What New Yorkers know today as Flushing Meadows — the massive park that houses the Mets, the New York Hall of Science, and the Queens Museum of Art — was once a tidal marsh from whose dark waters rose the imposing Mount Corona, a pile of soot and trash and manure immortalized in The Great Gatsby as the “Valley of Ashes.” It was on this unlikely site, in 1930, that Parks Commissioner Robert Moses envisioned an urban oasis. 1 Over the course of three decades, Moses moved mountains and rivers, powerful banks and labor unions, politicians and the press, to remake the park (and the city) in his image. Transforming the Meadows from gray to green involved the reclamation of 1200 acres of marsh and refuse, the eviction of residents and squatters, the diversion of waterways and building of new highways. 2 The 1939 World’s Fair (and another at the same location in 1964) paved the way for a grand public park.
Back in Manhattan, a small staff in a temporary office at 176 Broadway moved the mountains of files and forms that effected the similarly grand plans of the World’s Fair Corporation. Like the dirt and detritus of Corona, that paperwork would be resorted, re-indexed, and relocated several times throughout the planning and execution of the Fair, and in its afterlife. Curiously, the mechanisms and systems that processed those records were prominently displayed at the Fair — a spectacle in their own right. Exhibitions by RCA, Kodak, Westinghouse, AT&T, and Remington Rand celebrated (and aestheticized) the communications devices and machines of information management that powered The World of Tomorrow, a world that promised robots and nylon stockings, “picture radio” and speech synthesizers, Plexiglas and 3D film, fluorescent lights and fax machines. 3 The future was imagined to take place within a neo-Corbusian city: streamlined, rational, orderly, efficient.
The future was imagined to take place within a neo-Corbusian city: streamlined, rational, orderly, efficient.
It is “amazing to recognize how central ‘the city’ was to the 1939 vision of tomorrow,” observes sociologist Janet Abu-Lughod. 4 Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama exhibit gave spectators in moving chairs a preview of a car-centric future, sponsored by General Motors. Henry Dreyfuss built his Democracity inside the Fair’s iconic Perisphere, where model highways linked a dense, non-residential urban core to suburban Pleasantvilles and industrial-residential Millvilles, whose various tradespeople starred in a slideshow projected on the domed ceiling. Consolidated Edison’s panoramic City of Light was a block-long working model of New York City, complete with thunderstorms and moving elevators. Even IBM took up the “global village” theme, with a diorama, perhaps inspired by Renaissance La città ideale paintings, that depicted its offices, factories, and labs from around the world in one fictional cityscape. 5 IBM substantiated that vision with an astonishing technical display: a Tele-type machine, equipped with a cathode-ray tube, which relayed televisual messages between the World’s Fair in New York and the concurrent Golden Gate International Exhibition in San Francisco.
The World of Tomorrow, Leonard Wallock writes, “was the city’s perfected dream of itself.” 6 It 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. 7 Just as important — though much less discussed — was the dream of efficient urban administration.
Who dreams of files? Well, I do, to be honest. And I imagine Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, and Le Corbusier did, too.
Who dreams of files? Well, I do, to be honest. And I imagine Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, and Le Corbusier did, too. It’s not only the files and cabinets themselves that enchant, but their epistemological and political promise; just think of what you can do with all that data! The dream has survived as a collective aspiration for well over a century — since we had standardized cards and papers to file, and cabinets to put them in — and is now expressed in fetishized data visualization and fantasies about “smart cities” and “urban science.” Record-keeping and filing were central to the World of Tomorrow and its urban imaginary, too. 8
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. 9 Turn-of-the-century Americans took their files seriously, and they relied on an expanding industry to design, furnish, and manage their record-keeping systems. That industry — built on typewriters, filing cabinets, carbon copies, and card indices — evolved into what we know today as information technology. To put it plainly: the history of filing systems is the history of computing.
