Scott Ellington's Blog

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Desk Set

Here’s a 1957 movie about the digital revolution.  It stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as a couple of accomplished bachelors whose lives have been dedicated to seemingly-dissimilar pursuits.  She’s the primary research librarian for a television network located at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York, and he’s the creator of an early mainframe computer…that’s apparently intended to take over her job.  The story revolves around the implicit fear that office automation would inevitably displace millions of people from their places of employment, replaced by terribly efficent and cost-effective machines.

It’s interesting that a half-century has passed and so very little has changed.  Business continues to run on the variability, complexity and adaptability of people while longing for the simplicity, reliability and consistency of comparatively inexpensive mechanical intelligence.  Offshoring, outsourcing and various methodologies of devaluing the contribution of loyal people to commerce seems to be intrinsic to the pursuit of doing prudent business.  Unfortunately, the sterility injected into the souls of working people by this paired search for efficiency and extirpation of humanity from business has the lingering side effect of limiting the degree and quality of engagement with our jobs. 

Ultimately, the movie resolves in the belated revelation that the computer was always intended to extend the power and scope of the research librarians, it was never meant to replace them.  It’s still the inability of computer experts to explain the intent of their dreams and the traditional inhumanity of employers that justly fuel the (irrational) fears of people who work for a living.

It deserves mention that the DVD commentary for this film could not be much more irrelevant to the plot, themes and the almost-completely invisible competence of the actors.  I’m going to watch it again with the sound turned off just to see Tracy animate his character in pantomime: 

“Never let them catch you acting.”

Although he’s a bit of an ugly fuck, he’s kind of a joy to watch.

05 Mar 10 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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