Thursday, September 23, 2010

the invisible work of pneumatic tubes

When I was in Japan I read 1984 for the first time. It seemed a pretty timely thing to do straight after a science and technology conference. Of course so much of George Orwell's futuristic vision has played out in real-time (one of the papers I mentioned in the last post, about telemonitoring of patients in their own home, springs to mind immediately), whilst other aspects remain in the realm of fantasy and fiction.

An important part of Orwell's 1984-future, at the organisational level, was communication via pneumatic tube.

"With the deep, unconscious sigh which not even the nearness of the telescreen could prevent him from uttering when his day's work started, Winston pulled the speakwrite towards him, blew the dust from its mouthpiece and put on his spectacles. Then he unrolled and clipped together four small cylinders of paper which had already flopped out of the pneumatic tube on the right-hand side of his desk" (p40).

The pneumatic tube was one of three important 'orifices' in Winston's office space - the other two were for newspapers and the waste-disposal slit, or memory hole. It is from the pneumatic tubes where most of Winston's work arrives; the work of rewriting history. One day there is fragment of paper which blatently documents the lies behind this history work, rolled up with the other papers in the tube.

The pneumatic tube system is part of the invisible workings of the Ministry, part of the invisible work of totalitarian control:

"What happened in the unseen labyrinth to which the pneumatic tubes led, he did not know in detail, but he did know in general terms" (p42).

In many ways, pneumatic tubes are still part of the invisible work of organisations, retaining that historic/futuristic feel that Orwell captures incredibly well in 1984. It is this invisible work, the work that happens backstage, that makes pneumatic tubes such an interesting site of analysis and a technology which captures the imagination of writers and the public.


  1. Great post - love the artwork of the book cover!

    Enjoying your blog - keep up the good work.....

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