«by David P. Julyk A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (American Culture) in ...»
“The Trouble With Machines Is People.” The Computer as Icon in Post-War
David P. Julyk
A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
in The University of Michigan
Associate Professor Catherine L. Benamou, Chair
Associate Professor John S. Carson
Associate Professor Paul N. Edwards
Assistant Professor Sheila C. Murphy
© David P. Julyk Acknowledgements The road to completing this project has been populated by a number of people whom I owe a sincere debt of gratitude. Specifically, I would like to thank my committee members for their persistence and attention to details that made this project better than it would have been if it had been solely up to me. Catherine Benamou has been a near bottomless well of support and has helped me see connections I didn’t know were there and has often been able to frame my project better than I could. Her sense of humor has made this process, if not painless, at least somewhat enjoyable. I’ve learned a great deal from her both as an advisor and as an instructor by having the opportunity to teach with her on several occasions over the years, and I’m richer for the association. John Carson’s keen sense of analysis has kept me reasonably honest and has allowed me to put this project in a larger perspective as I tried to form an interdisciplinary work that would stand up across fields that he has mastered. I continue to appreciate his candor and his wit and commitment to my slowly gestating ideas. I owe a singular debt to Paul Edwards whose previous work in the area of early computer technology and metaphor form the groundwork for my project. Paul has been a source of inspiration and has provided me with resources from his own experience that have proved invaluable. My acknowledgement of his work in my dissertation only scratches the surface of a much more profound influence. Finally, Sheila Murphy, who joined the project late but was a very quick study and was a tremendous help in pulling everything together for the final push. I regret not having her on the project from the beginning.
ii Finally though, the greatest debt I must acknowledge is to my family. My children, Noah and Maddie, have grown up in the shadow of a project that kept their father inside on sunny days and in libraries while they were on vacation. I thank them both for insisting that I pay attention to them and for being a continuing source of joy.
And to my wife, Kiyoko, I owe a tremendous debt of late nights and long days as a more or less single parent, and for keeping everything together and making apologies for my absences. Most importantly I wish to thank her for her remarkable patience, support, and humor over what has been a long and sometimes difficult process. I couldn’t have done this without her dedication and love.
List of Figures
Introduction: The Iconic Value of Computers
Chapter 1: Creating the Computer as a Consumable Image: CBS, UNIVAC and the 1952 Presidential Election
Chapter 2: Chess Playing Computers: Games, and Competition as Media Event............ 88 Chapter 3: Syllogisms and Meta-Solutions: The Computer as Feminine and Childlike in American Film and Television
Chapter 4: “We Have Your Mechanical Brain—Give Us Justice,” Protest Movements and the Occupation and Destruction of Computer Centers 1968-1972
Conclusion: From Machines to Data
Appendix 1: Timeline of Events 1946-1970
Figure 1: Usage of ‘Computer’ or ‘Electronic Brain’ as descriptor of computers in major U.S. newspapers, 1946-1967 (Source: Proquest Historical Newspaper Database).. 75 Figure 2: Average Hourly Earnings of Production Workers, 1947-1960 (Source: U.S.
Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics)
Figure 3: Annual U.S. Unemployment Rate, 1947-1960 (Source: U.S. Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics)
The Age of Anxiety For a few years as I commuted to work I regularly drove past a set of sculptures that occupied the driveway of an ordinary looking house on the rural western edge of Ann Arbor. The sculpture was comprised of three large, impressionistic and vaguely anthropomorphic steel and wire figures with video monitors for heads surrounding and towering over a smaller humanoid sculpture (also steel and wire) that cowered under their gaze. As the years progressed time and weather took their toll on the figures. The humanoid sculpture stooped lower and lower until its torso was supported by the addition of a strategically placed broomstick acting as a cane. By all appearances, the monitor headed figures had moved in for the kill and the humanoid figure was the victim of not only their oppression but of Michigan winters too. The message of this particular piece of folk art was immediately discernable as a quartet of metal figures illustrating a tableau of anxiety and oppression. The piece was easily read as an indictment of the relationship between people and technology, specifically the oppressive systemization that came to characterize industrial society in the 20th century. The humanoid figure, alone and isolated, was surrounded by identical technological creatures that, instead of passively performing work with the guidance and control of the human, had turned on him-decidedly gaining the upper hand.
Sherry Turkle, writing on the subject of technological ‘spin’ or the stories we tell ourselves about our technologies contends that we are still anxious about technology spiraling out of control, distrustful of the soul of the machine and worried about the mechanization of the human mind.1 Unfortunately, my attempts to speak to the owner of the house in order to discover if this was in fact the sentiment behind the artwork were unsuccessful. The homeowner never answered the door and ignored the letter of introduction I left in the mailbox outside the house. One day the increasingly decrepit sculptures were gone. The house was empty and for sale. I never did find out the story behind the sculptures: who made them, or how they had come to take up residence on an otherwise quiet road on the outskirts of town.
When I started looking at manifestations of technological anxiety in popular culture, I considered the project in terms of larger cultural icons in film and television.
Mass, broadcast media was filled with killer robots, super computers, and armies of identical drones passionate only about taking over the world, the galaxy or even the universe. These artifacts contended that, though the computerized opponents of mankind were formidable, the fate of the world was never truly in doubt. We, as Americans could depend on our inherent tirelessness and stoic perseverance as small, loosely knit confederacies of humans-- beaten but not vanquished—fighting a guerilla war against overwhelming odds. With very few exceptions the humans would, by stories’ end, use Sherry Turkle, "'Spinning' Technology: What We Are Not Thinking About When We Are Thinking About Computers," in Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears That Shape New Technologies, ed.
