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Millions Feel -- and ARE -- 'Boxed In' at Work

Fortune magazine, which writes about the people who make, well, a fortune, recently focused on average "worker bees." Specifically, on the monotonous, confining space in which millions of them spend their days.

It's called the "cubicle."

Early in American corporate life, white-collar workers sat at rows of desks in large, noisy rooms. Then, in 1968, as Fortune lays out the story, Robert Propst, a young industrial designer in the Midwest state of Michigan, dreamed up the office cubicle.

It's composed of "modules," as they're called -- metal partitions, built-in desks, eye-level shelves, all easily interchangeable. The movable walls are designed to give workers at least a tad of privacy.

Soon office mazes, or "cubicle farms," sprouted everywhere. It seemed like everybody below the rank of vice president 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' phone calls.

Lots of people, including the artist who draws the comic strip Dilbert, which satirizes the corporate culture, have tried to humanize the sterile cubicle. Scott Adams's "ultimate cubicle," as he calls it, allows 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, the Father of the Cubicle, Bob Propst, 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."