World's Fair

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Part 2 with Jody Roberts and Michelle Murphy–discussing her book Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty–follows below. All entries in the author-meets-blogger series can be found here.

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WF: So we’ve got the women on the inside organizing and collecting their own data. But how did this fit within the language and practices of the outside “experts” dealing with these cases?

MM: I also wanted to insist that what the “experts” were doing around SBS (and the politics of low-level chemical exposures more generally) was also crafted out of gendered and raced circumstances that directly shaped their epistemologies and techniques. For example, ventilation engineers crafted standards based on distinctions between white male professional bodies and the “great unwashed,” architects and designers built normative assumptions about gender into their design of office layouts, furniture, equipment and work processes.

WF: If I were to walk around my office today, where would I see this? Or, let’s say I don’t work in an office, but I watch “The Office” faithfully. Where would we see the fruits of those sorts of “expert” decisions?

MM: Well, in “The Office,” Michael has his own private office, while Pam sits in an open space and is constantly under the surveillance of her co-workers. This is a classic way of organizing office space. If you watch, “Mad Men”– I heartily recommend it–it is set in 1960, and so you would see a much more classic version of how gender and race shaped the arrangement of the office, with women at the switchboard, the typing pool, and as the executive’s second wife. In your own office, you might wonder where the thermostat is located and who controls it. Or what temperature it is set to, and how was “room temperature” derived? You might notice some of your co-workers with boxes or phonebooks under their desks because chairs are too high. If you work at a university or research institute, you might notice if there is a gendering or racing of support staff, as well as how this relates to how much time different ranks have to spend fixed at their desk.

WF: Your book also has this fascinating pre-history to the story of SBS that examines the construction of the office building as a machine. Later, the machine becomes an organism. What caused the switch? And is there a link there to the feminization of the space, or a change in the type of science and engineering that was relevant? (E.g., the building became an “environment” which involved “softer” issues and were therefore more likely to be a concern for women). Or did the shift have more to do with the occupants?

MM: I would say that the switch from machine to organism as a building metaphor for organizing not only buildings but also the labor within them was primarily a result of changes to the way capitalism itself, and its demands, were imagined. In the first half of the century, mechanical standards – which allowed for interchangeability – and methods of supervising efficient labor like an assembly line guided office buildings. By the 1960s, these buildings and work structures were seen as insufficiently flexible for the changing demands of the market in a time when the information processing dimensions of work was exploding. By the time office work was computerized, the demand for flexible space and office organization was intensified, with both technologies and skills increasingly understood as subject to rapid obsolesce. Modeling capitalism in terms of evolution is as old evolution itself, but in the late 20th century it was newly informed with cybernetics and systems theory. Cybernetic inflected ecosystems became a way of reconstituting how best to organize the built environment and maximize the benefits from labor. In other words, cybernetic ecological thinking helped reconstitute the tactics and strategies through which power was exercised in the workplace.

WF: In your discussion of office space construction you also highlight the ways in which gender and social roles are inscribed into the space. Can you elaborate on that? And as an academic, do you see differences with the way other institutional architectures are assembled? Perhaps another way to put this would be: in the last few years academic institutions have increasingly taken on the vocabulary and organizational hierarchies of business. Have the architectures of their spaces changed, too, to more closely reflect the special constructions of offices?

MM: Absolutely. I do not highlight this in the book, but universities were one of the most important sites for Sick Building Syndrome episodes and office worker labor organizing. Much of the history that is true for offices is true for universities. It’s easy to see this all around us, and every time I give a talk on SBS professors and staff have their own stories about their workplaces. For example, I work in a building constructed in the 1960s that was designed to be flexible in accommodating students needs, and yet did not foresee the digital technologies that would dramatically change university life. For my dissertation seminar at Harvard, I worked with the administrative, mailroom, and janitorial staff of the building that then housed in the History of Science Department to construct a presentation that applied the analyses of the dissertation (now the book) to their work space. What the book didn’t wrestle with is the ways that neoliberal governing structures have restratified university labor so that tenured professors are an elite few and many intellectuals now find work as low-paid, insecure sessional workers, who are subjected to the “flexible” demands of the university.

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