bioephemera

This 1967 IBM propaganda film, “Paperwork Explosion,” couples an eerily deadpan refrain of “more time on paperwork,” with a creepy pseudo-country neighbor* urging us to embrace Progress.

The film’s frenetic soundtrack and abrupt transitions embody the familiar hysterical nervousness of an increasingly automated era, while striving the whole time to convince us that technology will relieve the pressures of the modern workplace, allowing us to “think” instead of “work”. Looking back, of course, it’s clear that technology instead cranked the pressure up. If writers like Nicholas Carr are to be believed, we’re thinking less the more technology we have; the machines are thinking for us. (Hello, Watson). So in one view, this film is not so much visionary or sinister as it is touchingly naive – and awesomely retro, of course.

I found this via Braniac, who found it at West 86th. Both blogs, particularly West 86th, have smart things to say about the metaphor of liberating explosive energy that underpins the piece. Ben Kafka’s reaction seems to have been similar to mine:

Yet we must not miss the ambiguity here. “Machines should work, people should think.” The message repeats itself several times; it’s the core of the film’s techno-utopian vision. We can imagine IBM executives and lawyers and public relations agents sitting across a table from Jim Henson telling him to make sure he includes these lines in his film. What if, following William Empson’s advice to readers of poetry, we shifted the emphasis just a little bit? From “machines should work, people should think” to “machines should work, people should think”? Is it possible that the film might be trying to warn us against its own techno-utopianism? Read this way, the film is less an imaginary resolution to the problem of information overload in the modern era than an imaginative critique of this imaginary resolution. Machines should work, but they frequently don’t; people should think, but they seldom do. (source)

Techno-dystopianism, techno-optimism: whatever strand you grab, a piece like this, viewed today, can’t help but seem both prescient and foolish in its idealization of the automated world, both subversively Luddite and blindly technophilic, because we haven’t decided yet whether we live in a utopia or a dystopia, whether (in Adam Gopnik’s brilliant summation) the Never-Betters or Better-Nevers are right. Who knows, really? People should think, but do they?

*Is it me, or is that neighbor like a crotchety uncle from a Wonderful World of Disney special who wandered onto the Prisoner set (or vice versa)? Who is he – a self-made outdoorsman in his homestead, or a postmodern prisoner in a theme park world where no one is allowed to work anymore – only think? Why is he so creepy? Argh!