Desk Set (1957): Automation as Romantic Comedy
On this week’s #ReelWork chat, we’ll be discussing the adorable 1957 Katharine Hepburn & Spencer Tracy Romantic Comedy Desk Set. It’s available on Netflix and via all the other usual places. Look here for a summary.
- The threat of automation as Romantic Comedy
- Desk Set as a predictor of Email in 1957
Joseph Arton: Hey Carla
Carla Arton: Hey Joe
Joe: Today we’re going to chat about the 1957 romantic comedy Desk Set starring Katherine Hepburn as Miss Bunny Watson and Spencer Tracy as...
Carla: Richard Sumner. I love this film. It’s one of my favorites of theirs.
Joe: Let’s start with the very weird opening shot of a ‘fictional’ early IBM computer sitting on a floor mural of Piet Mondrian's composition II. What did you make of this?
Carla: The opening reminded me of the The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), where the establishing shot is non-diegetic, or outside the story. We’re being told visually that this machine will somehow play a major part in the story. When you think about what actually happened, IBM signed up for their product to be considered the villain for 99% of the film; it’s the unseen threat to the reference staff’s job security. Their fear is of the unknown. By the time of its initial reveal, the reference staff have heard so many whispers of similar machines making workers redundant that they are at first intimidated and defeated. However, by the last ten minutes of the film they learn its flaws and limitations and EMERAC (or IBM) is redeemed to the point that Miss Watson pats the computer and says “Good girl, Emmie.” Suddenly all the fears that technology plays in their careers is pfft, gone. Very hollywood.
Joe: What I love about this is that if you watched the film when it was first released and you had to leave the theatre to put money in the meter or catch the bus and missed the last ten minutes, you’d fricken hate IBM. My question is, what’s the relationship between the technology and the romantic comedy genre? How is technological innovation understood through this lens?
Carla: EMERAC is clearly a complicated character in the film. It’s part of the romantic comedy where the machine is part of the love triangle.
Joe: I agree with you about the ending. It’s totally in keeping with some of the silliest Hollywood endings of the period like The Court Jester (1956), where homicidal characters are redeemed by the end; linking arms and singing songs with the heroes they’ve spent the entire film plotting to kill. Hilarious. Ok, let's talk a little more about what you said earlier about the relationship the machine has with the human workers.
Carla: The machine can only be fixed by Miss Watson’s hair pin, a symbol that with all of its capabilities, it still needs a human to watch over and maintain it. It cannot completely replace them.
Joe: I don’t blame IBM for wanting to use a romantic comedy genre to deal with these issues. It’s a good idea to use a light touch when dealing with workers profound ambivalence and existential fears around automation and technology. I find the pink slip scene really speaks to this. So for those of you who aren’t planning on watching the movie, at the start of the movie, the company had already installed a machine in the accounting department. It begins to pose a problem when it starts issuing pink slips (termination notices) to everyone in the company. This is obviously an error but the individual recipients don’t know this except the President and the Spencer Tracy character. The irony is that the machines have decided to make the workers redundant in both senses of the word but since it’s a massive coding error, it proves that the human workers are not being made redundant by machines.
Carla: Accounting is numbers based and computers are ones and zeros so it’s a perfect marriage.
Joe: Exactly, so the fear in this movie is that you could easily and successfully replace an entire accounting department with automation.
Carla: But the reality is you can’t replace everyone.
Joe: That’s why I think the whole movie is one giant marketing exercise by IBM to make people feel more comfortable with machines in the workplace. The message of the film is that machines aren’t there to replace you, they’re there to help you; they’re augmented intelligence sitting beside you to free you up for more important tasks. My question is, how does this inform today’s anxiety around technology?
Carla: The equivalent fear today is the unknown impact of artificial intelligence as the technology becomes more sophisticated. When a machine can learn and correct itself then what does that say for the value of the worker?
Joe: I agree but I also think that it foreshadows our emotional relationship with technology in both our fears and love of technology. The first woman in Spencer Tracy character’s life is the machine, hence the love triangle with Katherine Hepburn. Miss Watson even tells Summner, “I could never compete” with the machine. In this sense, Her (2013) starring Scarlett Johansson would be the perfect companion piece, as it’s also about romance and our intimate relationship with technology. I guess my main takeaway is how the film addresses our intimate relationship with technology; the first thing we look at when we wake up and the last thing we check on at night, isn’t our loved ones, it’s our phones.
Carla: Her takes the next step that Desk Set couldn’t have imagined; how it affects your work life sure, but also how it affects your personal life. In Her, the operating system reorganizes all his files for him and gets him a book deal without him even prompting her. It’s the job she was designed for but she’s also emotionally invested in his success, like a romantic partner.
Joe: A big part of selling AI and automation is mitigating people’s fears of taking people’s jobs. However, even then there’s this caveat that, like with the industrial revolution, some people’s jobs are going to become obsolete. In Desk Set however, no one ever loses their jobs and the suggestion is framed as so absurd it’s part of the comedy. My favorite example of this is when the messenger boy is issued a pink slip and Miss Watson asks Summer if he’d invented a machine that could carry the mail?
Carla: Today an email or a text isn’t thought of twice as a threat but rather a more time efficient way to communicate.
Joe: That’s why I think it’s an important film.
Carla: You could translate that easily to restaurants today; ordering your food on a screen and not needing a server for 80% of the meal. But to wrap up this point can you talk about the Piet Mondrian mural from the opening credits with the IBM machine?
Joe: My understanding of Mondrian is that he had a very utopian vision with his work; the idea of two opposing forces coming together in synthesis. The IBM machine in the opening credits stands on top of the Mondrian mural, in juxtaposition and in unity. In a romantic comedy one of the conventions of the genre is two opposing personalities coming together through the marriage plot.
Carla: You could also think of it as companies needing creativity AND technology for innovation; that’s what the opening image says to me. It’s a broadcasting company with a reference department in which script writers, etc. call up to fact check. Reference can regurgitate just like a machine but there are different types of questions that can’t all be answered simply with numbers and historical facts. In order for a question to be answered correctly reference provides follow-up questions to make sure what you want is fully understood and will guide you when you’re not sure. That’s where reference is so valuable. Even with linked-data you still need the human element.
Joe: There’s a Gary Kasparov vs. Deep Blue moment where they match the memory recall of Miss Watson’s against the machine regarding the exact dollar amount of the financial impact of a tree fungus on the US economy; the machine wins. That’s also the Terminator moment BTW.
Carla: That’s the whole argument that IBM is banking on in the film. The machine wins by finding facts within a minute where it took reference three weeks to answer the same question. The machine is valuable because it frees up two weeks and four days of the reference staff’s time to move onto a more complicated questions, therefore increasing their ability to serve more users.
Joe: Ok, so the lesson of Desk Set in 2018 is; even if you think something can’t be replaced by technology, it probably can so hold onto your butts. I think that’s a good place to wrap up. Final thoughts?
Carla: I love this film.
Joe: Me too. Thanks Carla, looking forward to next week’s film.