What’s more, the cities and organizations planned and managed through those analog files, and committed to the scientific rationality of records-management, were forerunners of the current obsession with data science. Many scholars focus on the 1964 New York World’s Fair — with Eero Saarinen’s spectacular ovoid building for IBM, embellished with a multimedia show designed by Charles and Ray Eames — as a turning point in media and cultural history. But the proto-computing world of the 1939 Fair, positioned restively between the Depression and the Second World War, was equally pivotal. Its manual and electro-mechanical technologies foreshadowed not only the mainframes, rockets, and atomic reactors of the 1960s, but also today’s “sentient” urban operating systems. 10
Among the key players in that world — a prominent exhibitor at the 1939 Fair, and a behind-the-scenes consultant on its record production and management — was the Remington Rand corporation. Rand’s role in the World of Tomorrow is only one facet of its extensive influence in American life over a period of 200 years. Although the company rarely shows up in our dominant narratives, it has been a central player in the histories of computing, military technology, and navigation; the push toward standardization in manufacturing and management; the rise of consulting and information services and techno-industrial “R&D”; and the ongoing cultural negotiations between automation and human agency — all concerns that played out in the Fair’s exhibition halls, too.
From Guns to Card Files: Rise of the Machines
Before the file, there was the firearm. In 1816, a blacksmith by the name of Eliphalet Remington II began manufacturing rifles in Ilion, New York. Over the next half century, E. Remington and Sons added shotguns and cartridges to their repertoire, and they prospered during the Civil War. Experienced in the production of equipment with small, moving parts, they decided in 1875 to get into the typewriter business. (Their foray into the world of farm equipment wasn’t quite so fertile.) 11 Media theorist Friedrich Kittler, noting the similarities between pushing a key and pulling a trigger, has suggested that “the typewriter as a mass-produced article was bound to roll automatically off the production lines of a gun manufacturer.” 12 Remington sold its typewriter business in 1886, but the Remington Arms Company continued to manufacture intricate contraptions like sewing machines, cash registers, and bicycles.
Two hundred miles west, in a small town near Buffalo, another branch of the information management industry was growing. James Rand, Sr., a banker in North Tonawanda, had invented a system of dividers, file tabs, and labels for use in his office. That system, the Visible Ledger, became the signature product of the Rand Ledger Company, incorporated in 1898. His son James saw the potential of housing those files in steel cabinets, so he left the family business in 1915 to found American Kardex, a manufacturer of office supplies, and later the Kardex Institute, a proto-consultancy, or “think tank,” focused on records-keeping and filing practices. In short order, James’s business absorbed his father’s and, along with it, companies that produced card indexes, office furniture, and “accounting systems and binding devices.”
The card catalog could be the indexing system for any business… It could even index the operations of a city.
And now we turn to the third branch in this convoluted tree: Mevil Dewey’s Library Bureau, which I wrote about for Places in “Library as Infrastructure.” The inventor of the Dewey Decimal System founded the Library Bureau around the same time that Rand started selling his ledgers. 13 At first, the Bureau sold card catalogs, book stamps, and other library furnishings and supplies, but soon Dewey saw its greater potential. The card catalog could be the indexing system for any business or professional office, for any kind of record-keeping. 14 It could even index the operations of a city.
