Now that I'm spending 40 hours a week in a cubicle again, I'm reminded of the essential oddness of cubicles. On first consideration, cubicles seem to mimic a true office, except on a smaller scale. They have walls on three sides to keep out prying eyes, and to a certain extent, they create the illusion of privacy (of the out of sight, out of mind variety anyway). However, as any cubicle dweller knows, the walls are only partial, and sound carries exceptionally well through, over, and around them. You may not be able to see the people talking three cubicles down, but you can hear every word, and you can count on them being able to hear you too.
This permeability does ensure the flow of information, albeit not perhaps the flow of information management might prefer. Rumors run like wildfire. Any excited vocal inflection inspires more people to perk up their ears. You will also hear about the project details that someone neglected to mention during the official meeting. (That would be the meeting that was held in a real room with real walls and a door that closes all the way.)
Embrace That Free Flow of Information
In cubicle land, exchanges are open-ended and streaming. Heads pop up over the walls to participate, and then disappear down again as the conversational current ambles off in a new direction or is taken over by new contributors. The effect is not unlike that of a puppet show. New actors pop up out of nowhere and then disappear below the stage level.
In my current office space, the cubicles are slightly strange because they have a small half-inch space in between two connecting wall panels. This gap makes it possible for me to have one-eyed conversations with the person on the other side of the wall (until I start going cross-eyed, at which point, one or the other of us will stand up). That sliver of space is not enough to completely interrupt the feeling of three-walled privacy, mostly because the Watcher on the other side of that wall is a cubicle dweller like me. We exist on roughly the same level in the hierarchy.
However, my boss is higher up on the food chain, so he enjoys the sanctuary of a real office with a real door. Alas, my cubicle is situated directly in front of this office door. The proximity of my cubicle to his office means that when he looks up from his computer, he looks directly at my computer screen. So he can discover, for instance, that I'm checking my personal e-mail account of the umpteenth time. On the whole, it's a mellow company and as long as work is done in a timely manner, no one (I hope) begrudges the occasional person e-mail.
Panopticon Sweet Panopticon
No matter how mellow the company though, cubicle design creates the effect of a Panopticon. The Panopticon is a prison design created by Jeremy Bentham, its characteristic feature being a central guard tower with the cells circling around the hub of that tower. By design, prisoners are never sure if guards are actually looking in their cells or one of the hundreds of others viewable from the central vantage point. The chance is always there that they are being observed.
Michel Foucault famously discusses the Panopticon in his book Discipline and Punishment, positing that the possibility of being observed led prisoners to internalize disciplinary thought, thus keeping them in line and docile. Foucault traces the change to prison as the primary form of punishment in the modern age, as opposed to the gruesome public physical spectacles of the 18th century (such as being drawn and quartered, i.e. pulled apart limb from limb, which he describes quite vividly).
Foucault attributes this change in punishment not to the humanitarian concerns, but rather on the modern emphasis on discipline and industrialization. According to Foucault, as man became more seen as machine, the ordering and control of those machines became more important and a motivating force in creating institutions, including prisons, hospitals, and schools.
Cubicle design works on essentially the same premise as the Panopticon; it easily feeds a paranoid sense of being watched. Maybe no one is looking or listening at what you're up to. But maybe they are. So tucked away in your tiny cubicle, you dutifully work hard, speak carefully, play the part of dedicated employee, and add to the GNP. Plus, in the back of your mind, you also know that your network administrator can read all your e-mail and pull up any site you've ever visited on the Internet. Now thanks to the Patriot Act, even the books you've checked out of the library are open to investigative scrutiny. You never know who might be paying attention to what you're up to when you think no one is looking.
As for me, I attached a small rear view mirror to my computer. Now I can discreetly look behind me and know when my boss is staring at my screen.