In 1977, I found myself—thanks to an accidental meeting in a bar—working in an office of the defence contractor Raytheon. I needed the job, having failed to find a way to pay the rent while living in the ‘movement’, the flood of radical storefronts that was subsiding as quickly as it had risen. Compared to the romance of encountering the American proletariat in factories and mines that fired our imaginations—Barbara Kopple’s great documentary on a Kentucky miners’ strike, Harlan County usa, had just been released—the monotonous rhythm of subway commutes to the pacified dullness of the Charles River office building, where Raytheon paid us to blue-pencil government reports on subways, seemed as far from the vanguard of social change as could be imagined.

My guide to this office landscape—an endless seesaw between the warren of offices with young men, cutting and pasting with X-Acto knives on light tables, and the ‘typing pool’ of somewhat older women, fingers flying on the massive ibm Selectrics with their interchangeable ‘golfballs’—was not C. Wright Mills’s White Collar, which already seemed dated, but Thomas Pynchon’s cartoonish depictions of Yoyodyne (the fictionalization of his days as a technical writer at Boeing) and Joseph Heller’s endless office epic, Something Happened (in which, as far as I recall, nothing happened). But history happens where we least expect it: my Boston of the 1970s, I learn from Nikil Saval’s marvellous ‘secret history of the workplace’, had the highest proportion of office space to population of any us city, and the office I encountered would become, as Saval argues, ‘not just another workplace . . . but the signature of an advanced industrial society . . . the dominant workplace culture of the country’.

If I had been paying attention to the government reports I was editing, I might have noticed that a Nixon administration commission had already concluded in 1972 that ‘the office today, where work is segmented and authoritarian, is often a factory. For a growing number of jobs, there is little to distinguish them but the colour of the worker’s collar: computer keypunch operations and typing pools share much in common with the automobile assembly-line.’ This now seems a commonplace, and Nikil Saval’s accomplishment is to restore the strangeness of the common cube.

Saval, a young writer associated with the journal n+1, briefly mentions his own experience working in a cubicle, but Cubed seems to grow as much out of the cubicle narratives that he grew up with—the comic strip Dilbert, the cult film Office Space, the television programme The Office, not to mention the serialized costume drama Mad Men. Thus, though Saval claims that the book is a homage to Mills’s sociology of ‘The American Middle Classes’ (the subtitle of White Collar), it is more in the vein of Barbara Ehrenreich’s brilliant renderings of the ‘Inner Life of the Middle Class’ (the subtitle of her 1989 Fear of Falling). Saval’s work is less a work of a Millsian ‘sociological imagination’, than of what Ehrenreich once called the ‘history of bad ideas’, paddling through the waves of managerial, therapeutic and design nostrums that inform popular thought and shape work and daily life. Cubed is a compendium of all the ‘bad ideas’ that have gone into offices: from the ‘“motion-studied” mail opening table’ of 1920s Taylorism to the ‘cave and commons’ of 1990s Apple, from the dreams of ‘ergonomics’ and ‘Theory Y’ to those of the ‘team workroom’ and the ‘serendipitous encounter’. Cubed is, he writes, ‘a history from the perspective of the people who felt these changes from their desks’.

As Saval moves from Herman Melville’s Bartleby to Scott Adams’s Dilbert, he vividly depicts a number of familiar stories: the shift from male clerks with their detachable white collars in the mid-nineteenth century countinghouse to the female typists, stenographers, file clerks and switchboard operators of the twentieth-century office; the Copernican revolution in which the office moved from its former position as a satellite revolving around the factory and the mine to the centre of a solar system of information and service; and the migration of office space from the skyscrapers of modernism’s urban ‘downtowns’—separated from the city’s factory districts and figured by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s Lever House—to the suburban ‘office parks’ whose emblems included som’s Connecticut General.

Underneath these histories Saval weaves a dialectic of discontent and design. The vexations of ‘deskism’—a term Saval finds in Edgar Allan Poe—recur throughout this history, in the diary of an 1850s New York merchant’s clerk, in the ‘speak out’ of 1970s feminist office workers, and in office furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc’s own survey of cubicle dwellers in the 1990s. In almost every case, the response to office discontent was new design. The office—and each generation of office reform—offered a promise of class harmony, of fulfilling and creative work, of natural light and well-conditioned air. This was a promise shared not only by office designers—‘anyone who works in an office spends an extraordinary amount of time thinking about the arrangement of offices’, Saval observes—but by office workers themselves: ‘The office chose women, but women also chose the office.’

Unfortunately, the promise was rarely kept, sometimes because of the failures of the designers—‘office planners and architects tend to imagine that the set-up of their own offices should be the way that everyone should work’—but usually because of the imperatives of profit: ‘Companies had no interest in creating autonomous environments for their “human performers”.’ Instead, they wanted to stuff as many people in as small as possible a space for as little as possible, as quickly as possible. Saval’s protagonists—a host of figures like architect Mies van der Rohe, workstation inventor Robert Propst, designer Florence Schust Knoll, secretarial school founder Katharine Gibbs, and advice writer Helen Gurley Brown—tend to be those who made powerful and persuasive promises, only to find them diluted and compromised. A brief and illuminating account of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building ends with Mies wondering ‘What the hell went wrong?’; Propst admits that his Action Offices have been knocked off as ‘hellholes . . . little bitty cubicles’; and despite the ‘prestige appearance’ of Katie Gibbs girls, Gibbs herself wrote that ‘a woman’s career is blocked by lack of openings, by unjust male competition, by prejudice and, not least, by inadequate salary and recognition.’ Design, however, springs eternal, and Saval can’t avoid a twinge of excitement as he visits the ‘re-enchanted’ offices of the future, tbwa/Chiat/Day, Google’s Mountain View, and Eric Veldhoen’s Interpolis.