Marita Sturken, Douglas Thomas, and Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), 19-33.
intuition and dreams, folk wisdom and luck, to exploit the fatal weakness of the machines and start civilization anew—often as idealized Jeffersonian styled yeoman farmers and craftsmen. I soon realized that the films and television programs that initially drew me to this study were echoes of stories that were retold practically everywhere I looked and in myriad ways, formats, and media—the result of a Cold War reinvestment in the story of American exceptionalism. The representation of machines and human beings as antagonistic opposite poles permeates not only film and television, but popular music, children’s culture, working life, jokes, politics, and newspaper and magazine articles that, on the one hand, trumpet each technological advance while, on the other, recapitulate a sense of unease with the world we are creating.
Technology and Culture This study focuses on the post-war era in American history from 1946 to 1970 and is an examination of the rhetoric used to describe computer systems and the relationship between computers and human beings. Primarily, this project emphasizes the rhetoric of anxiety that surrounded the deployment of computer systems not as a matter of alarmist rhetoric geared toward exacerbating anxieties and fears of an unknown future, but as a coherent narrative that sought to reassure and ameliorate readers (and viewers) with a story of American exceptionalism, and stability.2 Although not representative of current historiography pertaining to the relationship between technology and culture, Leo Marx proposes a view of technology as For extensive readings of the significance of the American exceptionalist myth in contemporary media, see: Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a
Generation, 2nd ed. (Amherst: Univ of Massachusetts Press, 1998), Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation:
The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum, 1992).
an alien intrusion into an otherwise natural landscape in his description of simple versus complex pastoralism; a description that has some value. For Marx, simple pastoralism connotes a willfully naïve response to nature as an Arcadian ideal that is always in danger of being sullied by technology and modernity—a pristine space (both physical and conceptual) that becomes less and less accessible as we become more embedded in the material world of technology.3 Technology is thus alienating and inserts itself between humans and the natural world. Marx contrasts this with what he terms complex pastoralism, that, while perhaps no less Romantic than simple pastoralism, concedes that our concept of nature as unsullied and pristine and our longing for an Arcadian past are possible only through technology. Our alienation from nature is a product of technology, but our understanding of this alienation is a product of technology as well. Our perception of the natural world as distinct depends on technological frames to give it meaning—a point Marx maintains is at the heart of postmodern critiques of technology and progress as meta-narratives.4 Marx is nothing if not deterministic in his approach to technology, but nonetheless, his definition of simple pastoralism is an accurate representation for describing the relationship between us, nature, and technology (in particular, computer technology) that was the stock position of the popular media through the 1950’s and 60’s.
Scholarship on the public perception of computer technology often presupposes a mode of technological anxiety that can be explained, in part, by its alienating effects.
Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden : Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964).
Leo Marx, "The Idea Of "Technology" And Postmodern Pessimism," in Does Technology Drive History?:
The Dilemma of Technological Determinism, ed. Leo Marx and Merritt Roe Smith (Cambridge, Mass:
MIT Press, 1994), 238.
Shoshanna Zuboff’s sociological study of modernization and automation in offices and paper mills focuses on the alienating effects of the computerized workplace and how computerization alters the relationship between the worker, management, and the nature of the work itself. Zuboff argues that the existence of computer technology acts to symbolically render activities and processes—to make what was tacitly understood into abstracted quantifiable metrics.5 Like Zuboff, I take the view that there is something about the symbolic value of computers that makes these reactions to advancements in technology worthy of consideration in their own right. What I propose is that by looking at artifacts from the time period that extends from the earliest introduction of computer technology to the late 1960’s (the era just prior to the introduction of the first home/personal computers of the early 1970s) we encounter an era of uncertainty regarding computer technology and its meaning within a larger society. Looking beyond Paul Edwards’ Closed World/Green World dichotomy, we see that representations of nature and technology as polarized utopian and dystopian zones had immediately solidified around computer technology and the computer was instead described in turn as masculine, feminine, harmlessly childlike, and sinisterly bureaucratic—as an example of the heights of human ingenuity as well as a foretaste of our replacement at the top of an evolutionary chain. It is this multiplicity of readings that has been largely ignored by scholars of technology and social history in favor of a view that relies on a single set of metaphorical relations that conform to a dogmatic view technology as either inherently alienating, or of histories that celebrate the inventors and developers of computer Shoshana Zuboff, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 186-188.
hardware, software, and systems.
Histories of computer technology have often focused on technological innovations and the people that have worked to develop ever-faster machines.6 In addition, sociologists have studied the effect of computers in the workplace, virtual communities, children and computers, and ethnographies of computer scientists and development laboratories.7 These studies detail the effects of computer technology on specific groups, communities and occupations. The status of computers as artifacts, from the early 1950s on, has shaped public and popular discourses concerning the relationship between people and computers, but the iconic value of computer technology as part of the broader historical narrative of the late 20th century has not been addressed. Computer descriptions, as reflected in newspaper and magazine articles, television and film from the 1950’s and 1960’s often took specific, distinct forms that reflected a sense of
foreboding about the emerging technology:
• Computers as an existential threat (direct challenge to humanity)