Compared with the bound ledger, the card catalog allowed for greater “ease and speed of reference,” as well as simpler modification, expansion, and removal of records, producing savings in “time, in labor, in space, and in clerical expense.” Moreover, it elevated office work to “scientific” analysis. The Bureau proudly declared in 1909 that its “greatest asset” was the adaptability of the card catalog to the “new Science of Business System.” 15 Now a manager could easily compare sales data across categories, identifying weak goods or customers, weak salesmen or territories. The system would “show him where these are weak, and why, and give him the exact facts he needs to correct those weak points.” The factory owner could track the efficiency of each machine, each operator, each process in the chain: “The reason for every fluctuation in cost and result is known. And these facts are collected, analyzed, compared, by fixed methods of almost automatic simplicity.” Real-time analysis enabled prediction and preemption: “He can not only check bad conditions before they have done serious harm, but he can generally correct bad tendencies before they have developed.” There was no longer a need for “experiment and guess-work and hit-or-miss methods”; the card index promised “working principles as positive and scientific as the science of war itself.” 16 In 1909, the Bureau was already advocating for “the principles of scientific management,” two years before Frederick Winslow Taylor published his canonical text on that subject. 17
The Bureau had to standardize index cards, equipment, and processes; they developed drawer slides and systems of drawer tabs; they created a “‘Library Standard’ [paper] card stock with the necessary qualities for card catalog work, including stiffness to allow the card to stand up rigidly in the drawer, snap to permit a ready fingering of the cards, insured resistance to wear, and the ability to allow for erasure.” 18 Between 1893 and 1916, the Bureau filed for 19 patents related to the new indexing system. In the midst of that triumphant run, president Herbert Davidson reflected on the company’s modest beginnings:
The two great systems which have revolutionized accounting and record keeping; viz., the card system and the loose leaf system, had their origin in library work. … The enormous growth of the Library Bureau has come from the development and application of these library systems as methods to commercial work. 19
So it was a big deal when, in 1925, John Rand’s office services-conglomerate acquired the Library Bureau to become the Rand Kardex Bureau, by then the “largest manufacturing and service corporation in the world in the business record-keeping industry.” 20 Yet the company’s elastic accordion-file of acquisition hadn’t reached capacity. In 1926, it merged with Safe-Cabinet, a maker of fireproof steel office furniture that played on customers’ fears of seeing their records go up in flames. 21 By this point, Rand was selling office furniture and supplies, filing systems and equipment, and consulting services. The only thing missing from the portfolio was content — the business data that populated all those files and filled those fireproof cabinets.
You can imagine what comes next. In 1927, Rand merged with the Remington Typewriter Company to become Remington Rand Inc. The roster expanded to include a company that made the first ten-key adding machine and another that sold a punched-card tabulating machine. Throughout the 1920s, Remington Rand competed with Thomas Watson’s International Business Machines, which, James Cortada argues, “kept prices and functions comparable.”22 But IBM had a tighter corporate focus, with fewer redundant product lines. By the mid-1930s, Remington Rand was faltering. In keeping with its history, the company chose to respond by further diversifying its business and adding a new, seemingly incongruous, product line: electric shavers. 23 During World War II, it returned to its firearm roots, manufacturing bomb fuses, the M1911 pistol, and the Norden bombsight, which linked an analog computer to a bomber’s autopilot to improve accuracy. 24
The move into computing represented a logical next step … for a company that had, since the 1880s, concerned itself with the efficient production, sorting, storage, and retrieval of data.
By the time the war ended, Remington Rand’s plant in Elmira, New York, was one of the largest machine manufacturers in the world. The company was also establishing a reputation in the emerging field of computing. In 1951, after yet another acquisition, Remington Rand delivered the first commercial computer system (UNIVAC I) to the U.S. Census Bureau. The following year, it acquired Engineering Research Associates, pioneers in drum memory systems. The move into computing represented a logical next step — crossing over the analog-digital divide — for a company that had, since the 1880s, concerned itself with the efficient production, sorting, storage, and retrieval of data. As Cortada writes, “The development and use of typewriters, cash registers, adding machines, calculators, and tabulating equipment provided a collection constituting the origins and early makeup of the modern data-processing industry.” 25 Here, I would add indexing and filing systems, as well as efforts to advance the standardization and interoperability of it all.
When Remington Rand merged with the Sperry Corporation in 1955, it was on the cutting edge of computing, navigation, and automation. Sperry made marine navigation equipment and aircraft instruments, including autopilot. Yet even within the future-tech company of Sperry Rand there were still divisions dedicated to “physical data handling.” That is, files. The old guard hung on until 1978, when the company, which by then had lost considerable market share to IBM, finally sold off the Remington Rand divisions. In 1986, Sperry succumbed to a hostile takeover by the Burroughs Corporation (itself founded a century earlier as a manufacturer of mechanical adding machines), and elements from that merger exist today as Unisys, the global IT company.
The file — a core product and service module since the days of James Rand and Mevil Dewey — continued to serve as a critical technological and conceptual unit as Remington Rand evolved into the computer age, and as the IT world emerged around it. A 1950 Popular Science advertisement referred to a “tube with memory [that] keeps answers on file”; “the results of countless computations can be kept ‘on file’ and taken out again. Such a ‘file’ now exists in a ‘memory’ tube, developed at RCA Laboratories.” The prevalent scare quotes suggest that RCA wasn’t quite sure what to call its new recording-and-retrieval system, but the familiar “file” offered a convenient metaphor.
