Order of Multitudes

The Hidden Labor of Information: A Conversation with Craig Robertson

Craig Robertson is an Associate Professor at Northeastern University and a media historian with expertise in the history of paperwork, information technologies, identification documents, and surveillance. His first book, The Passport in America: The History of a Document (Oxford, 2010) sought to answer the question, how was it that a piece of paper became accepted as a reliable answer to the question, Who are you? In attempting to answer that question, Robertson argued that debates about the use of the passport provided important insights into understandings of objectivity standardization, truth, and bureaucratic labor as well as refracting shifting anxieties about class, race, gender, national identity, and citizenship. His newest book, The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information (University of Minnesota), was published earlier this year. In this conversation we discussed Professor Robertson’s recent research, gender, the work of organizing information, and why we can’t take paperwork for granted.

Sarah Pickman: Your recent book, The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information, examines how the ubiquitous and seemingly mundane filing cabinet encodes modern ideas and practices of data collection and storage, information management, power, and efficiency. How did this project first take shape?

Craig Robertson: When I was researching my previous book on the history of the United States passport, I spent several weeks at National Archives sitting in front of a microfilm reader looking for anything about passports in unindexed volumes of diplomatic correspondence. Then I reached 1906 and everything changed. The State Department adopted a numerical filing system. In Washington D.C. and every diplomatic office, the passport had its own number with decimal numbers providing a designated place for all the correspondence and reports on specific cases and issues. I didn’t have to scroll through microfilm of unindexed correspondence. I could go straight to information on the passport. Subject had trumped chronology. 

I’m always susceptible to procrastination so I decided to do some quick research to see if people at the time shared my excitement about the introduction of decimal filing systems. I discovered they did. But they celebrated it as a move from bound books to filing cabinets. Before I knew it, I had my next research project: a history of the filing cabinet.

As it became a book project it took on a more clearly defined identity. The shift in focus from filing systems to the filing cabinet led me to write a history of storage—not a history of classification. This is not to say that I’m not interested in classification, but it does mean that I’m specifically interested in how the filing cabinet made classification systems visible and available for use. For example, I write about the invention and development of the “tab” on guide cards and manila folders rather than the development of the classification systems they marked.

This approach made me realize that developments in filing were critical to the emergence of modern ideas of “information.” Thinking about the filing cabinet as an object, as an information technology, also brought issues of use to the foreground. To that end, it’s important to note that through the first half-century of its existence in American and British English it was called a “filing cabinet” not a “file cabinet.” I use the former because it’s historically accurate but also because its unambiguous emphasis on the action rather than the object foregrounds the importance of the filing cabinet as a site of labor.

Sarah Pickman: A large part of your analysis has to do with the filing cabinet as a site of gendered labor, specifically the ways in which clerical labor became feminized through the association of women office staff as the creators, organizers, and retrievers of file folders. At the same time, early advertisements for filing cabinets also used images of men to show how sturdy the cabinets themselves were. How did this gendered view develop, and what consequences does it entail for thinking about labor?

Craig Robertson: At the turn of the twentieth century the vertical filing cabinet was one of many new office technologies used to turn clerical work into a series of specialized tasks. This specialization occurred hand-in-hand with the feminization of the previously male domain of the office. A dominant belief that women possessed “nimble fingers” naturalized the arrival of women as office workers. In filing this was joined by the idea that women, who typically organized the home, exhibited a natural predisposition for order. (One office equipment company confidently declared, “women invented order.”) Those dexterous female fingers had cemented women’s place in the repetitive work of textile factories. This echo of factory work was critical to the representation and acceptance of female clerical work as a distinct form of work in the office. In the office, women did a distinct form of manual work. Heavy lifting and thinking would be left to men.

This new gendered division of work generated anxiety and occasionally anger, much of which centered on the novel proximity of unmarried women to men. It also caused male white-collar workers to worry their work would be devalued by the association of office work with women. Some early filing cabinet advertisements indirectly addressed these concerns. One campaign showed men wearing suits performing a range of physical activities to illustrate the strength of the cabinet and the durability of drawer slides. Doing pull-ups on open file drawers or jumping into drawers, these actions emphasized the athleticism of the male clerk—no one should question their masculinity. When women were used to showcase how a draw slide made it easy to open a file cabinet, it was an image of a young girl pulling on a cotton thread. In addition to celebrating the efficient design of the filing cabinet, the use of a young girl conveyed that anyone could operate a filing cabinet. The logic was: if anyone could file—if filing only required the strength of a young girl—then only a woman should file because men could do other work that women could not.

Sarah Pickman: Connected to this discussion of gendered office labor is your argument that the filing cabinet represents a moment when information became divorced from knowledge, through a concept you call “granular certainty.” Can you talk about this concept and how you see this distinction playing out through the filing cabinet, and the idea of women as ideal information workers?

Craig Robertson: Granular certainty is the drive to break more and more of life and its everyday routines into discrete, observable, and manageable parts. It comes out of the widespread adoption of the values and ideas associated with “efficiency” in the twentieth century. Granular emphasizes the belief that breaking things down into small parts produces a high degree of detail or specificity. Certainty speaks to the associated belief that increased specificity reduces the possibility for individual discretion and increases the likelihood the task will be completed efficiently. One of the first aspects of modern life to be broken-down into small component parts was labor, especially factory labor via Frederick Taylor’s doctrine of “scientific management.” The specialization (and feminization) of clerical work is an example of its extension outside the factory.

