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:

Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

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.

Reminder of Facebook’s goal: “to make the world more open and connected”

What exactly is the purpose of all these social media sites? A recent letter to a Senate committee clearly lays out Facebook’s aims:

Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.

The rest of the document provides insights into how Facebook selects Trending Topics but the reminder is helpful: the company has broad aims with the goal of having more and more interactions between people around the world. While Zuckerberg has been pretty open about this from the beginning, it is less clear whether this goal is accomplished. My own research with data from the mid to late 2000s suggested users primarily friended and interacted with people they already know or were in some proximity to. If users aren’t making personal connections, perhaps they are more aware of the world through viral videos, news stories, and information that rockets through networks. Does that make the world (1) more open and (2) connected or is there an element of personal connection that also would help?

Internet headlines and stories present a disconnected world; a pitch for sociology

Whether you read headlines on the Google News page or the Drudge Report or the front page of Yahoo, Internet headlines and stories tend to provide very small slices of reality. Want to see the actions of a happy cat? How about the strange actions from someone with mental illness? What one C-list celebrity did last night? The inane “gaffe” from the campaign trail earlier today? Put all of these headlines together, some serious and many not, and what do you get? It is difficult to get a broad, cohesive view of the world from Internet stories. They can provide more information than people in the past ever had and let us know how many different people around the world live. Even good stories on websites devoted to more in-depth news present numerous topics. Yet, because of their fleeting, diversionary, and never-ending nature, they don’t add up to much. As a reader, how am I to put all the pieces together?

It is debatable how much better other forms of media do in delivering broader context and the bigger picture. Media forms composed of images – TV, films – have moved toward incredibly quick editing so that scenes rarely last more than a few seconds. Written forms – newspapers, magazines – have a reputation for deeper storytelling. Yet, this all assumes that a good number of citizens take the time to read such materials and understand them.

Perhaps this is where we don’t just need media or digital literacy; we need ways to put all the information together and keep the big picture in mind. What is underlying all these stories? What are the patterns in society? Why do these stories get attention and others do not? Sociology can help: you need to know the broader context, the powerful institutions at work in society, how information is created and sold, and the large-scale social trends. One story of an amazing animal tells us nothing; having tens of thousands of such tales might. Reading multiple stories about the Panama Papers might be interesting but we need to know how this intersects with all sorts of social systems (such as governments and corporations) and processes (such as social class and globalization).

It is too easy to get caught up in the quick accumulation of news and information without stepping back and trying to comprehend it all. We are good now at dispensing information but having difficulty digesting. We need frameworks in which to put the new headlines and stories. We need time to consider how this new information might affect us. All of this takes time and effort on the part of individuals – perhaps it is just easier to let all the information wash over us. But, even if we must do this at times, having a sociological perspective that sees social structures and forces and asks for empirical evidence could help us all.

(Disclaimer: I occasionally think about how to pitch sociology to undergraduates and this is one such attempt.)

Are NFL fans now better off with all the draft knowledge they can access?

The NFL draft process has been drawn out even further this year and it leads to an interesting question: is a better-informed fan a more-in-control fan?

For many Americans, football fandom is a knowledge contest, an anxious dedication to information gathering that drives us to consume the NFL’s human-resources wing as entertainment. Last year, more than 7.9 million of us watched the draft and another 7.3 million viewed some portion of the scouting combine. This year, the draft moved from April to May, a transition attributed to a scheduling glitch: Radio City Music Hall, the draft’s venue in recent years, booked a Rockettes Easter special during the NFL’s big weekend. But it’s a favor, really: We need more time for recreational panic, more time for our 11-year-olds to prognosticate with radio hosts…

When Mayock started his work, most information about prospects was relegated to team officials and media members. But now, anyone could develop informed opinions about someone like Landry. Anyone who wants to can study six of his games and learn about his perceived value on mock draft sites. Walter Cherepinsky, the founder of one such site, tells me it gets 40 million visits per month. (One of his recent mocks has Landry going to the Carolina Panthers with the 92nd selection.) For the most committed students, there are draft guides such as Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio, more than 1,200 pages about offensive prospects. Waldman writes that Landry blocks and runs routes like a reserve player, but he catches passes like an NFL star.

