file cabinets

SanFrancisco1851aMy home state of California clings to its boomtown roots.  Our public sector had some stable funding in the mid-20th century, but it never really took; with Proposition 13 in the late 1970s we capped the stabilizing influence of property taxes, tightening the link between state revenue and income taxes, which are more vulnerable to the business cycle.

As a result, riding the state’s public sector fortunes, as I do, is, uh, exciting.   Two years ago my office was only 2/3 occupied, and we shared stogies and warmed our hands over trashcans.  Now the lights are back on, the copiers are new, and I miss the old railroad songs.  And so help me we are crowded for space – and the recovery is still new.

I look around and wonder, Who are these people?  Got me.  I’ve added some, but on grant money and not the public dime.  I guess if you multiply that position creation over enough of my colleagues, you get a space crunch.  And now we’re wondering where to put the newbies.

On a campus the decision would be easy:  clear out the social gathering places that make education meaningful and engaging and put in a bunch of offices, preferably for promoting student success.  But here there are fewer options:  offices are all we have.

Except for the file rooms.  I’m showing you a picture because even the people who work here seldom see them.IMG_20140301_110708_433

Indulge me:  I’m more paperless than most, and don’t use file cabinets at all.  Partly it’s because I travel so much, and paperless means I can pack whatever I need into a flash drive, or the cloud.

But I don’t see much traffic in our file rooms from others, either, including the ones who stay put.  It’s just a drag to make and label physical folders all the time.

So to me, the way to create some offices would be by putting windows and desks into these rooms, and relegating our old memos to Iron Mountain.  But when I suggested it I just got funny looks.

Still, it got me thinking.  The file cabinet’s emerging obsolescence may be a sign of the changing nature of work, information, and the way we interact to get things done.

When I first worked in offices, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the relationship of one organization to the rest of the world was clearly hub and spoke.  You had the parties you dealt with, and then radiating out from those were the different things you did with them.  Some typical examples:


This construction of relationships implies a worldview, and shares some qualities with 20th century universities and their course catalogs.  It prizes separateness and categorization.  It eschews intermingling, ambiguity, and conflicts of interest.  And it can impede multi-party collaboration.

Yet ours is a century in love with connecting — with ad hoc teams, multinational collaborations, and one-off projects and relationships that defy the tree-branch-twig hierarchy of the file cabinet.

So what I’m wondering:  is the decline of the file cabinet a symptom of this change, or in part responsible for it?

There are precedents in nature for developments working as both a cause and an effect.  For example, paleoanthropologists will tell you that our propensity for language, mental acuity, and dexterity all evolved together, and probably drove each other:  speech and manipulation seem to have improved our thinking at least as much as they were improved by it.

In other words, the tools can catalyze as much as the ideas.  We may forge nimbler alliances when we don’t have to label the folder they’re in.

Something about throwing everything together with metadata and tags is freeing, but I’ll also admit it has its limits.  (I’d be pretty frustrated if L.A.’s Central Library stopped sorting its books.)

But as we rebuild our ways of doing business here in the public sector – as the employees, projects, and paradigms come drifting back into the shanty town – we have an opportunity to leave out an assumption or two.


2 thoughts on “file cabinets

  1. So much of our digitized awareness (gestalt?) is based on file/folder structure. We create online documents that resemble paper, create files and store them in folders. Even the little icons we click on represent manila envelopes. When Steve Jobs and company invented (borrowed/stole) the click&drag graphical user interface, it was designed to replicate already familiar concepts in the office of the 1970s. And still we have a paper clip representing an attachment and a 3.5 floppy disk image for saving a file.

    Everything new is old again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s