ok, i’ll own up — this one’s a bit of a museum piece. my appropriation of the orange mobile strapline is looking particularly creaky. it was a magazine feature back in 2003, at which time i was besotted with my state of the art Palm Organiser. this is pre-iphone,which has some, but not all of the palm’s functionality. old palm users like me often bemoan this about the sleek shiny dazzly iphone. anyway, i feel that much of what i wrote then still holds: methodism, the work ethic, taylorism, and the corporatisation of leisure-time.
if i were to re-write it, i’d probably have to take account of netbooks, the iphone of course, and the back-to-basics rise of the geeky moleskine notebook, together with the scarily ocd overtones of ‘getting things done’ (GTD to afficionados) method with its quasi-spiritual rhetoric, and the dozen or so software applications it has spawned — such as ‘omnifocus’, and ‘things’. i’d love your feedback
© ken edwards 2003
taylorism, filofax, and the electronic work ethic; a design for living?
those people you see on the bus on monday mornings, staring intently at the screen of a shiny little metal device about 3″ x 4″, sometimes tapping at it’s surface, sometimes just staring, always engrossed, never looking up until they reach their stop. just what are they up to?
“…when you try to take advantage of all its possibilities, you realize it’s still a work in progress, a little trip into the future. and that’s where some of us want to be.”
this is an associated press journalist extolling the future promise of the personal digital assistant (pda). at the time of the launch of the now defunct apple ‘newton’ handheld computer, john sculley, ceo of apple computers coined this pretentious science-fictiony designation, with its suggestion of artificial intelligence; a combination of cybernetic jeeves, an uncomplaining , discreet secretary, small enough to stuff in your pocket. to call it ‘handheld’ was stretching a point, it was probably the size of this machine which led to its failure. although powerful, it unfortunately had the dimensions of half a housebrick, and weighed little less. todays pdas with their brushed titanium casings, and hi-res colour screens are much smaller, and much more gorgeous.
those of us old enough to remember the risible bbc sci-fi serial of the 70s, blake’s seven, may recall the eponymous hero carrying around a bible-sized black box, to which he would speak enquiries, (prefaced, appropriately enough, with the salutation; “box!”), eliciting spoken replies. is that how these digital road-warriors of the electronic frontier with their pdas imagine themselves; wired-up starship troopers sitting in starbucks over a gone-cold latte? or is it really a matter of convenience, time-saving, and practicality?
pdas come with personal organiser software (calendar, addressbook, and to-do list) pre-loaded. they can do word processing, spreadsheets, even e‑mail and net-surfing (with top-of-the-range models) today’s pda can perform pretty much any task that a desktop, or notebook computer can, only with added eyestrain. so the digital road-warriors are probably doing what most of us do with computers. they fiddle about. moving files, entering and re-entering data, re-classifying names in the address book. it may be the wave of the future, but it’s not exactly star wars. without additional software, the handheld pda has, until the latest models, done little more than the filofax loose leaf organiser did. it was a convenient place to store frequently used information; appointments, tasks, addresses, the occasional note. the big difference between the pda and the filofax is visibility. the palm pda slips nicely into a jacket pocket or purse. it weighs next to nothing. it disappears. this is a far cry from the days when the filofax was king. bulging to burst with frantic scrawling on every page, business cards spilling out all over the place, it looked like a methodist lay preacher’s bible, and was consulted religiously to find a ‘window’ for appointments or power lunches. such was the six-ring calfskin binder’s potency, it even had a hollywood film named after it: filofaxed! remember? a found filofax becomes the magic key to a world of power-dressing, sports cars, and sex.
about fifteen years later, and under style rehabilitation law, it’s inevitable that a celebration of the 80s should now be underway. if one artefact had to be chosen to embody that decade; the filofax would be a pretty robust contender.
margaret thatcher was triumphantly enthroned after the falklands war, reaganomics swept through the anglo-american world. the big-bang exploded; downsizing and privatisation were new religions. this was a new way to live after the flabby liberal values of the 70s, and more importantly, there was serious money to be made. you had to look the part of course. along with power dressing, and the return of sensible haircuts for men, the filofax was an essential accessory and signifier of the emergent values of the 80s. the new aspirationalism emphasised ‘professionalism’ in contradistinction to the casual, post-hippy and post-punk, take-it-or-leave-it 70s. but just what was it about the filofax that made it fit to become the icon of the yuppie lifestyle, rather than, for example, the porsche boxter, or the armani suit?
the personal organiser didn’t just appear in the 1980s. it had been around for quite a while. the first ‘loose leaf of facts’ was designed by an american engineer, j.c. parker, in 1910. later, norman & hill ltd. of london published the ‘filofax’ time planner ring book in 1921. the trademark ‘filofax’ was registered in 1930. the modern version emerged in 1976 when it was relaunched as the filofax company. today it is part of the lett’s group. in a recent press release, filofax claim that in the uk , despite appearances of a decline, more filofaxes are being sold than at any time in the company’s history, including during the 80s. other brands can also claim success. the american franklin covey group produce their own range of organisers designed around the principles of the management guru / self-help best-seller; ‘the 7 habits of highly effective people’ , tied into their corporate training courses and seminars.
