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Chaos and Control

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

Steve Anderson, Author

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Three Modes of Critique

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, banking and insurance, and slower growth in others. During this time, commercial media, including feature films and network television, experienced a significantly faster and more diverse proliferation 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 fantasies. While many of these representations may be dismissed as lacking in 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 surveillance in networked computing of the present day.

This project focuses on the layer of analysis that Wendy Chun (2005, 16)has termed "extramedial representation," that is, the representation of computers in other media. My primary concerns are therefore what I would call historiographical, that is, concerned with the mechanisms through which history is constructed in the popular imaginary, as opposed to being "historical" in a more traditional, academic sense. The goal of this project is to develop a critical vocabulary for thinking about how computers were envisioned on film and television across a diverse range of genres. I am, in fact, tempted to argue that these "computer narratives" constitute a sub-genre of their own, which was uniquely positioned to address emerging cultural tensions related to technologization. Viewed retrospectively from the early twenty-first century, reading these examples as a subgenre allows us to draw out the irresolvable anxieties and contradictions that led to these particular representations. The critical modes that structure this investigation are intended to be neither exhaustive nor exclusive and, where appropriate, individual examples may be identified with multiple modes of critique.

The first mode is what may be termed a "libertarian" critique. From this perspective, computing is inextricably entangled with institutional mechanisms of control operating in service to government agencies and corporate bureaucracies. These critiques typically pit rugged, low-tech individuals against large, impersonal, technologized institutional mechanisms of control. These narratives' insistence on a sharp, high-tech versus no-tech binary arguably serves to disaffect ordinary people from finding a negotiated middle ground in relation to technology. As a result, technological mastery is consistently relegated to the dominion of a "priestly" class that the proponents of a movement that would become known as "cyberlibertarianism" warned against in the early 1970s. When translated to its various screen manifestations, this critique proves capable of supporting both a sophisticated, politically progressive response as well as a naive reassertion of clich├ęd individualist ideology.

Second is a humanist critique that derives from what Fred Turner (2006, 8) called the "new communalist" movement. Constituting only one subset of the 1960s counterculture, this movement is linked by Turner to a distributed network of white, economically privileged hippies who sought escape from the consumerist values and Cold War anxieties of the postwar era, forming communities around psychedelic drugs, rock-and-roll music and a return to nature. These same counterculturalists would later turn to the technologies of virtual community, "cyberspace" and personal computing as a direct legacy of their social values and experiments in the 1960s. From the perspective of a humanist critique, computers appear on film and TV as fetishized or exaggerated objects, endowed with vastly superior intellect but an impoverished ability to reason at the most basic human level. As a  trope of American media culture of this era, computers and the experts who operate them are, with few exceptions, compared unfavorably with the attributes of real human intelligence, intuition and emotion. Broadly characterized, this critique focuses on the "dehumanizing" tendencies of computers. Large, powerful mainframe computers are frequently (and need I say erroneously?) conflated with artificial intelligence, anthropomorphized as mechanical or electronic "brains" that more often than not develop a mind of their own. The use of biological and anatomical metaphors for computing systems in this era correlates with anxieties about what makes "us" human, invariably resulting in a familiar list of the innate characteristics of humans: intuition, empathy, compassion and, especially, the ability to love.

Third is what I would describe as a socially normative critique, which engages issues of labor, race, gender and the socioeconomic consequences of computerization. Ultimately, as we will see, this critique is readily contained by a socially conservative agenda that suppresses or trivializes the emancipatory potential of the computer industry, particularly on behalf of women. These critiques are, of course, inseparable from the overall depiction of racial and gender differences that prevailed in postwar Hollywood, but analyzing closely this crucial moment of transition yields a fruitful glimpse of industry strategies for neutralizing the disruptive potential of computers as they are integrated and normalized as part of daily life and business practices. Left out of this investigation are instances of computing as nonspecific signifiers for advanced technology as part of the overall environment of postwar American corporate capitalism. Admittedly, one could generate a reading of these works in aggregate, as cinematic and televisual tropes that evolved in dialogue with the evolution of American technoculture, but this falls beyond the scope of the present work.
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