Shannon Mattern

Rise of the Pod People

Spatial politics were big news in Spring 2014, with Russia invading the Ukraine, Boko Haram kidnapping 200 Nigerian schoolgirls, and New Mexico police officers using excessive deadly force. Another pressing story that commanded attention from all the major papers, and from magazines ranging from The Economist to Wired, was the activation of a ubiquitous sleeper cell that, for half a century, has infiltrated corporations and governments across the globe.

That’s right: the cubicle. The April publication of Nikil Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, sparked widespread interest in the mundane environments in which a global force of laborers files away reports, types up meeting minutes, and wastes time on Facebook. The cubicle – or the multi-person “pod” – is also where faculty, particularly on this campus, will increasingly find themselves prepping for classes, editing articles or films, and meeting with students.

The School of Media Studies moved in February 2014 to new quarters on the 16th floor at 79 5th Avenue – the former home of the Office of Finance and Business. The finance staff left behind a labyrinth of waist-high file cabinets, which carve the main floor into a cluster of four-person pods, and rows of private offices along the courtyard and the building’s north face, whose windows afford a pretty spectacular view of the Empire State Building. Ours is, we hear, the faculty workspace of the future – a wide-open plan that ostensibly optimizes its use throughout the day. It’s about “activating the most spaces on campus for the most hours in the most flexible ways,” an administrative staff member told me.

In my pod, I have more filing cabinets than I know what to do with, along with three generous rows of bookshelves that I share with my three pod-mates. Some of my colleagues in other pods aren’t as fortunate: without shelves, they have to stack their books on countertops. My pod happens to be adjacent to the kitchen, the copy-and-mail room, and a common lounge and group work area. The southeast pod is adjacent to a meeting room that’s bookable by anyone from across the university. It is indeed invigorating to see the floor “activated” by so much activity. Particularly for a School that had been squeezed into deficient space for nearly four decades, it’s certainly heartening to have, finally, not only basic amenities, but also common areas where Media Studies can cultivate its identity through community.

That “activation” brings energy and density. And noise. Faculty commonly cushion their brains with noise-canceling headphones when they need to concentrate. Students waiting for appointments sometimes stuff their own ears with earbuds so as to avoid accidentally eavesdropping on private conversations. Groups meeting in the southeast conference room and classes collaborating in the common work area bring a stream of traffic and a flurry of activity that makes it rather difficult to concentrate on crafting that perfect concluding sentence or a subtle audio mix.

These most mundane spaces have a profound impact on how we work, and how we work together. They determine how we engage with students and colleagues, how we focus our energy, even how we think. While an open-office full of pods might maximize use of the space across time, it also imposes a spatial model of bureaucratic labor onto a population that often engages in activity that defies such regimentation. Thus these “workspace solutions,” as rationalized office design is frequently called, often end up creating new problems.

As higher education reassesses its business model, considers new modes of “delivery,” and assesses the relationships between physical and virtual spaces of learning, we should consider how the labor of teaching and learning – and the social and affective conditions they thrive on – can best be spatialized. As The New School continues to reshuffle its offices and departments within its various properties, we need to ask, particularly in regard to faculty workspaces:

What are the various kinds of activity – writing, reading, mixing, sewing, model-making, advising, daydreaming, etc. – that are integral to our work as faculty?

What kinds of spaces best facilitate those activities, in all their variety?

And what are the ethics and ideologies, the affects and identities, that we want those workspaces to embody?