Sunday, April 8, 2012

Anxiety Goes to the Movies: The Desk Set

So my TiVo recently decided that I'd be interested in watching classic movies. Over the years it's become quite the prescient device. As usual, it's recent choices have been right on the money in terms of giving me interesting things to think about.

I recently curled up on the couch to watch Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy star in the film "Desk Set"  (directed by Walter Lang). Here is the original film trailer for the movie which was released on May 1, 1957.

The machine that could replace everyone except a woman like Katie (aka Bunny Watson) was what really stood out to me about this movie. Here is a scene where Katherine Hepburn matches wits with Miss Emmy the computer, a modern miracle cloaked under a metal skin.

The movie got me thinking about how films provide us a way to work out some of the cultural anxieties that are embedded within the Zeitgeist of any particular era. Here in the Desk Set, at the dawn of the computing era, office workers fear the oncoming obsolescence of their jobs due to the modern marvel known as Miss Emmy (which was the stylized Hollywood version of the first computer, UNIVAC).

Bunny Watson prevails in the end of the movie, of course, and the computer proved to be no match for the problem solving skills of an actual person. Bunny, however,  has not exactly prevailed across time. The vision set forth in this movie--masses of information being transformed into electronic information and made available to nearly anyone with an internet connection (keeping in mind pay-walls and many scholarly resources kept locked within private university systems).

Have you noticed how much misinformation flies across the internet? Information moving across the world at near instant speeds comes with misinformation moving at the same rapid pace. We still need Bunny Watson to be there (be it a librarian, a journalist, a scholar, or a critical thinker) analyzing information and vetting it for its veracity.

At lot of people like Bunny Watson have gone obsolete. Hidden within this movie, for me at least, was the notion that while some specific jobs become obsolete, people do not. We adapt, we grow, and we discover new ways to create (hopefully assisted with new technologies and devices). We also remain remarkably afraid of change--and resistant to it too.

Before I digress into my own nostalgia, check out this article on using the movie Desk Set to teach computer and society issues.

The movie also made references to some of the jobs that indeed died with modernization. Research departments skill exist, that's for sure. When is the last time you saw someone (other than yourself) operate an elevator? We see one briefly in the movie. I've seen elevator operators too--though now for a long time. As a young child growing up my family and I would frequently go to the fancy downtown shopping stores during the Christmas season. I loved taking the antique wooden escalators from floor to floor. I'd also eagerly anticipate the trip up to the top floor where the Christmas display (and Santa!)..or an Easter display (and a Bunny!) was located. Our trip would be in an elevator complete with someone dressed up in an elevator operator costume. I believe that person was just there for nostalgia.

Speaking of nostalgia. Today being Easter, here I am at age 6 and 3/4 with the Easter Bunny. I can't remember which downtown department store this particular event occurred. I do remember the event being a mixed bag--we got to go somewhere exciting (downtown, with all the fancy buildings and department stores) but the food was less than satisfactory (the eggs were runny, always, and I was a fussy eater). I have a feeling there will be a comment on this blog soon enough informing us all where this picture was captured.

While I'm waxing nostalgic, how about this image taken when the Irreverent Psychologist was a mere six months old? I'm on Santa's lap at the old Halle's Department Store. This is likely the first image of me ever appearing with Curious George, who happens to be my favorite childhood character.

Check out this companion blog post for a series of great videos of the history of shopping in Downtown Cleveland. If you are curious about food in Cleveland, check out And Then We Ate.

 When I was a young adult living in New York City, I'd occasionally encounter an elevator operator. The building I lived in on Times Square had an elevator operator--sort of. A security guard would open the elevator door for residents--and demand identification for everyone else.

I'm going to wander for a bit more here, since this is my blog and I can wander as much as I'd like to. Here are some clips of elevator operators worth watching.

There are of course other depictions of elevators operators. Perhaps some of you remember this one?

And then there are more difficult stories about elevator operators, like this one which looks at the futility and power of hope:

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