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"ELECTRONIC SERVANT TO MANKIND": Thinking about Libraries, Labor & Technology at the 1962 World's Fair

"ELECTRONIC SERVANT TO MANKIND": Thinking about Libraries, Labor & Technology at the 1962 World's Fair
photo credit: bequeathed.com

 

Recently in the course I’m teaching, we discussed Greg Downey’s “The Librarian and the Univac: Automation and Labor at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.” It’s an excellent piece about the politics of labor and technology at LIBRARY 21, an exhibit organized collaboratively by the American Library Association and—wait for it—the United States Air Force. In addition to more traditional (though often tech-packed) spaces like Children’s World and a teen-focused Learning Resource Center, the exhibit featured a UNIVAC computer programmed to spit out quotations from famous books, reference lists targeted to specific demographic cross-sections, and other (dubiously useful) information. 

While searching for material to teach alongside the article, I came across this story of a scrapbook discovered then deconstructed. The book recorded one family’s road trip through the Pacific Northwest in 1962, including a stop at the World’s Fair. The person who discovered the scrapbook sold some of the material but passed on other bits to various people and institutions. Imagine my delight when it turns out that not only is some of the material from the scrapbook from LIBRARY 21 but that it was donated to the American Library Association Archives, located right here at the University of Illinois. (My students will be using the ALA archives for their research project, so this was an opportunity to discuss not only the sources but questions of their provenance and the ways archives organize and make them available.)

My favorite of the LIBRARY 21 documents—all print-outs from the UNIVAC, the others provide information about specific countries—is the one picture above, which adds even more layers to Downey’s argument about the problem of supposedly labor-saving technologies (hint: they really do no such thing). Titled “THE COMPUTER……..ELECTRONIC SERVANT TO MANKIND,” the print-out reads:

IN THIS EXHIBIT YOU HAVE SEEN HOW A SALE RECORDED ON A CASH REGISTER WILL FLOW THROUGH AN ELECTRONIC SYSTEM IN WHICH MACHINES READ HUMAN-LANGUAGE PRINTING AND IN WHICH MACHINES TALK TO ONE ANOTHER. THESE SAME PRINCIPLES ARE BEING APPLIED TO EVERY LINE OF BUSINESS, SCIENNCE, AND GOVERNMENT TO HANDLE THE WORLDS MOUNTAINS OF PAPERWORK.

THE COMPUTERS OF TODAY ARE OFF-SPRING OF SEVERAL GENERATIONS OF ELECTRONIC-ANCESTORS. BY THE TIME THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY ROLLS AROUND, THEY WILL HAVE CHANGED IN APPEARANCE AND DESIGN TO A POINT WHERE THEY WILL BEAR LITTLE RESEMBLANCE TO THEIR PRESENT DAY COUNTERPARTS.

THIS IS NOT TO SAY THAT TODAY’S COMPUTERS ARE NOT PRACTICAL…NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH. IF IT WERE NOT FOR THESE MARVELOUS TOOLS, MAN WOULD NOT BE MAKING TODAYS TREMENDOUS ADVANCES IN SCIENCE, MEDICINE, EDUCATION, TRANSPORTATION, PRODUCTION, MARKETING, AND DATA PROCESSING.

OPERATING AT SPEEDS WHICH STAGGER THE IMAGINATION, COMPUTERS SOLVE PROBLEMS THAT WOULD TAKE MANY YEARS TO SOLVE…THEY ENABLE PEOPLE IN MANAGEMENT TO OBTAIN FACTS ABOUT THEIR BUSINESS IN TIME TO BE USED MOST EFFECTIVELY…THEY TAKE THE DRUDGERY OUT OF RECORD-KEEPING…THEY ELEVATE THE ROLES OF PEOPLE IN BUSINESS TO A PLACE WHERE EMPLOYEES CAN CONTRIBUTE MORE OF THEIR TALENTS TO THEIR INDIVIDUAL JOBS…THEY HANDLE THE REAMS OF PAPERWORK THAT FLOW THROUGH THE WORLDS BUSINESS HOUSES…THEY HELP THE SCIENTISTS DESIGN NEW AND BETTER PRODUCTS…THEY SERVE AS VALUABLE TOOLS IN DEFENSE, SPACE, AND MILITARY ENDEAVORS.

IN SHORT, THE COMPUTER IS MORE THAN JUST ANOTHER RECORD-KEEPING MACHINE…IT DOES MORE THAN PROCESS DATA. THE COMPUTER IS AN ELECTRONIC-SERVANT, SERVING MANKIND…MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE IN WHICH TO WORK…A BETTER PLACE IN WHICH TO LIVE.

THIS REPORT WAS PRINTED IN JUST 4 SECONDS.

I’m particularly fascinated by the way that, in the midst of brave-new-world boosterism (“THESE MARVELOUS TOOLS,” “TREMENDOUS ADVANCES”), the print-out maps new human-computer interactions onto a much older master-servant relationship. Plus ça change, and all that.

This report was posted in only 4 seconds.

[co-posted on bookmobility.org]

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