Computer scientist and tech critic Jaron Lanier has traced the genealogy of the file through the rise of personal computing:
The first iteration of the Macintosh, which never shipped, didn’t have files. Instead, the whole of a user’s productivity accumulated in one big structure, sort of like a singular personal web page. Steve Jobs took the Mac project over from the fellow who started it, the late Jef Raskin, and soon files appeared.
UNIX had files; the Mac as it shipped had files; Windows had files. Files are now part of life; we teach the idea of a file to computer science students as if it were part of nature. …
The file is a set of philosophical ideas made into eternal flesh. The ideas expressed by the file include the notion that human expression comes in several chunks that can be organized as leaves on an abstract tree — and that the chunks have versions and need to be matched to compatible applications. …
The idea of the file has become so big that we are unable to conceive of a frame large enough to fit around it in order to assess it empirically. 26
Yet Remington Rand managed to build a business on the ever-more expansive file — the infinitely applicable idea of the file. Today, the company survives as Kardex Systems, a Swiss company specializing in automated storage and materials handling. That original module, the card file, has grown so big as to encompass logistics writ large.
Information as Spectacle
At the 1939 World’s Fair, Remington Rand had a unique mission: to transform the idea of the file into something empirical, even entertaining. It planned a “panorama of Remington Rand’s contributions” to the “World of Business” that included four stages where actors would dramatize the use of various types of office equipment, while sound and lighting devices “heightened dramatic effects.” 27 Notably, the company was not located in the “Communications and Business” zone of the Fair, alongside peers like AT&T, Crosley Radio, RCA, Underwood typewriters, Universal Camera, and various publishers; but rather in the “Production and Distribution” zone, next to Westinghouse and its Elektro robot, and Electric Light and Power Companies.
Remington Rand had a unique mission: to transform the idea of the file into something empirical, even entertaining.
Remington Rand’s electric close shavers took center stage, but one full side of the exhibit was dedicated to the company’s “business systems and equipment, including tabulating and accounting machines, adding machines, visible [card filing] and loose-leaf [filing] equipment, record protection equipment, portable and commercial typewriters and supplies” — along with a display of how its Dexigraph photographic technology could be used in the reproduction of business records. 28 Tied to both communication and power companies, Remington Rand seemed to straddle two categories in the Fair’s spatial taxonomy: it represented the electrification of — perhaps even the spectacularization of — the once painful banality of record-keeping.
Remington Rand wasn’t the only organization turning clerical work into an aesthetic performance. The New York Times described a building packed with typewriters, “elaborate computing machines and indexers, sorters and apparatus that seems (sic) almost capable of taking a national census at the push of a button.” 29 Exhibitors somehow even found means of dramatizing life insurance and credit analysis! And as the financially struggling Fair continued into its second year, under a new theme — “For Peace and Freedom” — that acknowledged the war in Europe, the World Fair Corporation’s ambitious office manager proposed an exhibit of her own.
Katherine Brougher Gray wished to display the efficiency of the Fair’s administrative operations by pulling her Mail, Stenographic, Addressing and Duplicating Units out from behind the scenes and putting them on stage in a 1500-square-foot demo area. “My personal interest in pushing this plan,” she wrote, “quite naturally arises out of the pride I feel in the efficiency of the Office Management Department here at the Fair.” 30 She invited the participation of companies like Remington Rand, IBM, Addressograph-Multigraph, Ditto, Hammermill Paper, Strathmore Paper, and Eagle Pencil, and promised to “show [their] products in actual use on current work in the hands of regular employees — to millions of people.” In a recruitment letter, she promised to use 16 to 20 Remington Rand typewriters in the exhibit (while reminding the company that the Fair already owned 266 of the machines), and to “give Remington Rand carbon paper and supplies a prominent place in the mural design of the exhibit and also state in the brochure that your carbon paper is used exclusively by the Fair.” 31 Remington Rand bluntly declined: “We made a considerable investment [in the Fair] last year, which, in most respects, did not measure up in returns.” 32 Gray’s exhibit, “Offices at Work,” went forward without them.
