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Chaos and Control

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

Steve Anderson, Author

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Against Technological Essentialism: The Batman (1943)

Before inaugurating this project's primary focus on computer technology, I would note that many of the technological tropes identified in this project are highly mutable and not necessarily tied to computation as such. As this early cinematic adaptation of The Batman demonstrates, forces of history, economics and ideology may bring about near total reversals of the accepted wisdom with regard to technology and its role in the cultural imaginary. I would therefore distance this project from what might be understood as a technologically essentialist or deterministic critique. Although this project focuses on the era of emergence for digital computing, a similar analysis could easily engage issues related to other technologies, economic circumstances, social formations, etc. This project's focus on computational technology on film and television should not be understood as taking place in isolation from other clearly interrelated historical factors; rather my hope is that the inclusion of a broad range of original source materials will facilitate alternative or competing critiques.

Although the Batman narrative considered here technically falls outside this project's stated time period, the starkly contrasting views of technology seen in this iteration and the later TV series and movie franchise, bear consideration. Prior to ABC's better-known, campy, high-tech 1960s TV version of Batman, Columbia produced a deadly serious wartime theatrical serial titled "The Batman," (1943) which featured the caped crusaders battling forces of crime and espionage on the home front. In the inaugural episode, "The Electrical Brain," Batman and the Boy Wonder battle a Japanese agent, Prince Daka, who operates out of an abandoned Little Tokyo storefront exhibit ironically depicting scenes of Japanese wartime atrocities. Except for the Japanese Cave of Horrors, the Little Tokyo district of Gotham City (here a surrogate for Los Angeles rather than New York) has been entirely abandoned following a "wise government's" decision to deport all persons of Japanese ancestry to concentration camps. Daka leads a band of American collaborators in creating a "new order" loyal to Imperial Japan, through the development of such technologies as a death ray, electricity-induced mind control and some highly sophisticated audio and video surveillance equipment. By contrast, Batman and Robin operate out of an entirely nontechnological bat cave (swarming with real bats) and oppose Daka's sinister plans using only their fists and a rough-and-tumble, can-do spirit of patriotic lawfulness.

While the theatrical Batman's failure to participate in the war effort abroad may be excused by his defense of the domestic homeland, the use of high-technology for crime-fighting may have proved less agreeable to wartime movie audiences. The show's narrative exposition is careful to justify Batman's domestic activities, as well as the deportation and detention of Japanese American citizens by the War Relocation Authority. Among the justifications for this otherwise constitutionally troubling government action was the possibility of Japanese American spies using amateur radio technology to communicate with enemy submarines, a fear that is explicitly validated by Daka's mastery of electrical and radio technologies. In spite of this episode's title, "The Electrical Brain" makes no connection to the development of large scale analog computing systems that were already underway in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Thus, "The Electrical Brain" here refers not to the soon-to-be-ubiquitous trope of biological metaphors for computing, which had not yet entered the cultural imaginary, but to a human brain that is literally controlled by external radio waves. The Batman thus serves as a threshold text, marking a boundary prior to which brains were brains and computers were not yet in the hands of even the most technologically sophisticated criminals that Hollywood could concoct. The point is that this project's specific reading of computation may be equally applicable to other technologies (for example, radio), particularly as they are refracted through popular culture at the moment they are coming to broad public awareness.
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