But the voice wasn’t speaking to me: the gruff Australian went on to state he knew every unit of pressure exerted on “my” 59-ton frame. He was talking to an oil rig, whose every shining surface was lovingly rendered in the expensive clip. It wasn’t that the Twitter algorithm didn’t care about me. My browser knew I’d been reading up on Watson, a cloud-based supercomputing service developed by IBM. The admen knew my gender and sexual orientation, too, which explains why I got the Watson ad with the butch Aussie, instead of the one about guide-dog puppies I had to find for myself.
IBM’s Watson first entered the public eye in 2011 when “he” defeated Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, two of the most accomplished champions ever to appear on Jeopardy! After showboating in primetime, Watson was put to work in the private sector, where his services are expected to earn untold millions and save IBM from financial ruin at the hands of Silicon Valley upstarts. Watson’s first jobs were in the medical sector, where his natural language recognition and massive consumption of medical trial and study data give him an encyclopedic advantage over the average human doctor. Press about Watson’s success in the clinic is generally enthusiastic and describes him as a tool that will make the profession more efficient by enhancing the speed and accuracy of medical diagnosis.
Meanwhile, other forms of automation in the health-care industry are rapidly mechanizing the rest of the doctor’s office, eliminating thousands of positions in reception and laboratories — jobs predominantly held by women. “All that will be left of the old doctor’s office” Forbes predicts, “is a doctor or a nurse who will read the chart and discharge patients or send them to a hospital for further tests and necessary procedures.” The savings associated with the cost-cutting efficiency of automated doctor’s offices will not be passed on to consumers, but will instead be retained by insurance giants. The era that IBM eagerly heralds as revolutionary for human health care is likely to be one that will involve fewer people and many more machines.
We’ve seen this movie before. In fact, some saw it 60 years ago, when 20th Century Fox released Desk Set (1957), a romantic workplace comedy directed by Walter Lang and starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. The office in Desk Set doesn’t belong to a doctor, but to a broadcasting corporation. The film’s villain, however, is a computer modeled on one of Watson’s ancestors. “Her” presence is what makes Desk Set a futurist text, one relevant to workers six decades later: the film foretold the threat that computer automation posed to the white-collar, middle-class workforce — especially to women — and to accuracy in the news media.
Film has long been concerned with automation: silent masterpieces like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) expressed early preoccupation with, and enthusiasm for, the power of technological innovation to transform human life. Toward the end of the classic Hollywood studio era, Desk Set became the first major motion picture to feature a computer in a leading role.
Desk Set was scripted by Phoebe and Henry Ephron from a 1955 play by William Marchant that ran on Broadway. Computers were still so rare and unfamiliar that the Desk Set crew required special consulting from IBM to get the details right. The opening credits of the film thank IBM for its cooperation in the film’s production: much like IBM’s Twitter ad campaign for supercomputing services, this was a remarkable feat of product placement for something that almost nobody could buy.
The adaptation casts Hepburn in one of her famous spinster roles as librarian Bunny Watson, the punchy chief of the reference department at the fictional Federal Broadcasting Company. Like the Jeopardy!-winning supercomputer, Bunny’s character takes her name from Thomas J. Watson, the longtime chairman and CEO of IBM. Tracy plays Richard Sumner, a consultant dispatched to study the efficiency of the reference department, which consists of Hepburn and three assistants. Miss Watson quickly discovers that Sumner is the inventor of an “electronic brain” machine: a massive mainframe called EMERAC, the Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator. Throughout the film, EMERAC is sometimes referred to as “Emmy,” and takes feminine pronouns. Bunny and her staff suspect that Emmy is being introduced to their department to automate and eliminate their jobs.
Most of the film transpires in the reference department, located on the 29th floor of the FBC’s New York headquarters. When Sumner first arrives, all three reference assistants are on the phone: Joan Blondell’s brassy Peg Costello, the “resident baseball expert,” fields a query about Eskimo nose-rubbing; the refined Miss Blair (Dina Merrill) advises a caller against naming lethal poisons on air; and the timid Miss Saylor (Sue Randall) quietly takes a call about a black velvet strapless dress she’s seen in a shop window. Together the women make up one of the on-call research and fact-checking teams that were once a vital organ in every major broadcasting and news organization — even though their work throughout the film is trivialized by the cute subject matter written into the script.
