Monday, January 19, 2015

“History of the memo”

I've been arguing for a while now that the shiny-object school of technology reporting isn't just annoying; it does real damage. We waste a tremendous amount of time talking about technology that will have a trivial impact or will probably never come to fruition at all. At the same time, genuinely important tech stories go all but unnoticed.

Shininess is a poor indicator of importance. Standardized shipping containers aren't glamorous, but you can make the case that the economic impact of containerization is greater than that of the combined output of Silicon Valley over the last decade.  

Paul Krugman has always been good at separating the real impact of technology from the gee-whiz aspect (I think he slightly overrates Paul David, but that's a small complaint and a topic for another post). Here's an excellent example.
Vox has a nice article about the origins of the business cubicle, which includes a discussion of filing cabinets – which is fine as far as it goes. But there is actually quite a lot more to say, as you’d know if you’d read a wonderful book (with a rather drab title), Control Through Communication, written by my friend JoAnne Yates of MIT’s Sloan School.

JoAnne’s book – which her husband calls “history of the memo” – is about the coevolution of information technology and the business world before the digital age. Of course, back then people didn’t talk about information technology – but IT did exist, indeed developed in fundamental ways, and changed everything. And filing cabinets are a window into those changes.
Organizations have always needed a record of their communications. No doubt ancient Roman merchants had slaves making copies of letters, the way Tom Standage (in another great book) tells us aristocrats did, turning senatorial correspondence into a form of proto-Facebook. Much later, JoAnne tells us, some businesses used a pretty amazing system: outgoing letters would be dampened, placed between the pages of a big book, and squeezed with a screw press to create a sort of reprint.

Then came a revolution: carbon paper! Or actually carbon paper plus typewriters. Suddenly, everything was in triplicate, and keeping a record of all correspondence became easy.

The next question, however, was how to find the relevant correspondence. When damp letters and screw presses were the limits of technology, there was no choice: a chronological record, to flip through when needed, was it. Carbons offered new possibilities: copies could be filed by subject instead or as well. But how should they be filed?

Boxes or drawers were one possibility, but they still involved a lot of shuffling, and relevant letters could easily be overlooked. The answer? The vertical file, with a tab indicating the contents of each folder.

To complete the revolution, however, you needed a behavioral change. Previously, businessmen wrote letters, narratives that might touch on multiple subjects. With the coming of the filing cabinet, however, they had to be disciplined to write each individual document on one and only one subject, so that it could be filed properly. The memo was born.

I love this story on multiple levels. For one thing, I always love reminders that many of the technologies that made the modern world were humble and inconspicuous – one of the great things about Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans vol. 3 is its account of things like the invention of the flat-bottomed paper bag. 

1 comment:

  1. Mark:

    This story interests me too, for a slightly different reason, in that it illustrates what I perceive as a tendency among economists to smooth out the edges of a series of historical events and turn it into a simplified story, or a parable, or a "stylized fact" (as we say in social science).

    To me, the most revealing words in the above passage are when Krugman writes, "I love this story on multiple levels," as this always seems to be the case when economists tell stories of this sort: everything fits together just too perfectly.

    I'm not saying that Krugman's getting anything wrong here, there's just something about it that seems too tidy, perhaps because tidiness is such a clear goal here.