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Chaos and Control

The Critique of Computation in American Commercial Media (1950-1980)

Steve Anderson, Author

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Humanist Critique

For the marchers of the Free Speech Movement, as for many other Americans throughout the 1960s, computers loomed as technologies of dehumanization, of centralized bureaucracy and the rationalization of social life, and, ultimately, of the Vietnam War. Yet, in the 1990s, the same machines that had served as the defining devices of cold war technocracy emerged as the symbols of its transformation. Two decades after the end of the Vietnam War and the fading of the American counterculture, computers somehow seemed poised to bring to life the countercultural dream of empowered individualism, collaborative community, and spiritual communion.
- Fred Turner

Spanning the years 1957 to 1977, this video essay presents a sampling of early cinematic and televisual articulations of the relationship between humans and computers. This path, titled "Humanist Critique," explores the repeated assertions of human supremacy across film and TV in greater depth. However the core tropes of the era are apparent in this brief montage, beginning with the characterization of computers as electronic or artificial brains, conceived and designed as allegories for human consciousness. The apparent threat posed by these examples of "artificial intelligence" manifests through dehumanizing or destructive encounters with humans, who are subsequently reminded of their essential humanness. Distinctly human qualities such as empathy, loyalty and love provide the greatest sources of reassurance, while the computer's association with their mechanical opposites (such as the absence of passion, anger or weakness) are linked to a misguided or technocratic fetishization of technology.
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