While the adage tells us knowledge is power, though, it’s less clear how all of this information empowers draft-obsessed fans. That 11-year-old from the sports talk show wanted his team to select a receiver, but wanting that or having an argument in favor of it won’t make it so. What erudition of this sort provides is a sense of autonomy, in terms of identity, a guard against power abused. NFL insiders tend to whisper the same general stat: that one-third of the league’s general managers have no business overseeing personnel decisions—they’re either misguided in the way they evaluate players or they don’t bother to put in the requisite research. Draft savvy, then, lets fans separate their outcomes (the success of their favored college prospects) from those of their favorite teams (the players chosen by their teams and the team’s outcome on the field); fans can timestamp their opinions and later say, “I told you so.”

But does this kind of autonomy relieve fans’ helplessness, or does it make them feel more like pawns beholden to the real draft-day outcomes they want to control but can’t? Let’s say you’re sure, after months of research, your team should use its third-round pick on a quarterback, but the team instead drafts a punter—a punter—and the quarterback selected five slots later goes on to win a Super Bowl within two seasons. Besides a conniption, this could also give you a grudge to unleash on team executives, message board commenters, and media members who disagree with your football opinions.

The evidence seems clear: the draft is popular and the NFL can afford to drag it out when people keep watching. But, do people really enjoy it? More broadly in sports, if fans know even more about potential players (college, minor leagues, developmental leagues, overseas prospects, etc.), does this lead to feeling more in control?

Having more information is generally seen as a good thing in today’s world. The more input you can gather, the better. Yet, this doesn’t necessarily lead to better outcomes or more perceived control. (Read The Paradox of Choice for a good introduction.) I would argue that much of the appeal of sports is the unpredictably, the odd things that can happen on a playing surface at any point. All the information in the world can’t easily explain some of these events – and would we want it to or would we rather see unpredictable things happen in games?

The draft is a good example of this unpredictability and how we might perceive information as a way to limit this. Think about all of the mock drafts. All of the talking heads. Stretching out the draft even longer. Yet, there are still things that happen on draft day that are hard to predict, even for all the experts. (I’m particularly intrigued by recent mock drafts that incorporate more complicated draft-day trades.) Assessing the results of drafts can take years or even decades. Sports Illustrated had a recent story about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers making a disastrous pick in the 1980s that led to 10+ years of ineptitude – but this wasn’t visible for years.

All together, football players make choices, teams make choices, fans respond to all of this with more or less information, and it all collides in a “sports experience.” I suspect sports fans don’t really want to know everything (stronger predictive abilities would reduce the uncertainty about outcomes) even if they often want to immerse themselves in the sports experience. At some point, the return on having more and more sports knowledge likely decreases enjoyment though this curve could easily differ by person.

Why Chicago suburbs are facing more FOIA requests

The Daily Herald reports that a number of Chicago suburbs have seen an uptick in Freedom of Information Act requests in recent years:

A Daily Herald survey of 55 municipalities showed that the number of Freedom of Information Act requests received has increased in nearly all towns over the past few years that officials have been tracking the numbers. Between 2011 and 2013, 17 suburbs saw an increase of more than 25 percent. Towns including Aurora, Hampshire, Des Plaines and Prospect Heights saw the number of requests increase by more than 50 percent.

Municipal clerks and lawyers said that responding to these requests takes staff time and money away from other responsibilities to the point of being a burden, but First Amendment experts say it is worth the cost to increase transparency of government.

The requests aren’t all coming from investigative journalists looking to expose corruption, but mostly from regular citizens looking for police reports and information about their homes or their neighbors.

There are several reasons thrown out for the increase in requests: a change in the law in 2010, people seeking more information, businesses looking for background information for their proposals and developments, occasionally a personal vendetta.

I wonder if there aren’t three broader trends that are also contributing:

1. The Internet makes all sorts of information available. And yet, government doings are either hard to track down or obscured. When the rest of the world is opening up its data, is the government keeping up? (At the same time, I’ve heard local government officials suggest the public has more ways than ever to find out things including watching meetings and reading minutes online.)

