Superman III 4.7: Ones and Zeroes

“Computers probably aren’t for everyone,” said the cover story to the August 1983 issue of a magazine called Personal Computing, for fuck’s sake.

“It seems unlikely,” they continue, “that every person in America, let alone the world, will find it necessary or cost effective to own or use a computer for storing and manipulating large amounts of data.” So that turned out not to be the case.

But to be fair, that was an accurate description of the machines that they were writing about in 1983. The tiny computer that lives in your pocket and holds all of your pictures, music, and indiscriminate sex apps is very far away from the bulky, clunky machinery that they were using back then. If you wanted to use a computer in 1983, you needed to invest time in reading a book, or taking an “introduction to computers” class, where they would teach you new definitions for words you thought you already knew, like monitor, and memory, and fatal error.

Kids adapted pretty easily, as kids tend to do — they’d been playing video games for years, and a home computer was just an arcade game that took forever to load and only displayed in one color. But a lot of adults in the early 80s didn’t think that “storing and manipulating large amounts of data” was a thing that they would ever need to do.

The media buzzword was “Computerphobia”: the fear that using a computer was boring and time-consuming, and would make you feel stupid if you even tried. The graph below is from an Atlantic article; it’s Google Books’ reckoning of how many times the word “computerphobia” was used in publications over the years. As you can see, the concept peaked in 1986, and then took forever to go away.

I was looking up “computerphobia” material to get a feel for how average people thought about computers at the time, and I found Computer Talk, an absolutely insane syndicated newspaper column from 1983 which basically does nothing but disparage computers.

Here’s the beginning of a Computer Talk entry from spring 1983, called “Computers can be incredibly stupid“:

Give your computer a nickname and you’ll have less trouble with it. Choose the kind of name children sometimes hang on classmates, like Dumbo or Bag of Bolts. Right away, ‘Bag of Bolts’ sounds less fearsome than ‘DEC PDP-11 microcomputer’.

Unlike bright people, who often plunge recklessly ahead before they understand the logic behind something, slow learners have to get all the facts and instructions straight before they start something. So do computers.

After an example of how the writers got their own “Bag of Bolts” to sort a list of numbers correctly, they describe a training program that’s trained “5,000 word processing operators” for a temp company.

Margarita explains, “First, we use people-oriented trainers, not computer experts. And we work 1 on 1 on 1: one trainee, one trainer, and one machine. No classroom sessions for us.”

Margarita knows that preliminaries such as films, books and tapes don’t help. Instead, they make trainees wary that the computer is some complicated ogre. “We sit ’em down at the computer right away.” That proves to trainees that Olsten isn’t afraid they’re going to hurt the computer, or worse, get hurt by it.

Olsten’s trainers spend only two hours breaking in new recruits. Then each trainee spends 10 hours in self-managed instruction and four hours on practice drills. After 16 hours — no more than four hours on any day — Olsten’s trainees are certified to run a word processor.

So it does kind of make sense that the authors of Computer Talk would want to cut the computer down to size — if you need a 16-hour training with 4 hours of practice drills just to start using a single program, you’re bound to have some built-up resentment that needs to get expressed somehow.

That being said, there is really no excuse for the hit piece they wrote in fall 1983 called “Computers a school necessity? Nuts!

Parents and teachers are in a panic, we’re told by our sensitive barometer, reader mail. Letters are pouring in from parents asking what computer to buy a 9-year-old so she can learn programming and not lag behind in the job race 10 years from now. School board committees are begging fast advice on the best computer to stick in every classroom.

Once cause of the panic is a flood of books and articles by educators who’ve fastened onto the nonsense term “computer literacy.”

!!!

It’s true, computers are becoming as commonplace as cars and TVs. But have you heard of a school that started driver education in kindergarten so students wouldn’t fear cars at age 18? You’re afraid of computers because you lived without them so long. Few of today’s children will fear them even if you never put a computer in your home or school.

Educator/author Herbert Kohl calls classroom computers “the world’s most expensive flashcards.” Educators Jack Chambers and Jerry Sprecher studied 13 research reports and found no agreement on whether computer-assisted instruction helps kids learn.

They end up advocating against a proposed law that would give computer companies a tax break for donating computers to schools, and insist that learning to use a computer will make no difference in college or the job market.

