I don’t much like my cubicle. I have papered it with postcards of the pyramids, cartoons that amuse me, words to live by, colorful drawings by my children, magazine photos of the artist Doug Aitken’s nature-filled Los Angeles abode, even a calendar with cute rescue animals. Nothing hides the fact that my workspace is a box covered in grayish-beige fabric whose hue is the chromatic equivalent of depression.

Fortunately, I do like my job, and as a writer I can sometimes flee the box to do it remotely. (Let’s hear it for laptop computers, wired coffee shops and tolerant editors.) But even with the rise of telecommuting and freelancer culture, for many “knowledge workers” there’s no getting away from the cubicle.

“Cubed,” Nikil Saval’s thorough and diligent “secret history” of the workplace, examines how we became “a nation of clerks.” Saval, an editor of the magazine n+1 and a doctoral candidate in literature at Stanford University, takes as his inspiration “White Collar: The American Middle Classes,” C. Wright Mills’s classic 1951 sociological study.

We don’t spend time in cubicles because we love them. How did we come up with such an unnatural arrangement? To find out, Saval roams through 200 years of American history, architecture, design, management literature and pop culture.

“Cubed” begins in the counting-house atmosphere of early-19th-century firms, where owners and clerks sat cheek by jowl. Familiarity and close quarters created opportunities for advancement. “Virtually no space separated clerks from their superiors,” Saval writes. “Between their position and that of the partners of their firms lay only time.”

’Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace’ by Nikil Saval (Doubleday)

Office space evolved with the technologies of the times. Railroads and industrialization forced businesses to expand, which eroded the cozy model of employees working alongside bosses. Inventions such as elevators, steel-frame construction and air conditioning made it possible to herd large numbers of office workers together in skyscrapers. Later, urban congestion, social unrest, space pressures and Cold War anxiety drove companies to the suburbs, where they built office parks like AT&T’s Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J. Internet-era companies such as Google have experimented with unboxing workers and letting them work and play at college-campus-like headquarters, but the hunt for the ideal “office of the future” continues.

Saval works hard, and effectively, to demonstrate how the evolution of workspaces paralled social shifts in the workforce that we’re still living out. Early on, clerks encountered an identity problem that their white-collar heirs still deal with today, Saval argues. Not farmers, not factory workers and not chief executives, office types fell “somewhere uncomfortably in between,” he writes. “White-collar workers rarely knew where they were, whom they should identify with. It was an enduring dilemma, rooted in what might be called a class unconsciousness, that would characterize the world of the office worker until the present day.”

“Cubed” is also a story about how bureaucracy became big business. By the early 20th century, Frederick “Speedy” Taylor and his “scientific management” theories — which included timing assembly-line workers with stopwatches — had created “an enormous expansion of office bureaucracies.” Somebody, or a lot of somebodies, had to handle the stopwatches, and “the spirit of management itself spread far and wide.”

Factory workers unionized; office workers did not. Why fight the system if it meant losing your shot at the corner office? That tendency to play it safe, reinforced by postwar shifts in American culture, led to the 1950s rise of the Organization Man, a popular handle for a “conformist corporate stooge” and the eponymous subject of “the signature classic of the era,” written by William H. Whyte, a journalist for Fortune magazine.

As that suggests, “Cubed” leans heavily on popular as well as scholarly writing on office culture. Office workers of long standing might remember such titles and catchphrases as “The Lonely Crowd” and “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” Some lived through design experiments such as the Action Office proto-cubes designed in the 1960s by Robert Propst for the Herman Miller office-furniture company.

“Cubed” offers few heroes, but Propst, a polymathic and idiosyncratic man whose ideas became the principles of ergonomics, stands out in the crowd of businessmen, architects and everyday workers. He dreamed up a sleek, customizable individual work space meant to accommodate “the ceaselessly inventive motion of the white-collar mind,” Saval writes. “Most office designs were about keeping people in place; Action Office was about movement.”

Knockoff versions and management’s relentless desire for efficiency soon enough turned Propst’s flexible workspaces into what he called “barren, rat-hole places.” By 1999, the year the cult-classic “Office Space” came out, the rat holes had become the cube farms we still love to hate. As the movie’s main character shouts, “Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day!”

Not everybody longs to be free of the box. If you’re unemployed or part of the growing mass of freelancers or “casualized labor,” you might jump at the chance to work in a cubicle, if it comes with a paycheck and benefits. For those who do find office life confining, or who have been shut out of it altogether, Saval holds out a tiny bit of hope that the economic uncertainties of the early 21st century might give workers a chance to redefine working conditions for themselves in a way they haven’t managed in 200 years. If employers expect employees to be so flexible, he writes, it’s up to workers “to make the ‘autonomy’ promised by the fraying of the labor contract a real one, to make workplaces truly their own.”

Two centuries’ worth of quixotic attempts to create a better white-collar workplace make it hard to be sanguine about that. Saval is a tireless researcher, and he turns phrases with a flair that would get an Organization Man fired. (The 1970s are “that beige, dishonest decade.”) Maybe he’s done his job too thoroughly, or maybe it’s just the nature of what he describes, but “Cubed” still ends up feeling more like a grind than a pleasure.

Jennifer Howard is a writer and journalist in Washington.


A Secret History of the Workplace

By Nikil Saval

Doubleday. 352 pp. $26.95