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Desk Set Still Works Today, It’s All About the Fear of Losing Your Job


 Desk Set (1957) stars Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, but you could argue that the film’s third lead is EMERAC (Electro-Magnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator), a giant mainframe computer. EMERAC’s prospective installation in Bunny Watson’s (Hepburn) research department prompts fear that the “electronic brain” will replace the employees, like it has “thousands of people.”

It’s a postwar look at people’s jobs being threatened, in this case
by automation and computerization. After seeing EMERAC translate Russian into Chinese, Watson
tells the inventor of the machine, Richard Sumner (Tracy),
“Frightening. Gave me the feeling that maybe, just maybe, people were a
little bit outmoded.”

That fear is mirrored today by the anxieties American workers have
about outsourcing and their jobs going overseas — whether it’s
production going to China, journalism jobs migrating to India or
business processing heading to Mexico, the Philippines or Eastern
Europe. In Desk Set, Peg Costello’s (Joan Blondell) plaintive
cry of “He’s trying to replace us all with a mechanical brain!… That
means the end of us all!” resonates even now.

Of course, at the end of the movie — made with IBM’s cooperation
and assistance — it turns out that EMERAC (Emmy, for short) can’t
quite measure up to Watson and her staff. Intended to save 6,249 hours
a year of the research department’s time, it confuses the island of
Corfu with the poem “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight” and can’t figure out
if the King of the Watusis drives an automobile. Watson takes pride in
besting Sumner and his machine (“Let’s show him what people can do”),
but, this being a Hollywood concoction, she eventually makes peace with
EMERAC and takes Sumner at his word when he explains that Emmy’s
purpose is to “free the worker from the routine and repetitive tasks
and liberate his time for more important work.” That’s a line
executives are spewing even now — but workers aren’t accepting quite
as easily.

For a full schedule of Desk Set on AMC, click here.

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