However, in the history of the filing cabinet I offer, the value of granular certainty is the connection it allows me to show between the emergence of a particular kind of gendered information work and an increasingly common conception of information—both were the product of a faith in creating something discrete and particular in the name of efficiency and productivity. Classification became a spatial and temporal problem. Increasing the number of subdivisions would increase the probability that specific papers would be found in a timely fashion. Due to the subdivisions in a file drawer, filing also became understood as a way to find “information.”

The filing cabinet arrived at a time in which “information” was applied to a more instrumental form of knowledge. This was the reduction of knowledge to something specific and particular. Information came to be defined by facticity. Tabbed files came to represent information as something that existed in discrete units, in bits, that could be easily located and extracted depending on the needs of a specific task. More generally, in contrast to a bound book, loose paper gave a material existence to information as a thing that could be detached and repositioned, reordered, and recombined. As such as Geoffrey Nunberg argues, information was understood to exist in the world; its meaning transparent to everyone, it did not require expertise to be understood.

Information as an example of granular certainty, as an instrumental form of knowledge, underwrote filing as woman’s work. As mentioned above, filing is about manual dexterity, not the mental dexterity associated with office work assigned to men. Operating a filing cabinet, a clerk was not expected to understand the content of files, she only needed to make sense of the organization of a drawer via its alphabetical or numerical organization. A file clerk only needed to grasp files; she did not need to comprehend their contents. Information as something you can have at your fingertips starts with the fingers of women.

Sarah Pickman: One detail from your book I thought was fascinating was how early filing cabinet manufacturers promoted the cabinets as “equipment” or “apparatuses” and not furniture. And yet the filing cabinet did shape the physical layout of office interiors for much of the twentieth century. How does thinking about filing cabinets in this material way, as furniture, change our understanding of information work in the past? Has our relationship to data changed because we no longer see much of the infrastructure (cloud storage, server farms, etc.) that stores and organizes information in our workplaces?

Craig Robertson: The idea the filing cabinet was a machine underlined the move to use “equipment” or “apparatus.” In the early twentieth-century business imagination the filing cabinet was presented as being automatic—it did the thinking, the remembering, associated with filing. Tabs on guide cards and manila folders provided the pre-determined pathways that directed the hands of a file clerk to the correct location for a specific piece of information. According to one advertisement, tabs were the “intellect of the filing cabinet.” This offers another perspective on the type of information labor that twentieth-century filing was part of. This feminized mode of labor is an instrumental encounter between people and information, an encounter that requires neither thought or interpretation. It also doesn’t directly produce knowledge.

From the perspective of an information historian, to think about the filing cabinet as a technology makes clear that this rectilinear cabinet of drawers is not inert. Rather, a filing cabinet activates distinctive concepts of storage, information, efficiency, and filing. Or put another way, when we use a filing cabinet the possibilities available to us are not unlimited and some uses and users are prioritized over others.

The filing cabinet is very much a twentieth-century technology but in different forms and registers it highlights important continuities and discontinuities in how we organize information. Filing cabinets have become less visible in the twenty-first century. When they appear in advertisements or memes they represent bureaucratic delay, inefficiency, information overload. At the same time, as your question suggests, the successful marketing of “the cloud” renders invisible many of the current problems associated with storing and managing information. We rarely see the data centers that constitute the cloud, nor think about the fact that a large data center uses the same amount of electricity as a small town. However, there are also important continuities in our relationship with information and data. We continue to “see” information in terms of paper. We use images of pieces of paper/files, manila folders, and tabs to visualize data and its organization. The belief that a system can be created to give information a proper place—and that this place can be known in advance—has diminished in the move from “big paper” to “big data.” However, the ongoing use of these early twentieth-century paper-based information technologies emphasizes information’s discreteness. This history connects the value of this conception of information to the ideas of efficiency and productivity that shape a capitalist mode of organizing information.

Sarah Pickman: Your first book also looked at a now-ubiquitous paper technology that created new ways of organizing information: the passport. Why is it important to look critically at forms of bureaucratic paperwork, and not take them for granted?

Craig Robertson: Paper, especially when it’s a document, does things through its presence. Paper has affordances; its form (including size) defines possible uses or how it should be used. Therefore, paper is not a neutral medium, especially when it constitutes bureaucratic paperwork. It shapes people’s encounters with information and institutions. I’m particularly interested in paper that is used to record, store, and circulate information, especially how paper creates a link between information and authority.

With my first book, The Passport in America: The History of a Document, I tried to answer the question, how was it that a piece of paper 12-inches x 18-inches came to be accepted as a reliable answer to the question, “Who are you?” That is, the passport has a history as an identification document because of the struggle to comprehend and accept that identity could be documented. The contested development of the passport shows how concerns about documenting identity refracted debates and doubts about class, race, gender, and national identity from the 1840s to the 1930s.

The history of the passport as a document is also a story of how officials and applicants figured out the skills involved in documentation—there was a need for a practical literacy. Fluency had to develop in terms of what constituted an acceptable source and form of evidence. Officials also had to learn how to read identification documents, to recognize a document as authentic and to connect the person presenting it to the document in their hand.

In these ways my research on the passport illustrates what it means to say that form and content documents are not neutral. It is important to study them because they have been critical to the circulation of information in modern societies. Because the taken-for-grantedness of paper tends to erase this perspective I’ve come to believe it is critical to pause and think about the work involved in making paper work as paperwork.