Sumner takes the liberty of showing himself around. After a slow stroll about the department, he produces a metal tape measure from his jacket pocket to take the dimensions of the space. The reference librarians stand together to watch him, unnerved. When he asks Miss Blair to hold up one end of the tape measure, she stares back and reports, “35-24-35,” using the tone of someone who’s gotten used to being visually groped. Sumner chuckles and replies, “And very nice, too.” He abruptly concludes his assessment.
Bunny blows in late to find Sumner waiting in her office. He’s noticed that his snooping has rattled the reference staff, so he discreetly closes the door to Miss Watson’s office once they’re both inside: “I didn’t want to mention anything in front of your staff because every time I mention what I do, people seem to go into a panic.” He tells Bunny that he’s a “methods engineer,” which she interprets as “efficiency expert” — but that, Sumner informs her, is an “obsolete” term. Taylorist efficiency experts were already familiar villains by the late 1950s, and the researchers know a consultant when they see one. But Sumner’s appearance in the reference library, far removed from areas of activity that might be automated, sets them on edge. They are, after all, cognitive laborers.
Rounding out the central cast, Gig Young plays Mike Cutler, Bunny’s debonair boss and would-be lover. Cutler is too hung up on his career to care much about Bunny, who’s already risen as high in the company as she’s ever going to get. His way of flirting with her at the office is draped in misogyny that openly acknowledges the unfair power dynamic that characterizes their relationship: “Bunny,” he teases, “everybody knows you haven’t got a brain in your head. You only keep your job by being nice to me.” This is meant to be funny because everyone in Reference knows the opposite is true: that if it weren’t for Bunny and, the viewer learns, her careful review of Cutler’s written work for his superiors, he’d never have a shot at ascending to the VP position he craves. He probably wouldn’t even be her boss.
Abroad, Desk Set’s other titles include The Knowledge Bureau (A tudás irodája, Hungary), His Other Wife (Su otra esposa, Spain), His Other Woman (England and Ireland), Woman Things (Cosas de mujeres, Argentina), The Woman Who Knows Everything (A Mulher Que Sabe Tudo, Portugal), Electronic Love (Amor Eletrônico, Brazil), and The Nearly Personal Assistant (A segretaria quasi privata, Italy). As this selection of titles suggests, the film indicates that midcentury labor relations opened new fronts in the battle of the sexes. Desk Set announces that it understands the injustices that made Cutler the executive and Bunny the capable woman who does his work without getting credit for it. But machine labor, and its potential to make cognitive workers obsolete, remains a threat too chimerical to be portrayed with total seriousness in 1957. Dread must be pinched between tongue and cheek.
Throughout the film, an upstairs-downstairs office culture prevents the employees from finding out Sumner’s real purpose at FBC. The researchers turn to morbid speculation about the future of their work while Miss Watson tries to put a brave face on things:
“Peg, Peg, calm down — no machine can do our job!”
“That’s what they said in payroll” — Peg retorts, where, she points out, half the department disappeared.
“Well the machine in payroll is just a calculator! They can’t build a machine to do our job. There are too many cross-references in this place. I’d match my memory against any machine’s any day — and yours!”
After nothing comes of it, the women in the research department settle into an uneasy familiarity with Sumner, although the sensation they’re being watched doesn’t fade: when a secretary calls down to Miss Blair for their regular coffee break, the latter resorts to speaking in code to indicate that she get away without Sumner noticing her absence. She has already internalized the threat of being declared redundant, and chooses to forgo inter-office camaraderie as result. Machines, after all, require no caffeine.
A month slips by, and suddenly it’s time for the office Christmas party: a day, it seems, when FBC’s corporate codes of conduct can safely be thrown out the window. Champagne flows, but it can’t drown Sylvie’s worries: “What do you suppose it will be like here next year, when we’re gone?” she caustically asks her co-workers. “Do you think EMERAC will throw a party?” Cheerfulness manages to prevail, and Miss Watson even flirts with Sumner, her hopes having come unmoored from the ever-more-distant Mike Cutler. Just as the merrymakers are popping off to the bar, a holiday surprise rudely barges in: “Mr. Sumner, I’m Miss Warriner from your lab. You remember me don’t you?” He doesn’t. Sumner doesn’t seem to recognize Miss Warriner, at least not at first, which suggests she’s just another female who doesn’t get any credit or respect at work. Warriner begins to survey the department aloud, making plans for rearrangements: EMERAC, she proclaims, will be installed the Monday after Christmas.