the filofax was not exclusively a phenomenon of the 1980s at all, but actually (a small) part of the great expansion of industry which turned the usa into a leading world power in the first decades of the last century. the filofax came along on the wave of production line working, ‘fordism’, and the cult of ‘scientific management’; with the early 20th century obsession with order and organisation. the principle architect of scientific management was f. w. taylor. in the preface to his influential ‘principles of scientific management’, published in 1911, taylor states that ‘in the past, man has been the first; in the future, the system must be first’. it was in system that taylor saw the answer to the problems of poor productivity, wasted resources and time, poor labour-management relations. taylor saw the root causes of these problems in workplace organisation. he developed a system of time and motion studies, breaking down work into a series of timed tasks. piece-work payment could be determined for each task, so that higher productivity could be rewarded, slacking penalised and eliminated. the physical organisation and design of the workplace could be incorporated into the system, to maximise efficiency. the influence of taylorism waned to some degree after wwii, but his ideas are still a cornerstone of modern management theory .
taylorism is underpinned by a more generalised christian work ethic; the assumption that there is inherent virtue in labour and the creation of wealth, and in this, the interests of management and labour are the same. scientific rationalisation will benefit both. the concept of a work ethic comes from max weber, the social theorist, in 1904. while identifying the genesis of the work ethic in calvinism and the later puritan movements, many of the examples he cites are taken from the writings of benjamin franklin, in whose little tract “on the means and manner of obtaining virtue” franklin had advocated the keeping of a daybook, in order to monitor failures and successes in the pursuit of virtue and the need for a predetermined schedule to lead the good life and make productive use of time to avoid idleness, of which he said; “the precept of order requiring that every part of my business should have its allotted time, one page in my book contain’d the following scheme of employment for the twenty four hours of a natural day”. this included an hour for prayer, hours for work, and hours for reflection on the days acheivements.
all of which brings me neatly back to the filofax. franklin’s virtuous notebook is compellingly reminiscent of our twentieth and twenty-first century personal organisers, where our tasks for the day are duly accounted for, where our adherence to the virtues is recorded, and future improvement sought. built upon the sobriety of a work ethic, and peppered with ‘scientific’ organisational theory, the personal organiser represents a kind of voluntary taylorism for the imanagement professional. the ostentatious display of the filofax during the 1980s, seen in these terms, can be readily understood as the outwardly visible sign of adherence to this new world, when it was fashionable to be conservative, (or even conservative), when it was even sexy to work in the city.
if the filofax was something never to be seen without, then its technological successor, the pda, is something its owners are rarely seen with. growing ever more diminutive, the measurements of the handheld computer have decreased in inverse proportion to their range of capabilities. the early electronic organisers were little more than calculators with calendars, the ability to store telephone numbers and a few lines of text. looking like a scaled down version of the ill-fated apple ‘newton’ pda, and using a similar stylus-based input method, the palm pilot was launched in 1996, which together with its near clone, the cheaper (and chunkier) handspring visor, had established the handheld by the turn of this century as something more than just an expensive executive toy.
palm became an independent concern this year following the acquisition of handspring. the latest models, for example the tungsten t3, in addition to the basic filofax-like functions, offer sound recording capabilities, digital camera add-ons, ‘bluetooth’ wireless connectivity (for computer synchronisation, e‑mail, and internet browsing), mp3 music player capabilities, even video playback, on a high resolution colour screen. the soon to be released treo 600 has an integrated mobile ‘phone. what we are seeing now is considerable cross-over of functions among mobile electronic devices, referred to in the industry, with near spiritual fervour, as “convergence”. nokia, for example, produce a number of ‘communicator’ models at the high end of their range, incorporating pdas. in addition to storing your entire music collection, apple’s ipod is able to accommodate addresses and telephone numbers. mobile ‘phones incorporating digital cameras are becoming commonplace
in this bright new world of ubiquitous connectivity just what are we being offered? the marketing rhetoric is one of liberation; of technology making life simpler, more convenient, more exciting. however, recent figures have shown that we are far from liberated there isa new british disease; overworking. we already work up to 40% longer hours on average than our european counterparts. the rest of us are taking work home with us. new mobile technology gives us the ability to blur or erase altogether the physical and temporal boundaries between work and private life. think about it. poring over spreadsheets on the 7.30 into waterloo, when you could be snoozing over a booker nominee. reading your e‑mails or video-conferencing in a broadband ‘wi-fi’ hot-spot, when all you really want is a cup of coffee. raking over the coals of this afternoon’s meeting on your mobile when you could be… carrying our offices around with us. the future’s bright, the future’s … more work?