Cubicles are Bullshit

There is a place inside every American middle and high school that misbehaving students are sent for rehabilitation. It’s called ‘In-School Suspension,’ or I.S.S.

The method of this punishment is that unruly kids are taken out of regular classrooms and placed in a quiet room with desks that have ‘privacy’ walls – the idea being that if they can’t see other students they won’t be provoked to interact with them and disrupt the teacher’s authority.

An enforcer sits in the room, overseeing everyone to make sure they aren’t just sleeping. Actual school work is expected to be completed during this time.

What no one tells these kids, as they sit in I.S.S., is that they are getting a lesson of much greater utility than they realize – they’re being taught how to sit in a cubicle, which very many of them will inevitably end up doing once they become adults.

As far as interior design goes, the differences between sitting in I.S.S. and working in a cubicle are extraordinary. By extraordinary, I mean extraordinarily similar.

Here’s a picture of the office at the New York Times in Manhattan.

Desks at The New York Times, Manhattan.
Desks at The New York Times, Manhattan.

Here’s a picture of some kids serving In School Suspension in Minnesota.

Students serving In School Suspensions, Minnesota.
Students serving In School Suspensions, Minnesota.

For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to read the wonderful book that Nikil Saval has written about the history of the workplace, ‘Cubed.‘ His meticulous research traces back the initial transition of an industrial society that produces material goods to an informational one that produces services and knowledge. He recounts the American movement out of factories and into the office.

Unfortunately, lost in this beneficial transition was an equally evolved concept of the physical spaces in which employees worked.

As I make my way through page after page of examples leading to the obvious conclusion that cubicles are bullshit, I find myself struggling with the slog to the book’s end. Not because it’s a bad book – it’s a fantastic book – but because I know how it ends.

It ends with me sitting in a cubicle.

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