Sign in or register
for additional privileges

Chaos and Control

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

Steve Anderson, Author

You appear to be using an older verion of Internet Explorer. For the best experience please upgrade your IE version or switch to a another web browser.


The computers that appeared in American popular culture during the decades leading up to the personal computer age (roughly 1950–1980) occasioned projection of a broad range of cultural fantasies, hopes and anxieties, not just about the increasingly powerful role of technology in daily life, but about the ontological and epistemological status of humans in an increasingly technologized world. This was nowhere more apparent than in feature films and network television, where mainframe computers–often decommissioned IBM air defense systems–made dozens of appearances. Whether these machines merely provided a high-tech ambiance or catalyzed a central narrative conceit, they offer a revealing glimpse of the gender, racial and political dynamics surrounding computer technology (as refracted by film and TV) at the dawn of the digital age. While manufacturers such as IBM were developing active public relations campaigns to entice women into the technology industries and neutralize anxieties about computers in the workplace, Hollywood relentlessly–and sometimes with uncanny prescience–opposed emergent digital technologies to core American ideologies of freedom, privacy and equality.

It is not surprising to find that even lightweight, commercial entertainment genres such as romantic comedies and detective TV shows are engaged, however obliquely, in consequential forms of cultural critique. This project departs from the established conventions of symptomatic reading that have emerged in the study of popular culture in two ways. First, the goal of this project is to take seriously the critique of computing culture posed by TV and movies during this period by looking closely at the substance of these critiques rather than reducing them to reflections of developments in the socioeconomic world. Second, this text will take advantage of its online publication format to present access to extensive quotations from original media sources and experiments with compilation video essays. As a supplement to the embedded media clips presented in this study, all original media files are available for high-resolution download from the web archive Critical Commons.

The movement of computers from military-funded, university-based research labs into the workplace occurred over a period spanning many years, with rapid penetration in certain areas of American business such as accounting and insurance, and slower growth in others. During this time, commercial media, including feature films and network television, experienced a significantly faster proliferation of depictions of on-screen computing. With both audiences and writers largely unburdened by direct experience with real-world computing machinery, these cinematic and televisual depictions were free to explore and express a wide range of cultural imaginings. While many of these representations may be dismissed as lacking in substance or sophistication, a great many more may be viewed as constitutive of a legitimate critique of the growing presence of computers in daily American life. This project will alternately address the broad contours of cultural discourse on film and TV and perform close, analytical readings of a select number of examples. Through this combination of close and distant reading, I will argue that the majority of cinematic and televisual depictions of early computing fall into one of three primary modes of critique. These critiques, still nascent in the late 1950s through the 1970s, correlate with continuing concerns about issues of privacy, identity and access in networked computing today.
Comment on this page

Discussion of "Introduction"

Add your voice to this discussion.

Checking your signed in status ...