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Chaos and Control

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

Steve Anderson, Author

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Batman (1966-68)

In stark contrast to the low-tech character of The Batman produced by Columbia as a theatrical serial in 1943, the live-action television series Batman that aired on ABC for three seasons (1966–68) presented the crime fighting duo of Batman and Robin as both hypermasculine and highly technologized, operating from an underground headquarters with a mainframe computer literally at its center. The range of technological gadgetry wielded by TV's Batman represents only a slight exaggeration of the state of technology commonly depicted on film and TV of the mid-1960s. What is unique is the specificity of the various technologies available in the Bat Cave, each of which is humorously customized to the specific needs of the moment. The problem solving capacity of the Bat Computer, for example, was prodigious far beyond any real world computational system of the mid-1960s, suggesting the degree to which computers in the popular cultural imaginary were invested with a nearly sentient ability to understand and process highly specific and contextualized information, delivering responses that are both accurate and relevant to whatever problem is at hand.

This scene from season 2 "Batman's Satisfaction" is anomalous for its inversion of the usual, impeccable functioning of the bat computer. Although the computer succeeds in decoding a complex coded message delivered via alphabet soup letters, the computer ultimately malfunctions while being fed a page from the phone book. Alfred the Butler appears to explain that the entirety of Wayne Manor has experienced a power failure due to a female house guest's use of a hair dryer. A dejected Batman laments, "and so because of a woman's vanity, a battle may be lost." Far from the real-world role of women as programmers and operators of mainframe computers, the lone woman who is allowed into the homosocial male enclave of Wayne Manor brings about a total failure of the computer system and, with it, the problem solving capacity of its crime-fighting inhabitants.
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