Research Seminar: Files, gender and efficiency

Craig Robertson takes the use of ‘file’ and the ‘desktop metaphor’ back to beginning of the twentieth century and the emergence of the filing cabinet, the manila folder and filing as a mode of work.

His analysis shows that highly gendered conceptions of efficiency and productivity are built into the metaphors we use to frame our encounters with information. Therefore, the focus on paper and paperwork shifts analysis away from content and meaning to how ways of doing shape systems of knowing.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, information became a thing that could exist at your fingertips. And those fingers tended to belong to women. The filing cabinet as a technology designed to make loose paper accessible came out of the late nineteenth-century articulation of efficiency which made ‘saving time’ one of the defining problems of the twentieth century. A highly gendered understanding of labour underwrote this idea of efficiency. 

In providing a genealogy of the metaphor of the digital file and desktop, Craig Robertson argues that the filing cabinet, home to the techniques and objects that continue to link paper and information, allows us to understand a fundamental change in the way in which information was gathered, processed, stored and reused. 

Craig Robertson is an Associate Professor in Communication Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. He is a media historian with expertise in the history of paperwork, information technologies, identification technologies and surveillance.