The giant mainframe’s panel of blinking lights and decks of whirring magnetic tape are already going full speed when Peg arrives for work sometime the following week. Warriner stands polishing EMERAC’s surface, which solicits an audible response from the machine: four tones that sound like dolphin speech in slow-mo. Sumner enters with the company president, Mr. Azae; they’re accompanied by members of the corporate board. “The purpose of this machine,” Sumner tells them, “is to free the worker from the routine and repetitive tasks and to liberate his time for more important work.” He tells the men that “every fact” from the books on the second floor of the reference library has already been “fed” to EMERAC. This idiom of devouring and consumption is one that reappears in the ads for Watson pushed by IBM on its Twitter feed: the Aussie in the oil rig ad explains that Watson “ingested” 38,000 documents “so every employee can instantly access 30 years of experience.”
When Sumner asks those assembled for a question to put to EMERAC, Bunny steps in with a stumper that took her team three weeks to answer. To the researchers’ dismay, EMERAC responds correctly in less than one minute. Moments after the suits depart, Kenny, the office pageboy, arrives with paychecks. Kenny informs the reference team that it will be his last time making the delivery. “Not you, too, Kenny!” Bunny cries out. The page says the rumor in the office is that the company is laying off staff in preparation for a merger. The women clutch their pay envelopes with trepidation: each of them, it turns out, contains a pink slip.
The film comes to its madcap climax in the next few minutes. The reference department quits answering the phones as soon as they have pink slips in hand, leaving the harried Warriner to fend for herself as they help Bunny pack up her office. Sumner arrives to find Warriner floundering. To make things worse, EMERAC overheats after Warriner, not understanding the difference between Corfu and “curfew,” accidentally prints out the entirety of Rose Hartwick Thorpe’s 19th-century narrative poem, “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight” — which, naturally, Bunny identifies immediately and begins to quote aloud from memory, leaving Sumner perplexed amid the din and chaos. After being scolded by Sumner for her “stupid” mistake, Warriner flees the library after blaming Bunny, screaming and pointing, for ruining everything.
Thus the researchers exact prompt revenge against Warriner and Sumner’s machine. But it turns out they needn’t have feared them. The EMERAC in payroll was simply on the fritz: as an irate Azae screams to Sumner over the phone from his office, while waving his own pink slip, it has fired everyone in the building. Sumner had already concluded that Warriner and EMERAC could never replace the crack team in Reference. “The human element,” he remarks, referring to Warriner’s blunders, makes computer research unpredictable and less reliable than a know-it-all (A Mulher que Sabe Tudo) like Bunny. In fact, Sumner tells her, the machines were projected to create new positions after the merger: “They’re putting on a few more girls,” he confides, “I just hope they’re as good as all you are.” Their jobs, in other words, were safe all along.
Two awkward marriages follow: human to machine, and Sumner to Watson. Sumner takes a call for a difficult query: on the other end of the line, someone wants to know the weight of the entire world. Taken aback, Bunny believes it could take weeks to determine the answer. Sumner smirks, and the two hit upon the same idea: why not ask Emmy? Miss Watson grins, sits down at EMERAC’s terminal, and starts typing. EMERAC chirps and tones out the answer in moments. A match has been made. Bunny returns to her office to begin resettling, now that she knows she’s not being fired. On his way to patch up the disaster in payroll — using one of Miss Watson’s hairpins — Sumner crosses paths with Mike, who’s carrying a dozen roses for Bunny. It appears Mike has decided to redouble his efforts to woo her. Sumner returns to the Reference department to ask EMERAC to determine whom Bunny should marry. The computer declines both suitors, but Bunny still ends up in Sumner’s arms as the final credits begin to roll on EMERAC’s giant monitor. Instead of well-wishers throwing rice, EMERAC spews papers into the air, a mechanical hissy-fit that results after Bunny throws the threatening red switch that Warriner told her never to touch. Damn the machine!