A public celebration of office supplies! But of course it was more than that: the Fair celebrated a new way of organizing the world’s information. (Sound familiar?) During the early days of its planning, in the temporary headquarters at 176 Broadway, an anonymous employee had designed a system by which carbon copies of all outgoing letters were filed by subject, together with incoming responses, while an alphabetical card index cross-referenced the subjects to addressees. 33 When the Corporation moved and expanded to fill seven floors of the recently opened Empire State Building, all those files were reorganized into an alphabetical index based on color-coded copies: yellow copies were filed according to subject, and if the document pertained to more than one subject, it was filed along with a cross-reference brief; and pink copies were filed according to name of addressee. The purported benefit was that this system didn’t rely on a separate card file and thus required fewer staff for its management. 34 Navigational cues were built into the system itself, with the colors serving as an “index” to the documents’ proper location, obviating the need for a separate register or guide. Remington Rand served as a consultant to the Fair in devising this so-called “self-indexing” system — one in which, as media and legal scholar Cornelia Vismann puts it, “the file itself prescribes the necessary activities.” 35
A public celebration of office supplies! But of course it was more than that: the Fair celebrated a new way of organizing the world’s information.
Gray saw things differently. Years before her foray into exhibition design, she played a critical role in “curating” administrative functions behind the scenes (one of the many women who, with the emergence of the typewriter and other mechanized work processes, led an expanding female clerical class that transformed offices nationwide). 36 Gray joined the World’s Fair Corporation in 1936, after completing graduate research in Mexican literature at Columbia University. By the next summer — as the Fair drew near and the files multiplied at an ever-increased rate — she noted that Remington Rand’s scheme simply wasn’t working. The five women in Central Files were insufficiently trained to maintain the specialized system, and the index was growing disorderly. So Gray proposed a filing system of her own design, a mixed alphanumeric system that, much like the original filing arrangement used back at 176 Broadway, was filed by subject and cross-referenced alphabetically in a Master Card Index by the names of individuals or organizations. 37 Gray submitted her proposal — for what was, effectively, an analog relational database — to the Fair’s upper administration.
One M.G. Reichmann protested that refiling would be akin to moving bureaucratic mountains: “Any change would necessitate a complete reworking of ten cabinets of material”; the “card system would require extra personnel (typists) to make the cards”; and the decimal-based system regularly used in libraries would “have to be considerably changed before it would fit our needs and would require constant revision as material grows.” A numerical structure would be counter-intuitive, too, because “it is always easier to think in terms of words than in numbers.” 38 Administrative assistant Howard A. Flanigan (later promoted to vice president) reported that the consultants at Remington Rand were unhappy to hear of the proposed change, and he recounted the virtues of the current system: its lack of a card index meant that its maintenance (supposedly) involved less labor, and its reliance on papers rather than thicker-stock cards allowed for more compact horizontal filing. Flanigan complained that Gray “apparently looked on the files as somewhat of a mystery” and “failed to take advantage of the standing offer of Remington-Rand to go over our system every second month, or more often if necessary, and assist in correcting defects or adjusting the files for expansion.” Gray apparently didn’t realize that this service was offered free of charge. 39
Yet company president Grover Whalen, who had often found himself on his own fruitless searches in Central Files, sided with Gray. And despite the fact that Remington Rand would be among his prominent exhibitors at the Fair, Whalen admitted his suspicion that “salesmen for office furniture and equipment are apt to be too enthusiastic in developing methods of filing and other office procedure that will finally result in purchase of equipment. In the salesman’s desire to sell equipment, sometimes the efficiency of the system installed is overlooked.” 40 While he acknowledged that it would cost time and money to switch to the new system, he felt those investments would pay off in the long run.
What resulted was an alphabetical-decimal system: A for Administration, C for Construction, M for Maintenance, P for Participation, and PR for Public Relations, each with decimal subdivisions. All filing was to be centralized; each Operating Unit was to send all correspondence and inter-office memos — except those of a highly confidential, personal, or transitory nature, or “where it constitutes part of the working records of the department” — to Central Files. 41 Whalen decreed in an Executive Order:
Secretaries will send to the Central Files a YELLOW CARBON copy of each OUTGOING letter and the Original White copy of Inter-Departmental Memoranda where retained for reference or record purposes. Unless required for special reasons, it will not be necessary to send a yellow carbon copy of Inter-Departmental Memoranda to the Central Files.
