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Chaos and Control

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

Steve Anderson, Author

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Why Didn't Acme Make Computers?

Considering the extraordinary diversity of WWII and postwar technologies, especially explosives and various forms of jet propulsion–among them rocket-powered roller skates, sleds, pogo sticks and unicycles–developed by the Acme Corporation in the Warner Brothers' longrunning Roadrunner (1949–66) cartoon series, it is surprising that computers were never among them. Setting aside the obvious difficulty of accessing reliable electric power on a desert highway, we might hypothesize that the idea of computation in the cultural imaginary during this era occupied a realm of limitless possibility. The computers that appeared on screen during the 1950s and 1960s, in other words, could already accommodate a cartoon-like multiplicity of narrative fantasies, making it redundant and unnecessary for Acme to develop its own line of computers. IBM was already doing it for them.

I should note that only a handful of the on-screen computers appearing in this project were shot on location using operating, real world computers. The majority are a combination of decommissioned mainframes (or their external facades), augmented by Hollywood set designers to ensure continuously blinking panels full of colored lights. The IBM AN/FSQ7 that operated at the heart of the Air Force's SAGE defense system was a particularly common choice, as numerous decommissioned units were sold to property houses in Los Angeles even before the system was finally scrapped in the early 1980s. Among other things, the circular radar screen of the SAGE system accounts for the preponderance of round display screens seen in Hollywood mainframes. Unlike the computer fan websites that keep track of such things, this project is almost entirely unconcerned with the difference between real-world computers and entirely fictionalized movie props. For me, it is the cultural discourse surrounding the idea of computation that is of primary interest, along with the ways computers figure in the evolution of film and TV narratives before they became a part of most people's everyday lives.
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