What It All Means: Desk Set

One of my favorite movies growing up was Desk Set, a 1957 Hepburn-Tracy romantic comedy about a computer expert (Spencer Tracy) who is sent to a television studio’s library/research division (headed up by Katherine Hepburn) to install a massive ENIAC-style computer.   The movie revolves around the very current fear at the time that machines and computers would replace all human jobs.   It ends with a classic battle of humans vs. computers where they need to see who can answer the incoming questions quickest.  While the giant computer contains all of the information from all of the books in the library, it ends up being bested by the human library workers as they are better able to understand the questions being asked.  The computer, without the proper search terms or ability to make assumptions about the searches, spits out unrelated knowledge.  Despite the humans winning, the movie ends with a rather balanced (for the time) perspective that machines would assist people, not replace them.

One of the fascinating things about looking at that movie in retrospect is that the blueprint for Google’s massive success was all laid out back in 1957.  Anyone who remembers the internet in the early Lycos or AltaVista days remembers what searches used to be like, and how many times it felt like the results were only marginally related to what was being entered in the search bar.  So while the information superhighway contained all world knowledge quite early on, it wasn’t really useful until a proper way to navigate it was found.  Google took all the data coming in it’s search engine and used that to develop intelligence in it’s searches so that it can predict what it is you probably are looking for (as opposed to what you actually typed in).  This is why the simple search for “apple” has four links to Apple Inc’s pages before it gets around to a page about actual physical apples (I don’t suggest thinking about the implications of that for too long–I did and now I feel kind of weirded out).  I often like to try and remember the early internet and think about how I would have responded to anyone who would try to tell me that the most powerful company online in the future would be a search engine.  I probably wouldn’t have believed you as search engines always felt like a generic means to an end.  But what Google ultimately did was to take one more function away from humanity and give it to the machines.  It gave the machines the ability to understand the questions.

That, however, was not why I was originally thinking about Desk Set this morning.  I was thinking about that movie because of the earlier post this week about the transition from film to digital photography.  When every camera out there was film-only, that meant millions of rolls each year that needed to be processed, and billions of pictures to be developed.  Now that most people are moving to digital photography, that completely eliminates the roll processing.  As to the actual photographs, many people are content to display all their photos online and only print out a very select few, and of the ones who do that, many have their own printers in their homes that do a good enough job for them.  There already has been a decline in the amount of one-hour-photo shacks, and that entire industry is moving towards a niche professional/hobbyest market.  The machines have have replaced an entire industry–but when was the last time you heard anything about that?

The strange thing is that you don’t often hear alarmist talk of computers replacing people anymore.  These days you are more likely to hear that either immigrants or outsourcing are taking all the jobs.  Which, when you think about it in light of the Desk Set argument that the sterile impersonality of computers should never replace the dynamic human element, doesn’t seem that bad.  If all the good jobs go to immigrants or people overseas, they are still going to human beings.  Shouldn’t that comfort us somewhat?  But remember this is a tech blog, not a political blog.  So should we worry about industries going under because of obsolescence?   Should we worry that machines will replace human beings?  I’ll maybe tackle the second question in a later post.  For the first question, I leave you with Danny DeVito’s ‘buggy whip’ speech from Other People’s Money.


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