photos of the family and dog.

Today, cubicles are ridiculed - even loathed - as symbols of conformity, their inhabitants as clones and drones.  Even the privacy part didn't work, as workers cannot help but overhear their colleagues' conversations and phone calls.  

Lots of people, including cartoonist Adams, have tried to humanize the sterile cubicle. In real life, he’s even designed what he calls the "ultimate cubicle," which would allow occupants to vary the flooring and lighting.  They can even add a fish tank.  But a box is still a box.  

Before he died in 2000, Bob Propst, the father of the cubicle, told friends he was sorry, all his days, that he’d unleashed the idea on the world.  He called his invention an act of "monolithic insanity.”

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