Tracy, Hepburn and IBM : An automation love affair [Film Review – Desk Set]

Is today’s automation revolution any more frightening than the last industrial insurgency? Having mastered physical labor and repetitive tasks, today’s real-time thinking machines threaten to outpace the human brain. It’s a race for processing power.

As mankind ponders a future where nearly every occupation is heavily aided by artificial intelligence, one film reminds us the surviving suspicion humans hold for the technology we ourselves create.

Classic story

Desk Set is a classic movie known for starring one of Hollywood’s favorite on-screen couples Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, but the backdrop for this romantic comedy provides a snapshot of automation trends in the 1950s. In the film, Hepburn and her all-female team of research librarians are convinced they’re about to be replaced by one of the first computers, EMERAC, designed by Tracy’s character Richard Sumner for IBM. Working for the Federal Broadcasting Network in Manhattan, Hepburn’s character Bunny Watson is based on the real life Agnes E. Law, an actual CBS research librarian (though the film’s office locale indicates FBN is likely NBC at Rockefeller Center). EMERAC, too, was inspired by real world computers — the first general purpose computer ENIAC, developed at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946, and the UNIVAC released five years later.

What piqued my interest in Desk Set was the opportunity to witness outdated fears of automation with prophetic assurance. For Watson and her crew, witnessing the first enterprise computing system enter their established workplace brewed a real sense of apprehension for their job security in an era where women were only beginning to gain a foothold in corporate America.

Same story, different day?

As the current generation faces its own firsts, fear of the uncertain returns for those humans questioning technology’s role in the near future. Historically machines have replaced physical labor, employed in factories and farms alike. Yet new machines are smart enough to make decisions on their own, refining cognitive skills to mimic human interactions, write novels and even diagnose patients.  Desk Set takes the viewer from start to finish in the corporate process of researching and implementing an AI tool from IBM, extending an opportunity to reflect on our very human reactions to progressive technology, particularly as IBM remains an innovative leader in the AI space with its flagship Watson platform.

There are plenty of other references worth noting throughout the film, starting with Hepburn’s character name Bunny Watson. Desk Set reviews on IMDb debate the name, saying “Bunny” wasn’t befitting a progressive figure like Hepburn, or her headstrong character. Less discussed is the surname “Watson”, a possible reference to famed IBM chairman Thomas J. Watson who turned the company into an international powerhouse and for whom the AI Watson platform is named. Yet the juxtaposition of an arguably diminutive name like Bunny and the specific use of Watson in the context of this film only highlights the tension and ultimate reconciliation between girl power and computing power.

automation AI 1950s computer deskset katharine hepburn

The relationship between man, woman and computer is also central to Desk Set’s plot line, as Sumner defers romance for a life dedicated to his true love Emmy, the nickname he’s given EMERAC. While the film depicts expected gender assumptions for Watson’s proficiency and knowledge of computers, Desk Set also heralds her for the specialized skill set as a researcher and introduces another female character, Miss Warriner, as the engineer responsible for EMERAC’s installation and maintenance.

While a lighthearted look into gender roles and office culture, Desk Set touches on several issues that were at the forefront of 1950s society and remain so in the 21st century.

See TCM for a comprehensive synopsis of the film, and Wikipedia for other points of interest.