The rise and fall of the filing cabinet as critical infrastructure

Even before computers and the Internet, the world was awash in information. The filing cabinet provided a way to get a handle on all of it:

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It is easy to dismiss the object: a rectilinear stack of four drawers, usually made of metal. With suitable understatement, one design historian has noted that “manufacturers did not address the subject of style with regard to filing units.” 3 The lack of style figures into the filing cabinet’s seeming banality. It is not considered inventive or original; it is simply there, especially in 20th-century office spaces; and this ubiquity, along with the absence of style, perhaps paradoxically contributes to the easy acceptance of its presence, which rarely causes comment. In countless movies and television shows, one or more filing cabinets line the walls of newsrooms and advertising agencies or the offices of doctors, attorneys, private eyes, police inspectors. Their appearance defines a space as an office but rarely draws attention to the work it does in that office. Occasionally, the neatness or disorder of a filing cabinet gives us an insight into the mental state and work habits of the office’s occupant. Sometimes, the filing cabinet plays a small but vital role in dystopian critiques of bureaucracy.

But if it appears to be banal and pervasive, it cannot be so easily ignored. The filing cabinet does not just store paper; it stores information; and because the modern world depends upon and is indeed defined by information, the filing cabinet must be recognized as critical to the expansion of modernity. In recent years scholars and critics have paid increasing attention to the filing systems used to store and retrieve information critical to government and capitalism, particularly information about people — case dossiers, identification photographs, credit reports, et al. 4 But the focus on filing systems ignores the places where files are stored. 5 Could capitalism, surveillance, and governance have developed in the 20th century without filing cabinets? Of course, but only if there had been another way to store and circulate paper efficiently. The filing cabinet was critical to the infrastructure of 20th-century nation states and financial systems; and, like most infrastructure, it is often overlooked or forgotten, and the labor associated with it minimized or ignored. 6

One thing that humans do, particularly in the modern era, is try to bring order to the world around them. This can come out in physical changes – such as remaking nature or creating megacities – or in discovering and working with knowledge and information in new ways. The filing cabinet is an object that helps with distributed cognition, storing and sorting information for people so that they do not have to keep the thoughts in their own heads.

This history would fit well alongside the history of the modern office as told in Cubed. Alongside arrangements of desks and other equipment and ideas about what offices should accomplish are the humble and essential filing systems. They may even require a lot of space to hold all that important paper but they would rarely feature on an office tour or be the subject of excited conversation.

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