The Wall Street Journal ran a funny manners piece yesterday about the things people do in and around office phone booths, those tiny privacy boxes that have been installed in workplaces lately. If you’ve worked in an open-plan office that has these booths, it was easy to recognize the litany of social offenses—people eat smelly food in the tiny boxes, hide in the tiny boxes to cry, hunker down in the tiny boxes for hours without making a phone call so they can focus on writing something. It is infuriating when you need the quiet space to make a phone call and someone is just in there on their computer, doing—desk work! Why aren’t they at their desk?
Why aren’t you at your own desk, though, for the phone call? Because your desk is a bad place to make a phone call, with too much noise and no privacy. And the other person is hogging the booth because their own desk has too much noise and too little privacy for whatever it is they are supposed to be doing, even if it’s just thinking. But you need that booth more!
This is a conflict driven by false consciousness, structured around an invidious hierarchy of competitive neediness, because your so-called workplace does not provide everyone with appropriate places to do their work. The open-plan office socializes everyone trapped inside it to be artificially silent and resentful—or performatively loud and obnoxious, in compensation. There is no way to be a normal human being under those conditions. So everyone hides in the phone booths, if only to make phone calls.
The Journal story contained a potted history of open-space office design, built around an odd omission:
Once upon a time, the open office was the answer to a Dilbertian nightmare of endless gray cubicles, which itself was a response to an increasing lack of order found in open-floor plans.
This pendulum story may be true for some classes of office worker, like typists or reporters, who were traditionally treated like cattle in the stockyards. What’s missing from it, though, is: the office. Lots of people also used to work in offices! These were rooms that had walls and a desk, probably some shelves and cabinets for your papers, and a door, which could be closed. Even quite low-level employees sometimes had rooms like these to themselves, or perhaps shared them with one or two other people, whose sounds you might learn the pattern of, and so, with a familial sort of intimacy, you could learn to tune out.
Now not even managers and top bosses have them, these private rooms, and any important conversations have to be held furtively, on the move or in back hallways or out on the sidewalk where people take smoke breaks, or in a conference room reserved for the purpose in advance. No wonder everyone is cramming themselves into tiny boxes whenever they can. It’s not a phone booth (does it even have a phone wired in? Probably not). It’s the last vestige, or the first returning possibility, of a decent place to do work. It’s an office, for as long as you can hold it.