Desk Set was not a critical success. In 1957, the threat of automation appeared hollow to New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who complained that Hepburn was an unfair matchup for EMERAC: “The thought of having Katharine Hepburn as an intellectual competitor is one that should throw fear and trepidation into the coils of any mechanical brain. Miss Hepburn is obviously a woman who is superior to a thinking machine.” Crowther has a point. Before the pink slips arrive and after her victory over EMERAC, Hepburn’s Bunny is dismissive of the idea that any machine could to her job with the same level of efficiency, which depends on the spry recall of a middle-aged functionary’s cultural memory. (Hepburn would have turned 50 just four days before she opened the paper to read Crowther’s review.) But in the short interval in which she and the Reference associates believe they have been fired, Bunny and her staff are as bitter and resigned as the situation demands, even if they maintain their composure. They do not protest. Crowther connects this muted reaction to what he identified as the film’s chief flaw: the lack of any dramatic tension whatsoever. “It simply does not seem very ominous when they threaten to put a mechanical brain in a broadcasting company’s reference library, over which the efficient Miss Hepburn holds sway,” he writes, rejecting the premise of the film as far-fetched. In 1957, Crowther could not fathom the threat to news researchers posed by automation any more than he might have predicted near total collapse of the Detroit automakers.
Read 60 years later, Crowther’s quibbling doubts are quaint. In 1957, daily papers and television stations in most major cities had dozens of research librarians working in shifts almost round the clock. Their work was essential for ensuring accuracy in the news. In 2012, Paul Friedman reported in the Columbia Journalism Review that CBS’s entire news research staff was down to three full-time employees. Friedman tied this figure to an overall cut in global coverage, a consequence of the networks’ new preference for trivial and sensational “news-lite” about affairs such as gas prices, weekend weather forecasts, and feature interviews with celebrities. This shift was the result of a corporate branding decision that the networks undertook more or less simultaneously: as Friedman explains, the networks hoped to combat declining viewership with specialized newscasts tailored to each lead anchor’s personality. The resulting evening news broadcasts, while no longer nearly identical, became equally insipid. Observing a similar devolution away from ambitious investigative print journalism, CJR reported in 2013 that long-form news reporting, which for the sake of statistical comparison it defines as articles over 2,000 words, had declined 86 percent in the decade between 2003–2013.
It is too easy to blame watered-down news on market demand, which confuses cause with effect. The decline is owed at least as much to automation in the media sector, which progressively eliminated the research department in most news organizations. When journalists must work without the assistance of professional librarians trained to reduce the time required to do complex research and enhance the accuracy of published work, the field becomes less hospitable to thorough investigative reporting.
It was the research chops of Washington Post librarian Liz Donovan that helped Bob Woodward crack the Watergate cover-up. A colleague who worked for decades in Detroit newsrooms told me that at her city’s papers, research librarians were regarded with awe as data whizzes and respected for the crucial role they played in reporting and editing. Reference staff at the Detroit News worked in a magnificent wood-paneled research library that took up half a floor at the newspaper’s offices. The librarians attended editorial meetings and were paid on the editorial pay scale; they kept up with current events as well as with reporters’ deadlines, and often had records pulled and facts arranged in anticipation of calls from specific reporters about their assignments. “Google,” she wrote me, “was pretty much the end of them. They were laid off in stages where there were unions, quicker where there were none.” As research conducted in 2014 by former news librarian Michelle Quigley demonstrated, the profession has been aggressively cut at regional papers, and downsized or outsourced even at flagship dailies with a national audience, such as the Washington Post, one of the few papers that now increasingly pull the weight of the entire industry by maintaining its foreign bureaus and reporting on less popular beats. These cuts most directly affected women, as news librarianship and reference staff were predominantly female.
The decline of the news research library doesn’t mean that fact-checking research is dead — far from it. But the checks now come after the facts: desperate for clicks, even reputable news organizations seize on conspiracy theories and give airtime to wild speculations peddled by lobbyists who moonlight as commentators, all without bothering to get the facts straight first. Sometimes retractions still follow. But by then the cycle has moved on, propelled by corporate media’s tabloid lust for scandalous hearsay.