Secretaries are instructed to see to it that all INCOMING letters sent to the Central Files are accompanied by the yellow carbon copy of the outgoing letter in reply, if any. This is to insure the filing of correspondence papers under the same subject classification. 42
In 1938, the Fair Corporation’s executive offices moved to the fairgrounds. By this point, Gray managed nearly 400 men and women, and had a new title: “director of information.” 43 The card file had grown to an extraordinary size. As the Fair drew to a close, managers and executives issued another round of logistical rules for consolidating files and furnishings: all correspondence in all Operating Units was to be sent to the central depository, and all emptied filing cabinets were to be delivered to the Property Control Section. 44 When possible, full filing cabinets were to be “released intact” and accompanied by an index of their contents.
As it turned out, many staff dismissed the decree to centralize the Fair’s paperwork and chose instead to maintain local records in departmental offices. 45 When those department files were eventually consolidated, secretaries were instructed to uphold the archival principle of respect du fonds, or original order: “Departmental records of the Corporation, when turned over to Central Files, will remain in the same condition as delivered by the various departments and will not be refiled or reclassified by Central Files.” 46 Thus, by the end of its run, the Fair had two parallel collections: the Central Files organized according to Gray’s scheme, and an even larger assortment of department files — twice as many as were in the centralized repository — whose order reflected the organization’s bureaucracy.
What happened to the two collections? Those cabinets of files and their horizontal mountains of paperwork — over one million documents — now live in 2,508 boxes, occupying 1203.48 linear feet of Modern Office Systems shelving in closed storage at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Long ago, the Fair and the NYPL negotiated, to their mutual advantage, that the Library would provide research and advice to the Fair, and the Fair would bequeath its archives to the Library. 47 Since acquiring the collection, the librarians have retained the original filing scheme, which, they note, “offers insights into the Fair’s management practices and serves as a model of mid-twentieth century recordkeeping systems.” 48
And seeing as how the World’s Fair sought to model an ideal city — a city, remember, that embodied scientific rationality, technological progress, consumer prosperity, and modernist aesthetics — the filing system that shaped that vision might also offer insight into the Fair’s imagination and ideology. Systematic management and its material techniques and technologies — i.e. files, which were themselves designed — were powerful modernist city-building tools.
Urban Administration and the Enormous File
Happily, this means that we can probe the Fair’s files and accoutrements of records-management — both those on display and those in the back offices — for what they have to say about how those record-keeping systems figured into urban planning and administration, and governance more generally. As Vismann observes, “Files are the mirror stage of any administration. Subsequently, they become the object of desire for a positivist historiography that uses files to deduce their administrative as well as their political background.” 49 Files are not only read or referenced as “evidence” of something having happened, but they are also objects that we think through. Vismann is particularly interested in how we can understand law through its files. The law, she says, is “a repository of forms of authoritarian and administrative acts that assume concrete shape in files.” 50 We could say the same about planning and administration — even aspirational planning and administration, such as that exhibited at the Fair.
The individual file represents the entire universe of an office, while a 20th-century office building … turns into one enormous file.
