imageHow long have the digital and the analog been at war in libraries? Longer than you might expect. This lesson was driven home to me in a fun little movie I watched the other night from 1957, thanks to Netflix. Desk Set, starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, combines the digital/analog battle with the battle of the sexes in a fun little romantic comedy that seems both quaint and timely from a modern perspective.

The movie is about the havoc wreaked when efficiency expert Richard Sumner (Tracy) gets a contract to automate the research department of a major television network. Bunny Watson (Hepburn), the librarian who heads up this network, is none too thrilled at the idea she could be replaced by a soulless machine, and by the climax of the movie the battle is well and truly joined.

The computer is an impressive beast combining real-life IBM equipment with Hollywood blinkenlights and the most ridiculous sound effects (that would later be reused in a number of other movies), but it actually doesn’t enter the picture until the last twenty minutes. Most of the movie up to that point is lighthearted fencing between Sumner and Watson as he literally sizes up the department (with a tape measure) and she in turn tries to size him up.

There’s the obligatory love triangle subplot involving Watson’s department head who’s kept her on the hook for seven years, and a comedy of errors when he catches Watson and Sumner together in her apartment for the most innocent of reasons. It’s all fairly amusing, but not really consequential. The romantic subplot doesn’t have the swiftest of pacing.

But a more intriguing part of the movie involves Watson demonstrating her keen memory and research skills. In one memorable scene, as they eat lunch outside on a frigid balcony in New York in late November, Sumner peppers Watson with memory questions which she answers flawlessly by coming up with mnemonics on the fly. When the computer shows up, the hapless woman assigned to operate it is very shortly driven from the department as the human librarians prove to be more than a match for the computer brain.

The movie was made at a time when many workers were seeing factory automation start costing them their jobs, and at the same time computers were new and amazing things that were expected to revolutionize our daily lives. (They did, too. It just took somewhat longer than expected.) As such, Desk Set represents one of the earliest depictions of a quasi-realistic battle between humans with their analog paper books and machines with their digitized knowledge.

Although there are a lot of unrealistic expectations about how capable computer technology could be, some of them are surprisingly accurate. The computer is depicted not to be quite so great at looking up facts (Wikipedia, it’s not), but is terrific at calculating them based on things it already knows. It has no problems toting up just how much damage is done annually to American forests by the spruce bud worm, or the theoretical weight of the entire Earth—but when it comes to looking up what kind of car the King of the Watusi tribe drove, the computer produces incorrect information because the woman running the search doesn’t know the right question to ask.

In the end, the computer isn’t meant to replace the librarians, but to help them by doing repetitive research chores that would have taken up far too much of their time and effort to complete by themselves—again, a surprisingly modern understanding of the capabilities of computer information technology. But it’s also interesting to consider the congruences to e-books in the movie.

The librarians know exactly where to locate the information they need, from long familiarity with their bookshelves. To use a book metaphor, they know how to use an index. With e-books, on the other hand, you can’t easily just flip through the book to the right section—you may even have to run a key word search. And if you spell the word wrong, it will never find the information you’re looking for.

People who’ve come to love e-books swear by them with all the fervor of the newly-converted—just as Sumner and his assistant swear by their computer. But people who came up in the old ways prefer their paper books and wouldn’t dream of giving them up—as with Watson and her research librarians.

In the end we find—just as they find in the movie—that there’s still ample room for both. E-books aren’t going to “replace” paper books, nor is the computer seen in the movie going to “replace” the librarians. It just provides a useful alternative in certain situations.

When I mentioned to David I was going to write this review, he suggested perhaps generalizing from the gender roles in this movie to how men and women respectively feel about e-books, in potential disagreement with the figures cited in that Mother’s Day article I just posted. But on reflection, I don’t think that would really be useful. The movie is from a different era, in a time when digital data came out on dead tree matter too. There simply isn’t any congruence there. Besides, it wouldn’t be especially useful (and could be downright offensive) to generalize about men and women’s feelings about e-books in the absence of statistical data which the article I cited provided.

But speaking of gender roles, I do find it interesting to consider in light of women’s usual stereotype of mothers and nurturers. For all that the movie was made during one of the more sexist periods of recent history, note that almost all the women in the movie are cast in roles of guardians of tradition and the old ways—and more than that, they’re shown to be absolutely in the right in their contention that they can outdo a computer at their traditional research tasks. It’s the man who wants to disturb the old order and bring about new ways of doing things—that actually aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

And as long as we’re talking stereotypes, it was funny to consider that the film’s single unsympathetic woman, who was operating the computer in opposition to the librarians, was depicted as severe and unattractive, with her hair in a tight hairdo—whereas the team of research librarians, an occupation that traditionally gets the severe looks and tight hairdos, were all attractive and likeable. Especially Katharine Hepburn.

In any event, Desk Set is one of those movies where you can learn a lot about the present day by considering the attitudes of the past. And since it’s on Netflix, it’s readily available. Check it out yourself and see what I mean.


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