This has made real-time fact-checking, particularly of government officials and political pundits, into something of an imperative for investigative journalists. It’s a trend many years in the making, one that correlates to the consolidation of the news media into increasingly fewer and larger conglomerates. More than a year before Kellyanne Conway invented “alternative facts,” communications scholars Lucas Graves, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler presented a paper that described the rise, since 2011, of fact-checking as a commonplace journalistic genre unto itself. The paper’s authors define fact-check journalism narrowly, as “a style of reporting dedicated to assessing the truth of political claims.” They identify the launch of Factcheck.org (2003), Politifact (2007), and the Washington Post Fact Checker blog (2007) as exponents of a trend that has been accelerating since 2012. To use another example from an industry leader, The New York Times began to embed fact-checks within their online articles, as needed, in December 2015.
This mode of fact-checking assigns to journalists the responsibility of verifying the accuracy of politicians’ claims, and they usually must do so without the benefit of a news researcher to help them. There are no more capable Bunny Watsons or intrepid Liz Donovans: journalists must sit down to consult their own EMERACs to bring the facts to light, and often rely on crowd-sourced trawling of public data to get the straight dope. The first audience to learn of what journalists discover by exercising this scrutiny, and sometimes the only audience, are their followers on social media. Just as much as corporate conglomeration and market forces, this trend has paradoxically contributed to public distrust in “the media” by further politicizing its polarized, endogamous subgroups, ensuring that they continue to drift further apart. All of these developments helped fake and irresponsible “news” to gain credibility among an alarmingly broad swath of the public.
Of all of the industries that have been “disrupted” by computer technology, it is hard to imagine one more dramatically altered than the news media. The public and visible nature of the work, unlike that of, say, elevator operators, has made transformation of the industry into a public spectacle. No other industry was quite so well equipped to document its own demise. But the near collapse of journalism, and its disappearance from most small towns, is compelling for other reasons: it is perhaps the first and largest industry from within the much-vaunted “knowledge economy” to be killed off by fellow knowledge workers. Once a staple of the American landscape and cultural imaginary, the newspaper reporter is very nearly a thing of the past: a specialized, endangered, and almost exotic occupation — like an elevator operator, a reference librarian, or indeed, a film projector.
In Desk Set, viewers never find out what ever happened to the folks in payroll. Sumner fixes the EMERAC that fired the entire company, and no one mentions the possibility of rehiring the secretaries and accountants who used to make certain that everyone got paid what they earned. In the film, they remain an afterthought because they are not educated, middle-class workers like the ones in Reference or Legal on the 29th floor. Because they’ve already been laid off, they never appear on screen, but it is likely that payroll was mostly staffed by women. Although automation has perhaps never received as much media attention as it now does (to contradict President Trump’s claims that bad trade deals “kill” American jobs), it has been a constant force of downward mobility in many industries, especially those where women made inroads in work outside the home.
A film released three years after Desk Set, Billy Wilder’s 1960 comedy, The Apartment, apprehends this theme, albeit obliquely. In the film, Jack Lemmon’s C. C. Baxter doesn’t work in the news, but at Consolidated Life insurance agency. The enduring images from the film are scenes of the gigantic room where dozens of clerks sit clacking away at identical typewriters on small desks extending in rows and columns across the entire floor of a building. These scenes are intended to underscore how, despite the suits and skirts and the geometric, almost clinical office setting, the clerks at Consolidated are not performing labor that is different in any meaningful way from that of industrial manufacturing workers: this is a vast fluorescent factory of alienated clerical labor.
Shirley MacLaine stars as the spritely elevator operator Fran Kubelik. Fran’s job is part of her charm. By 1960, the automatic elevator had already become commonplace and made operators obsolete. Although automated elevators were invented around the turn of the century, it took a 1945 elevator operator strike to catalyze the transition to automated lifts and overcome fear of their “driverless” cabins. On its first day, the strike began with two locals of the AFL Building Service Employees International Union, which represented the elevator operators. These unions included firemen, doormen, porters, and maintenance staff, who struck along with the elevator operators. By the first evening of the strike, more than 16,000 workers had walked off the job. Garment workers and members of other tightly organized sectors refused to cross the picket lines, as did those who simply refused to hike dozens of flights of stairs to get to work. The scale and unique nature of the strike made it practically impossible to break, which meant that as many as 1.5 million New Yorkers stopped working for five days. As The New York Times reported, “The city took on a carnival air as the freed workers thronged bars, movie houses, and shopping centers.” But the strike inflicted a massive economic punishment on the city and “untold inconveniences” on some of its residents.