2. Trust in institutions, such as local government, has been on the decline for several decades. People want to know what local government is doing because they don’t necessarily trust them to act in their interests.

3. With an economic downturn, people are more interested in knowing where their taxes are going. This is particularly true at the local level when many suburbanites want the paradox of higher property values (meaning their investment in housing pays off) but with lower property taxes and better local services. This also leads to a mentality that local government works for the people and should have no problem processing FOIA requests.

Given the time it can take to track down these requests, I’m sure this is something local governments are keeping their eyes on.

 

Get better ideas by interacting with others with different ideas

One secret to innovation is to interact with people who differ from you and are outside your closer network:

The tendency of people to seek out insights from people in different fields, different organizations or of different mindsets is called “brokerage” and has been carefully studied by academics.

It can lead to better ideas, better promotions, and better salaries — whether you work in product design, contracting or finance…

But if you’re charged with innovation, you need to branch out and build brokerage, said Ronald Burt, the Hobart W. Williams Professor of Sociology and Strategy at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

“It’s essential,” Burt said. “The new ideas we come up with come from the places where we vary. A person who only knows about the variation in what they do will get better at what they’re doing, but will always come to the same place.”

Burt goes on to discuss how people need two sets of connections: close ones (which helps provide closure) and a few regular connections with distant people (weak ties) who will provide you with different perspectives outside your close group. This all emphasizes the power of social networks: information (as well as other things like motions) can be passed through a network through the social connections.

Combining urban planning and urban informatics

The Chief Technology Officer for the city of Chicago argues urban planning and urban informatics need to be combined:

“This is a plea – and I make it frequently – for a discipline that doesn’t really exist yet,” Tolva says, “a merger of urban design and urban planning with urban informatics, with networked public space.”

Tolva is touching here on a number of ideas we’ve broached before. The unevenness of digital information has real-world implications in cities. The tools that we use to access it (smartphones, laptops, WiFi) will demand changes to the physical environment. And social norms about privacy in public space are all evolving as a result. But it’s helpful now to pause and think about who should be addressing all this uncharted territory (and whether those people exist yet).

“The real opportunity is in thinking about how many points of tangency with the online world are actually becoming embedded in physical space,” Tolva says. He is specifically not talking here about government data portals that contain information about the physical city. “This notion of e-government – even coming out of my mouth, it seems quaint – is you interacting with your city in front of your computer. But that’s not how we experience cities. Or, it’s not the best part of cities.”

The best part of cities is on the street. And in the future, your experience of the street life of cities could be enhanced if buildings and stoplights and bus stops and parks all gathered information and spoke to each other (and to anyone who wanted to listen). So what do we call this new job, the architect of everything?

While this may make some quite nervous, there is a lot of potential to put together real-time information and information about urban patterns with real-time devices. Imagine city infrastructure that works by dynamic algorithms rather than strict schedules. Perhaps this could be described as “urban big data” with an “urban big data officer”?

Claim: 90% of information ever created by humans was created in the last two years

An article on big data makes a claim about how much information humans have created in the last two years:

In the last two years, humans have created 90% of all information ever created by our species. If our data output used to be a sprinkler, it is now a firehose that’s only getting stronger, and it is revealing information about our relationships, health, and undiscovered trends in society that are just beginning to be understood.

This is quite a bit of data. But a few points in a response:

1. I assume this refers only to recorded data. While there are more people on earth than before, humans are expressive creatures and have been for a long time.

2. This article could be interpreted by some to mean that we need to pay more attention to online privacy but I would guess much of this information is volunteered. Think of Facebook: users voluntarily submit information their friends and Facebook can access. Or blogs: people voluntarily put together content.

3. This claim also suggests we need better ways to sort through and make sense of all this data. How can the average Internet user put it all this data together in a meaningful way? We are simply awash in information and I wonder how many people, particularly younger people, know how to make sense of all that is out there.

