The modern era didn’t start with the invention of the car, the television, or the internet.

It was the arrival of the humble filing cabinet – a simple metal box with drawers that held pieces of paper on their edge – that changed everything.

As Craig Robertson argues in his book The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information (affiliate link), this simple device transformed knowledge – abstract, immaterial, and particular to one person – into information, something far more tangible, utilitarian, and transferable.

Today we think of filing cabinets as old, musty pieces of furniture decaying in government buildings and doctor’s offices. They’ve become a symbol of inefficiency – a relic from the world of byzantine bureaucracies we’ve left behind. 

But that wasn’t always the case. When they first arrived, filing cabinets represented the latest cutting-edge technology. The Chicago-based company Flexifile called their product a “Desk with Brains,” invoking a parallel to “…the cells of the brain—places in which to systematically file data, letters, papers and information, ready for instant reference.”

The filing cabinet enabled office workers for the first time to form an instrumental relationship to a specific piece of information. That is, it allowed them to quickly find the one specific fact or figure they needed in order to understand or accomplish something.

In the same way the arrival of the typewriter mechanized the act of writing, the filing cabinet mechanized the closely related act of remembering. Together, they substituted human mental labor with an assembly line of information that both brought the Industrial Age to its apex and ushered in the Information Age. 

By looking at how such a simple invention changed history and democratized access to information technology for millions of people, we can take away powerful lessons for our own moment in history when millions more are in desperate need of better tools for thinking. 

Managing a sudden flood of information

Today we think of the filing cabinet as a “dumb” technology. It doesn’t utilize algorithms, software, internet connectivity, or even electricity. It lacks any form of digital intelligence that we’ve come to expect from our information management tools.

But put yourself in the shoes of an office manager at the turn of the 20th century. The telephone and telegraph have been invented and begun flooding the office with communication from every corner of the increasingly globalized business world. 

You are charged with developing a solution to this problem. 

It has to be precise, strong, secure, noiseless, compact, clean, reliable, and expandable. It must allow anyone with minimal training to follow an exact procedure for filing and retrieving papers, without effort or strain or risk of injury. The device has to simultaneously maximize the volume of papers that can be stored, protect them for an indefinite period of time, while also keeping any single one accessible within seconds. And oh, it must be affordable.

How long would it take you to develop a solution that fulfills these requirements?

In his book Where Good Ideas Come From (affiliate link), Steven Johnson describes an idea not as a single thing, but as a network. An idea can be thought of as an interconnected cluster of ideas, all supporting and enabling each other.

The filing cabinet is a perfect example of such an idea network. 

Its popularization depended on a series of enabling innovations that we now take completely for granted:

  • Steel plates for the walls, top, and bottom
  • Tabbed guide cards (with pre-printed labels)
  • Manila folders (produced from abaca fiber, native to the Philippines)
  • Die-cast rollers and drawer slides
  • Channels, grooves, and ball bearings
  • Rods, flanges, and tongues
  • Corner posts, arms, and legs
  • Locking mechanisms
  • Substitution cards (to keep the place of a file moved elsewhere)
  • Route slips (to keep track of a file’s movement through the office)

All of these might seem like trivial inventions today. But it took at least a decade, for example, for manufacturers to recognize that they needed to use specific kinds of steel for different parts of the cabinet, to find effective ways of shaping and fabricating that steel, and to discover that they needed to use welding rather than rivets and bolts.

When all these small breakthroughs were combined, it produced a sophisticated yet simple machine capable of:

  • Storing loose-leaf pieces of paper so that any of them could be accessed easily while reliably preserving their location
  • Supporting drawers weighing upwards of 75 pounds while allowing them to be opened and closed effortlessly
  • Keeping related papers of different shapes and sizes together (versus the card catalog, which stored only one size)
  • Integrating multiple subsystems, including index systems, charge systems, cross-reference systems, and archiving systems

These were the capabilities of a machine that could handle the incredible influx of 20th-century paperwork and thus run the modern world.

How the filing cabinet changed our understanding of and relationship to information

For most of human history, knowledge was something completely inseparable from a particular person. It didn’t mean anything to point to a piece of knowledge without reference to the person from whose life experience it emerged. The idea of a “piece” of knowledge didn’t even make sense, as knowledge couldn’t be broken down into discrete units as long as it remained in someone’s head.

The development of the filing cabinet completed an arc of history that began nearly half a millennium before, with the invention of the printing press. In contrast to scrolls, whose contents are displayed continuously without clear units or parts, printed books introduced the concept of uniform “pages,” each with a specific number. The filing cabinet took that concept even further, giving each individual piece of paper its own place in a wider system that could be expanded almost infinitely. 

