This past week I gave a talk in the Media Design Practices Program at ArtCenter College of Design. I tend to use my talks as a means of forcing myself to finish writing projects. The idea for this particular project was hatched last summer, when I served as one of the plenary speakers at the Rare Books and Manuscripts librarians’ pre-conference at the American Library Association conference: I spoke with some archivist friends from the NYPL, who mentioned something about the sheer size and unorthodox organization of their 1939 World’s Fair archive. So, I figured I’d look into it.
What resulted is a paper — what I hope will be my next long-form article for Places — that combines World’s Fair history, New York history, urban history, paperwork studies, business history, library history, labor history, media archaeology, and perhaps even a bit of intellectual history. I spent a few afternoons rifling though records at the NYPL and the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, DE. I found myself reading stuff about the history of filing systems and the British Civil Service — certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Yet what resulted is a piece that, I think, demonstrates the importance of filing history — often feminized clerical work — for the history of computing; draws parallels not only between office work and computing, but also with the histories of navigation, management, manufacturing, and automation; establishes records-management as among the many important city-building techniques and technologies on display at the fair; and extends the genealogy of our data-driven approaches to “smart” urban design and management. And I think it highlights the surprisingly savvy — and, actually, exciting — visual and material culture of records-management, of administration (of course I’m primed to think this).
I’ll post my slides below. I think they (despite the fact that Google Slides squished them) capture a lot of this visual appeal. And I’ll share below a short excerpt from the text. Hopefully, the full piece will be appearing online soon!
The 1939 New York World’s Fair, Leonard Wallack writes, “was the city’s perfected dream of itself.”That dream manifested desires for “scientific rationality, technological progress, modernist aesthetics, industrial design,… consumer prosperity, and… corporate capitalism” in spatial form, via rational urban planning and progressive civil engineering, modernist architecture and sterilized suburbs. Just as important, however, although it rarely warrants a mention in any scholarship on the fairs – perhaps because of its painful banality – was efficient urban administration. Record-keeping and filing, which almost never figure into our reveries, were here central to the World of Tomorrow and its urban imaginary.
In the decades leading up to the Fair, particularly between 1880 and 1920, corporations and cities, merchants and militaries, dentists and teachers embraced records-management as integral to their efficient and profitable operation. “As the amount of operating information being gathered and of policies and procedures being documented increased around them at the turn of the twentieth century, accessible storage became increasingly problematic,” according to management scholar JoAnne Yates. People took their files very seriously, and they relied on an expanding industry to design, furnish, and manage their record-keeping systems. That industry – one built on typewriters, filing cabinets, carbon copies, and card indices – eventually evolved into the expansive world of information technology we know today. Files are our computing history. And the cities and organizations planned and managed through those analog files, and committed to the scientific rationality of records-management, are the precursors to our contemporary data-driven tools and techniques of urban design and management.
Most fair historians and media and cultural historians focus on the 1964 New York World’s Fair – with Eero Saarinen’s spectacular ovoid building for IBM, furnished with its signature Charles and Ray Eames-designed multimedia show – as a focal point in information history. Yet the 1939 fair, positioned restively between the Depression and the Second World War, presented many critical manual and electro-mechanical antecedents to the 1960s’ mainframes, rockets, and atomic reactors, and to today’s “sentient” urban operating systems (about which I’ve written earlier in this journal). Among the key players in that proto-computing world – a prominent exhibitor at the Fair, and a behind-the-scenes consultant on its record-production and -management – was Remington Rand.
While Remington Rand rarely figures into our dominant historical narratives, we’ll see that, throughout its 200-year history, the company’s operations and evolution have been wrapped up in histories of computing, military technology, and navigation; the push toward standardization in manufacturing and management; the rise of the consulting and information services and techno-industrial “R&D”; and negotiations between expanding opportunities for automation and human agency. The 1939 Fair, in which Remington Rand played a critical role both behind the scenes and in public view, also grappled with many of these same issues.