4. Of course, having all of this information out there doesn’t necessarily mean it is meaningful or worthwhile.

Losing something in the research process with such easy access to information

A retired academic laments that the thrill of the research hunt has diminished with easy access to information and data:

It’s a long stretch, but it seems to me that “ease of access” and the quite miraculous enquiry-request-delivery systems now available to the scholar have had an effect on research. The turn to theory – attention to textuality rather than physical things such as books, manuscripts, letters and paraphernalia of various kinds – has, I think, coincided with big changes in method. Discovery has been replaced by critical discourse and by dialectic.

Fieldwork was, typically, solitary. Lonely sometimes. The new styles at the professional end of the subject are collective – if sometimes less than collegial. The conference is now central to the profession, particularly the conference at which everyone is a speaker, a colloquiast and a verbal “participant”.

One can see something similar at the undergraduate level. I suspect that in my subject (English), some undergraduates are nowadays doing their three years without feeling ever obliged to go the library. Gutenberg, iBook, Wikipedia, SparkNotes, Google and the preowned, dirt-cheap texts on AbeBooks have rendered the library nothing more than emergency back-up and a warm place to work, using wi-fito access extramural materials. The seminar (the undergraduate equivalent of the conference), not the one-on-one tutorial or the know-it-all lecture, is the central feature of the teaching programme.

There may be something to this. Discovering new sources, objects, and data that no one has examined before in out-of-way places is certainly exciting. However, I wonder if the research hunt hasn’t simply shifted. As this academic argues, it is not hard to find information these days. But today, the hunt is more in what story to tell or how to interpret the accessible data. As I tell my students, anyone with some computer skills can do a search, find a dataset, and download it within a few minutes. This does not mean that the everyone can understand how to work with the data and interpret it. (The same would apply to non-numeric/qualitative data that could be quickly found, such as analyzing online interactions or profiles.) Clearing a way through the flood of information is no easy task and can have its own kind of charm.

Perhaps the problem is that students and academics today feel like having the quick access to information already takes care of a large part of their research. Simply go to Google, type in some terms, look at the first few results, and there isn’t much left to do – it is all magic, after all. Perhaps the searching for information that one used to do wasn’t really about getting the information but rather about the amount of time it required as this led to more profitable thinking, reflection, and writing time.

Data guru Hans Rosling named to Time’s 100 most influential people

Hans Rosling’s talks are fascinating as he makes data and charts exciting and explanatory in his own enthusiastic manner. Named as one of the 100 most influential people by Time, Rosling is profiled by sociologist and MD Nicholas Christakis:

Hans Rosling trained in statistics and medicine and spent years on the front lines of public health in Africa. Yet his greatest impact has come from his stunning renderings of the numbers that characterize the human condition.

His 2006 TED talk, in which he animated statistics to tell the story of socio-economic development, has been viewed over 3.8 million times and translated into dozens of languages. His subsequent talks have moved millions of people worldwide to see themselves and our planet in new ways by showing how our actions affect our health and wealth and one another across space and time.

When you meet Rosling, 63, you are struck by his energy and clarity. He has the quiet assurance of a sword swallower (which he is) but also of a man who is in the vanguard of a critically important activity: advancing the public understanding of science.

What does Rosling make of his statistical analysis of worldwide trends? “I am not an optimist,” he says. “I’m a very serious possibilist. It’s a new category where we take emotion apart and we just work analytically with the world.” We can all, Rosling thinks, become healthy and wealthy. What a promising thought, so eloquently rendered with data.

Here are some of Rosling’s presentations that are well worth watching:

200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 minutes – The Joy of Stats

TED Talk: No More Boring Data

TED Talk: The Good News of the Decade?

Here is what The Economist thinks are Rosling’s greatest hits.

I’ve used several of Rosling’s talk in class to illustrate what is possible with data and charts. Rosling gets at an important issue: data should tell a story and be interactive and available to people so they too can dig into it and understand the world better. By simply taking a chart and adding some extra information (like population size of a country displayed as a larger circle or being able to quickly show the quartile income distributions for a country) and the dimension of time, you can start to visualize patterns and possible explanations of how the world works.

(A side note: alas, I don’t think any sociologists were named as one of the 100 most influential people.)