Open Access

Granular Certainty, The Vertical Filing Cabinet, and the Transformation of Files


This article provides a particular history of the file. It does not focus on the content of specific files or the development of filing systems. Instead it moves files from a history of administrative writing to a history of information storage technologies. My argument is that if we get ›under the hood‹ of the filing cabinet and manila folder to understand how they work we learn how information was conceptualized and understood such that it could contribute to the goals of efficiency critical to corporate capitalism. It is the contention of this article that information is a historically specific concept and the early 20th century emergence of the tabbed manila folder and the vertical filing cabinet offer insights into the development of a distinctly modern conception of information as impersonal, discrete, and therefore easily extracted. I offer the concept of ›granular certainty‹ to show how information was conceptualize, practically constituted and organized. This emphasizes the overlap between the importance of efficiency’s embrace of standardization and the specific and a conception of information as something specific. The tabbed manila folder and the vertical filing cabinet emerged from this overlap between efficiency and information.