Machines Should Work, People Should Think

IBM commissioned Jim Henson, later the hand behind the Muppets, to make a film promoting the MT/ST, an early word processor. Like other IBM promotional films including Charles and Ray Eames’ ‘The Information Machine’ ten years earlier, ‘The Paperwork Explosion’ promised that these labour-saving devices in the office would liberate their users to engage in more productive and creative activities. If paperwork could be given over to self-regulating and self-operating machines, people would be free to ‘think’. ‘Think’ was of course the one-word slogan coined by the company’s founder, Thomas J. Watson, in the 1920s. Like an injunction, it was inset into buildings and publications as a kind of order from above. The question of what to think was never expressed. ‘Thinking’ was enough.

Henson’s 1967 film is a strange object. Office workers express the IBM mantra in a montage of quick cut images. Staring directly to camera and speaking with deadpan voices, they start and finish each other’s sentences like the brand-washed drones in some kind of sci-fi movie. The same sentences are repeated over and over. (Donald Pleasance’s disturbingly calm character in ‘THX 1138’ (1971) comes to mind). This sinister effect is amplified by Raymond Scott’s electronic sound track. These ad hominem passages are interrupted by explosions which fill the air with clouds of paper.

One character stands out. Dressed neither in the office uniform nor framed by workers, an elderly man in a garden or farm talks ‘naturally’ to camera. The message is IBM’s but the words are his own. He seems to be the only free human in this corporate universe.


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