The astonishing power of organized labor in 1945 is nowhere to be found in contemporary American society, where the threat of offshore relocation haunts nearly every negotiating table: the workers don’t strike in the Free Trade Zones. Conventional wisdom holds that when industry vacated the premises across Middle America, it left behind the crumbling, burned-out factories that featured so prominently in the current president’s gloomy inaugural address. But in New York, the vanished factories left behind a gleaming array of skyscrapers and luxury condominiums: the temples of finance capital and dwellings of its priests. If today the elevator strike of ’45 seems like an event drawn from speculative fiction, it’s because it has already become one: Colson Whitehead’s 1999 novel The Intuitionist takes place in a New York where trade guilds, rather than banks, rule politics. The working-class elevator inspectors’ guild, having consolidated control over vertical mobility in the city, enjoys unparalleled power in this regard. The novel’s protagonist is called Lila Mae Watson — her surname a cipher for the technology that made the novel’s setting impossible.
Because in reality, things turned out differently. The War Labor Board, finding itself outmoded less than a month after Japanese surrender, proved unsuccessful at resolving the dispute, forcing Governor Thomas Dewey to broker the arbitration that ended the crisis. In response to their vulnerability and under pressure from corporate tenants, New York building managers abandoned their safety reservations and opted for automatic elevators.
As a result, the total number of elevator operators reported by the census peaked at 94,374 in 1950, having grown from 76,806 in 1940. By 1960, the figure had declined almost 19 percent below 1950 employment numbers. Obviously this was not due to a decrease in the number of elevators. Meanwhile, the percentage of women in the profession grew from 16.5 percent in 1940, to 30 percent in 1950, to 32.5 percent in 1960. It was both a declining and a feminizing profession. And it was not alone in this trend: over the course of the 1950s, several industries that experienced dramatic decline in an overall expanding economy also feminized, including tobacco manufacturing, textile production, and leatherwork. These declining industries were some of those most directly impacted by mechanized labor. As it became clearer that these jobs were unlikely to supply reliable long-term employment, men abandoned them to women. Likewise, the clerical factories of the midcentury began to fill with women as soon as they started to be automated out of existence by computers, with educated middle-class men having begun the exodus to IT and other computer-related professions.
So while Jack Lemmon’s clerical job in The Apartment is portrayed as degrading and a threat to his masculinity, the quaint uselessness of MacLaine’s job is part of what lends her role its whimsical femininity, a trait later associated with the now-infamous typology of the “manic pixie dream girl” identified by Nathan Rabin. A profession that 15 years earlier wielded enough power in labor disputes to paralyze the nation’s financial capital had become symbolic of the obsolescence that capital uses to threaten, punish, and humiliate labor.
Along with fake news, the now-familiar statistic that US manufacturing jobs have declined since 1979 is often proffered as an explanatory key for understanding What Happened in 2016. But pundits within the tech industry observe that the prized knowledge workers of today, particularly coders, are already fast becoming the fluorescent factory laborers of tomorrow. Recent projections from the World Economic Forum regarding automation foresee that women will continue to be the bigger losers as automation accelerates what it calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Futurists and AI technologists warn of the potential upheavals that await the West when technology, in collusion with the plutocratic class, does away with most middle-class jobs. Decades after Desk Set, the gap between corporate leadership salaries and that of their average worker yawns like never before. Today, no one who works for a corporation is so naïve as to think its Sumners and Azaes secretly have their backs. As the new proletarians grow restless, establishment politicians remain seated on their hands — but we know whose side they’re on. Watson’s forays into the health-care industry should be enough to warn the coders and technicians that they’re no better off than elevator operators, reference librarians, and the girls in payroll. We are all Luddites now.
Research for this essay was contributed by Jan, the assistance government documents librarian at San Francisco Public Library, who describes Desk Set as “one of the favorite films of the profession.”
Adam Morris is a writer and translator living in San Francisco. Recent essays and translations have appeared in BOMB, n+1, The Point, and The Believer.