20 August 2007

Office Work c. 250BC-AD2007

Office Work, the ceaseless toil in darkened rooms which has kept workers occupied from nine-to-five each weekday has finally been chucked into the "out" tray of life, after being crushed by the pressure of the many other vital office activities such as gossiping, playing minesweeper, social-networking and staring out of the window.

Office Work began - in the Western World at least - in Ancient Rome, whose rulers were among the first to decide that the task of sorting facts and figures, keeping records and preparing accounts was far too onerous for the priests who had been carrying it out (a strain perhaps evidenced by the fact that - whatever had actually happened - the facts, figures and records always showed the rulers were wrong and the priests were right and the accounts always showed the rulers owed the priests another 400 goat sacrifices and half the contents of the treasury).

From the time of its birth, Office Work thrived, with Roman office workers throwing themselves eagerly into the tasks of gathering data on everything from the latest building works at Ostia to fluctuations in the lark's-tongue market and the rise and fall (and rise and fall) of the orgy sector, their enthusiasm reinforced by the head of human resources frequently being also the chief recruiting officer for the gladiatorial arena.

Over the following millennia, Office Work did well in the Near and Middle East, where it was supported by the extensive bureaucracies of Byzantium and the Islamic Caliphate, ensuring that there would always be a suitable workplace for hard-working scribes, accountants and a good place to keep middle-managers away from the rest of humanity. Things did not go so well in Europe, however, where Office Work proved less popular than having wars and dying of plague. It was not until the arrival of the mediaeval chancery that Office Work could find a place to go about its business in Europe and even after the Renaissance there was still confusion about the office's role, with the inhabitants of Florence foolishly deciding to fill their offices with paintings by Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael(1) and charge people to see them.

Nonetheless, by the nineteenth century, Office Work was as popular in Britain as anywhere else, with clerks happily quitting their meagre beds, bidding fond farewells to their consumptive wives and crippled children and dashing into work at 5am in order to spend the next 14 hours perched before high desks on high stools, warming themselves in the glow from their candle as they toiled away for enlightened masters such as Mr E Scrooge to keep themselves out of the workhouse.

Steadily the lot of the office worker improved and Office Work became far more popular, reaching its height in the late 1980s and 1990s thanks to better working practices and employers (as well as the tragic death in Britain of Factory Work following a series of industrial accidents(2)). True, there were distractions - samizdat lists of "50 Best Essex Girl Jokes" had to be passed secretly from desk to desk, clandestine affairs had to be conducted, groups of secretaries had to gather with their Diet Cokes to ogle surprisingly well-toned and constantly-shirtless hod-carriers - but yet Office Work got done.

It was the rise of the office computer during the 1990s that was to prove Office Work's undoing. At first it seemed a boon - doing away at a stroke with a scores of trips to the stationery cupboard for a new pen and countless hours spent struggling to insert a new typewriter ribbon - but its effects were insidious. No sooner had Office Work found a vital job to be done than the computers would fail, condemning office workers to hours spent twiddling their thumbs and having staple gun fights while the heroic forces of the IT department did battle with recalcitrant servers. Even when the computers functioned, matters were no easier for Office Work: with the advent of email, workers were forced to tear themselves away from their spreadsheets to catch up with the latest round-robins from their mates about hilarious new videos on YouTube or answer urgent money-transfer requests from Nigeria, with the advent of Microsoft Windows untold ages simply had to be spent playing minesweeper and solitaire. With the arrival of Web 2.0 and social networking software it was all over for Office Work: there was simply no time for completing spreadsheets, drafting documents or sending out request sheets and invoices when office workers had to spend all their time "poke"-ing their friends on Facebook, listing their cats' favourite pasta shapes on MySpace and trying to fend off enquiries from middle-aged men pretending to be teenagers on Bebo. So it was that Office Work passed out of existence, unnoticed and unmourned.

Office Work will be buried at St Reginald Perrin's Church of the White Collar. The Reverend Ricky Gervais will perform that David Brent dance ... again. No one will attend as they're all listing their favourite movies on Facebook.

(1) as well as other artists who were not also members of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
(2) the accidents being incompetent management, strike-addicted unions, poor government, globalisation, Thatcherism and the fact that traditional British production standards meant that by 1976 the content of most scrapyards had been "Made in Britain" about six weeks earlier.


Sir James Beiggelschwarz said...

Office work. I think I once heard the term. You'll have to remind me. Oh - you have.

The As A Dodo Team said...

Sorry to remind you of such a dark and dismal subject!

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

There's more truth in all that than you possibly imagine, Dodo!