Particularly with “self-indexing, self-evaluating, and self-interpreting” files, like those extolled by the Library Bureau and Remington Rand, to decipher the “micro-order” of the files— their codes and labels and data fields — “is to reproduce the administrative macro order.” Ultimately, “the entire administration is nothing but one big filing plan. … The individual file represents the entire universe of an office, while a twentieth-century office building, in turn, turns into one ‘enormous file.’” 51
Before we attempt to map the Fair’s files onto its “entire universe,” let’s consider another historical example. If a building is one enormous file, what can we say about the British Court of the Exchequer at Westminster, which used notched sticks — tallies — as its primary mode of record-keeping until 1826? Charles Dickens reported that, finally, “some restless and revolutionary spirit” dared to ask the obvious question: “whether, in a land where there were pens, ink, and paper, slates and pencils, and systems of account, this rigid adherence to a barbarous usage might not possibly border on the ridiculous?” 52 When the tally system was abandoned, and those sticks thrown in the furnace in 1834, the blaze burned down the Palace of Westminster — purging architectural and administrative precedents (both ostensibly worth little more than kindling), and clearing the way for the new Houses of Parliament. 53
As historian Jon Agar tells the story, the administrative system that replaced the tallies was based not on custom and informal codes, “but on rational, professional, mechanically objective routines of specialist expertise” — on what Habermas called the “scientization of politics.” The new government relied on royal engineers and surveyors, medical inspectors, economists and statisticians, each obliged to follow “formal procedures and codes” and to pay “close attention to routine.” 54 They tracked data on demographics, employment, and health; gathered “moral statistics” on crime and religion; and even sought ways to “measure the inaccessible” — all in the hope of constructing a “complete physical, moral, and financial balance sheet,” a comprehensive “statistical picture of the empire.” 55 After tabulating the social organism’s symptoms, the state could employ “delicate machinery” to cure its primary ills: “inefficiency, degeneration, and decay.” 56
Reformers proposed the establishment of a ‘Central Thinking Office,’ a precursor of today’s urban control room or city dashboard.
But, as Agar writes, Britain’s data was widely regarded as “chaotic,” which “marked a discursive opening that could be filled by protagonists of ‘order.’” 57 Reformers around the turn of the 20th century proposed national registers, national identity cards, machines to tabulate and sort records, and even the establishment of a “Central Thinking Office,” a precursor of today’s urban control room or city dashboard. Then as now, these new machines and processes had a particularly transformative effect in law enforcement. The police adopted the French Bertillon system; Scotland Yard developed a rigorous program of fingerprinting and, eventually, a Crime Index; and a telegraph network kept the Yard in contact with urban precincts and provincial police. This system of records-management eventually evolved into the Secret Service Bureau and MI5.
Agar reports that the “office machine revolution” that “swept across the United States” in the late 19th century had “largely passed by British offices.” 58 The Victorian census still depended on the “ticking system,” which required a clerk to review the schedules and add “ticks,” or tally-marks, onto large grids of paper, which, by 1901, contained as many as 5000 cells. Processing and cross-tabulation were onerous, and so statistical information was hard to extract. Further, when the data were translated into “ticks” on a spreadsheet, the identities of the individual subjects were lost.
When administrators began to use cards — whether hand-written and sorted, or punched and machine-processed — the identity of the individual entry could be retained. As Agar explains, “cards offered a permanent record,” as well as a check on the workers’ and the machines’ accuracy. This mechanization of administration “was introduced for the welfare state,” but was “confirmed through war.” The First World War’s “mechanization of warfare” took place not only on the battlefield, but also in its administrative offices, which widely adopted calculating machines and “dismembered” old filing systems “under stress and attrition,” replacing them with punched-card machinery. Despite the punched card’s efficiencies, however, it, too, imposed limitations on the data it was meant to record: “the finite size of the punched card meant that there was intense competition between government departments, each of which wanted different sorts of knowledge of the public, over the access to punched-card columns. Whitehall politics,” Agar says, “were therefore inscribed into the punched card itself.” 59
Those cards allowed for the mechanization of labor, too. Civil servant and economist Henry Higgs noted that machines like the telegraph, telephone, calculating and tabulating machines, vertical file, and card index were “saving the work of armies of clerks.” 60 Yet it was possible to go too far into automation; Major Sydney George Partridge suggested that “every alert organization seeking efficiency and economy in office administration” should seek to “to strike the balance between the ‘human’ and the ‘mechanical.’” 61
If the “self-indexing” system designed by Remington Rand for the World’s Fair was too mechanical, Katherine Brougher Gray’s revision sought to restore an element of human logic. Her method, drawing inspiration from both naval and library filing systems, reflected the Fair as a logistical, government-industrial, diplomatic, and pedagogical endeavor. The five divisions (again: Administration, Construction, Maintenance, Participation, Public Relations) attest to the way the administrators thought of the World’s Fair, as both event and place: a place built tabula rasa and maintained for its two-year existence, then dismantled; a destination that relied on a positive image in order to draw participating “residents” (government, corporate, and organizational exhibitors; vendors; performers; amusement operators) and daily visitors; and an enterprise that required a large administrative apparatus to make it all work. The files’ organizational structure reflected the Fair’s hybrid identity. It was both a functioning city and a commercial showroom. It was a public service — intended to educate the global public about technology and democracy, to promote diplomacy, to stimulate the economy — and also a business.