As the 20th century began, not only could information be printed on paper, those papers now each had an identity of their own that existed apart from any person or book. Which meant that a document could be identified, handled, referenced, reconstituted, and shared by a wide variety of people for endless purposes.

Units of information became like the standardized, interchangeable parts moving down an assembly line: almost anyone could handle that information without needing to fully understand what it meant, in the same way an assembly line worker performed their duties without necessarily understanding how the whole machine fit together. They only needed to be able to move, polish, install, or test one part well enough to meet a certain standard of quality before passing it on to the next station.

This instrumental relationship to knowledge might seem to rob it of much of its nuance, but it also made the power of information vastly more accessible. The credibility and authority of a given piece of information now came not from the personal reputation of an expert, but from its place in a system of classification. We became a “documenting” culture in which the truth of any statement had to be proven by the records.

Accessed via a filing cabinet, information became standardized, atomized, and stripped of its context. It became a universal and impersonal resource that could be interacted with via the body and the senses, rather than only via the mind, setting the stage for the emergence of the information economy and opening the door to knowledge work as a profession.

The Second Brain of a century ago

The most remarkable aspect of the filing cabinet’s rise in my view is how closely it parallels our current moment.

Then, as now, the demands of business and everyday life were surpassing the limits of the human mind. A 1939 advertisement from office equipment company Globe-Wernicke proclaimed that “…the ‘strain on a gal’s memory’ could be only relieved by a filing cabinet that automatically guided a clerk to the needed papers.”

Then, as now, some of the work that previously had to be done manually was being rapidly automated by new, more advanced machines. As the bound papers of older records were replaced by the loose leafs of filing cabinets, advertisements began to describe the labeled tabs along the top as an “automatic index” that kept track of their own contents without the need to manually update a separate index.

Then, as now, the accelerating pace of business meant that speed became paramount in the accessing of information. In a “letter to the manufacturer” in 1913, a customer exclaimed that they could find a letter within 20 seconds, or 5 file folders within 90 seconds. The need for speed created demand for systems of classification that distinguished between files that were “alive” versus those that had gone “dormant” and could be safely archived.

Then, as now, managers and executives felt contradictory demands to be both a high-volume processor of information, and an innovative decision maker. Back then, they outsourced the job to secretaries and files. Today, we outsource it to increasingly intelligent software.

Then, as now, people sought training to help them better utilize their information technology. Authors of “how-to” books, such as Eugenia Wallace, provided explicit instructions for how to properly file a piece of paper and extolled the benefits of doing so efficiently: “Mind, eye, and hand can soon be trained so that they automatically act together and do team work that is invaluable.”

It’s difficult for us to imagine now, but filing represented a complex new behavioral and conceptual system requiring a thorough education. The new ways of thinking and working had to be bridged to existing behaviors and reinforced through training as early as high school. 

That education extended to the marketing of filing cabinets as well. One advertisement described the device as an “automatic memory” that was more reliable than the minds of people, foreshadowing today’s terminology of a “second brain.”

More than a century ago, there were even early hints of the “networked” or “associative” approach to knowledge tools that is attracting so much interest today. In 1923, two decades before Vannevar Bush’s seminal essay As We May Think, filing instructor (and former clerk) Ethel Scholfield authored Filing Department Operation and Control in which she noted that replacing one’s memory “presupposes a thoroughgoing automatic system for the association of ideas.”

Inventing the digital filing cabinet

One of the most frequent accusations leveled against Evernote, the software platform that kicked off the modern “second brain” movement in 2007, is that it is “merely” a filing cabinet.

The more I think about it, the more I think that’s true. But far from a damning indictment, I think the accusation is actually the highest of compliments. If the filing cabinet was a transformative, democratic revolution in humanity’s access to information, ushering in a whole new era of history, I think we could use much the same for our digital lives.

There is always a place for sophisticated devices used by technical experts. Even a century ago, there were far more advanced machines for retrieving information than filing cabinets. 

But the greatest need I see in society now is for a system that democratizes access to the power of information technology. A system anyone can use, with only the most basic training, yet one that is also capable of producing the kinds of historic feats we witnessed in the pre-digital age, such as the Hoover Dam, the Manhattan Project, or the Apollo Space Program. 

What is the modern, digital equivalent of the filing cabinet? What is a solution to the spiraling complexity in our lives that can be implemented without further adding to that complexity? What is the simplest possible system that could automate the easiest aspects of our cognitive labor, thus freeing up our bandwidth for more subtle, more complex, and more fulfilling pursuits?

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