C. Wright Mills influences movie about white-collar cubicles

A new movie about white-collar cubicle workers is influenced by the work of sociologist C. Wright Mills:

In his 1951 book “White Collar,” the sociologist C. Wright Mills acknowledged the powerlessness of the white-collar worker while also understanding his importance within a larger context: “Yet it is to this white-collar world that one must look for much that is characteristic of twentieth-century existence … They carry, in a most revealing way, many of those psychological themes that characterize our epoch, and, in one way or another, every general theory of the main drift has had to take account of them.”…

Mills’s thinking was a major inspiration for the filmmaker Zaheed Mawani, who documents the resigned reality of the cubicle-coralled white-collar worker in his new film “Three Walls” (you can watch a clip here). Mawani’s film brings to the screen what numerous long-term studies have shown: that a lack of autonomy over one’s daily tasks leads to boredom (at best), utter despair and even increased mortality rates. Yet, time and again, proposed solutions ignore these deeper issues and focus instead (see last month’s column) on the furniture.

Mawani has used the cubicle to explore larger issues in the world of work. As he and I both discovered, passions run high around the most seemingly banal piece of furniture: it has its arch defenders, its resigned occupiers and its rigorously vocal critics. Mawani was interested in examining what the cubicle has come to represent, as he explained in an e-mail to me, “in terms of the shifting nature of white collar work: the lack of job security, increase in temporary workers, our detachment to work (the fact that we no longer stay in the same job for more than a few years and the ramifications of no longer having that employee-employer bond). It’s also about our relationship to technology, the lack of physicality in work.”

Is there really much more to say about the cubicle, a piece of office furniture that has received much criticism over the years? For many, the cubicle has come to represent a temporary space where workers are simply replaceable cogs in corporate machines that tend to benefit some wealthy owner somewhere else.

This discussion reminds me of the design firm IDEO which has been featured in a number of places for creating a different type of workplace: no walls, open desks, lots of toys, lots of collaborative space, and a lot of interaction between workers of different backgrounds in order to take advantage of everyone’s ideas. For an example of how they operate, I’ve had students watch this old ABC Nightline clip about how the company went about designing a new grocery cart. This sort of office seems to appeal to a younger generation and IDEO argues that it is much more effective. (Humorously, here is IDEO’s attempt to build “Dilbert’s Ultimate Cubicle.”)

The idea that office furniture can reveal deep-seated cultural themes is intriguing. I’m afraid to ask what someone might be able to see if they had time to observe my office…

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