The files’ organizational structure reflected the Fair’s hybrid identity. It was both a functioning city and a commercial showroom. It was a public service and also a business.
But then there are all those department files that were never “normalized” into the central filing scheme. What do we make of those? The NYPL collection includes separate materials from the Office of the Secretary (largely responsible for records management), the Board of Design (which developed the Fair’s physical layout and realized its thematic elements), the Legal Department, the Office of the Executive Vice President (effectively, Chief Operating Officer), the Government Participation Division (liaison to international and domestic government exhibitors), the Operating Division (administrative), the Promotion and Development Division (publicity), and the Treasury. These department files reflect the operational logics of the Fair as a for-profit corporation (albeit one that failed to realize a profit).
The 1939 World’s Fair site itself reflected an altogether different structure: Industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague and architect Robert Kohn divided exhibits into seven zones “corresponding to the varied functions of modern living”: government, production and distribution, transportation, communication and business, community interests, food, and amusements. 62 This functionalist approach to planning embodied a different “taxonomy” or “ontology” than what we see in the files. The Fair-in-Flushing-Meadows adopted a scheme that sought to be intelligible to its exhibitors and guests, while the Fair-in-Files served its administrators.
Yet both the urban plan and the filing plan were designed systems of systematic management. Both modeled aspirations for scientific rationality and technological progress. By molding the ash heap and a mountain of paperwork into rationally ordered — sculpted and color-coded — systems, the Fair demonstrated that architecture, urban design, engineering, product design, urban administration, and even filing were critical tools in modernist city-building.
Nearly a century later, we’re still dreaming the same dream — one of efficiency and automation and scientism, incorporated in our cities, executed in our wars, crystallized in our data, enclosed and embodied in our files.
The aesthetics and ideologies embodied in exhibits like Democracity and Futurama were ultimately realized, after World War II, in America’s mid-century public housing developments, its Levittowns, its steel-and-glass skyscrapers, its freeways and parking lots. Despite the fact that the Fair’s proposals, as Robert Bennett puts it, failed to account not only for “the cultural and political tensions of its own day,” but also the “epochal changes that would soon be unleashed by the Second World War and its aftermath,” we went ahead, after the war, and built our cities in the Fair’s — and Robert Moses’s — image. Many of those mid-century architectural and urban experiments ultimately proved alienating, unsustainable, even destructive. Yet, Bennett suggests, we learned from our errors: “out of their failed ruins” emerged “new antimodernist and postmodernist sensibilities that would reject modernism’s pure geometry” — and its attendant values — for “more complex alternatives.” 63
Yet certain aspects of the Fair’s “perfected dream” image of modernity still hold sway. The models of technologized efficiency, automated information management, and “scientific,” “fact-based” decision making that we saw demonstrated in Remington Rand’s “World of Business” panorama and Gray’s “Offices at Work” exhibition, are today apparent in our data-driven, cognitive-computing-powered government and corporate offices, online retailers, dating sites, logistical systems, social services, schools, and universities. Rand’s Control-o-graph is the analog version of our contemporary dashboard. Both marshal an “army of facts” (or data), “collected, analyzed, compared, by fixed methods of almost automatic simplicity,” in order to offer “working principles as positive and scientific as the science of war itself.” In the influential 1973 book Collage City, Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter denounced modern planning’s “sterile scientific rigor,” proclaiming that “the notion of a ‘final’ solution through a definitive accumulation of data is … an epistemological chimera” — a dream. 64 Nearly a century after that first Fair in Flushing Meadows we’re still dreaming the same dream — one of efficiency and automation and scientism, incorporated in our cities, executed in our wars, crystallized in our data, enclosed and embodied in our files.