So that’s where we’re at, in 1983: people were writing newspaper columns actively suppressing the use of computers in school. All those secretaries needed special training to become word processing technicians, but for most people, it was a waste of time and money.

So that’s the background for the choices that Superman III makes about how to cover this hot-button topic. Computers are presented as necessary and inevitable — the systems that Gus hacks into later in the film make the world run more smoothly — but they’re also mysterious, and potentially sinister.

Here’s how the script describes the first scene with Gus at work, in the Webscoe computer room:

The room we enter is one of those enormous computer centers. Along the walls are the massive data consoles, their tape decks alternately rolling and stopping. Other machines extrude massive print-outs. In the center of the room are desks, one after another, with small table-top computer consoles, the sort that are operated from a keyboard.

VARIOUS WORKERS are seen doing their jobs, including the ones operating the keyboard computers. They move rapidly around in a curious and unique fashion: each WORKER sits on a chair that has ball bearing wheels and they propel themselves from terminal to terminal by skittering around without leaving their chairs. To facilitate this action, they all wear white tennis shoes, which grips the floor for maximum purchase. The impression we get is one of robot-like humans zipping around from machine to machine.

We don’t get that dance scene in the film, which is a shame, because it could have been beautiful. The actual scene has people on swivel chairs moving between terminals, but it doesn’t show them moving in rhythm to create a larger visual pattern; they’re treated like the standard busy-office background to a conversation between Gus and a co-worker. It’s possible that Richard Lester had to find a real computer center to shoot the scene in, and discovered how mundane they were.

But that was a real fear at the time: that using computers would make us more robotic, stifling human nature and bending us to their mechanical will.

In fact, Christopher Reeve said exactly that to Omni magazine in August 1983, while promoting the film:

“Ultimately, computers can be a destructive force that prevents people from relating to one another. Computers are misused in Superman III by certain bad elements who are trying to take over the world.”

But is there an anti-technological bias present in the film?

“There certainly is from Richard Lester’s point of view. One of the premises of this movie is that as we move into the future and towards high tech we must try not to move away from people. Getting a machine to do all our work for us isn’t necessarily a good idea.”

The idea was that people who interact with computers would become more like computers: efficient, logical, and unemotional. It sounds amazing, doesn’t it?

Because, damn, I would like to give that reality a shot. What’s actually happened over the last forty years is that we’ve welcomed computers into every facet of our daily lives, and we are no more logical or efficient than we ever were. There was never really a chance that we would become like computers; that’s not what humans do. The problem is that the computers have become like us, amplifying everything that’s good and bad in our nature.

I have to admit, I kind of miss the idea that people need to take 16 hours of training before they’re qualified to operate a computer. Just imagine how nice that would be.

Tomorrow:
4.8: The Loss of Lois

Chapters

— Danny Horn

18 thoughts on “Superman III 4.7: Ones and Zeroes

  1. Back in my day, at the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius, it took a whole semester to learn how to make punch cards for the computers of the time. When my son was in grade school I typed in endless lines of Basic on his TRS-80 computer because I typed more quickly. My brother-in-law, who was seriously involved with computers in the 1980s, assured me that would be unnecessary in the future and he was right. Still, in 1991, my local library had one computer that you had to take a computer literacy test to use and once you passed you were rewarded with Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? Very anticlimactic.
    For good or ill, I would not go back to the Before Times. Without computers I would never have found The Works of Danny Horn.

    Liked by 5 people

      1. It would be great if Danny also looked at the Superman comics where he teams up with the TRS-80 Whiz Kids, who help him solve disasters using their (wait for it) TRS-80s!

        Liked by 3 people

      2. My dad had a Commodore 64. Which turned me into a Luddite for many a year–those things were designed by programmers for programmers, and made the majority of users feel like idiots.

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  2. My husband at the time was an electrical engineer. He had programmed computers with punch cards in school. He built his own computer before the PC came out. He bought a Compaq computer. I worked in a law library. We bought a modem, one that you stuck a phone into, and connected into legal research data bases. We bought PCs as soon as they became available and used them. I remember my ex being practically giddy when he was able to purchase a hard drive that held 30 MB (mega bytes) of data. How would we ever fill that up? The world was a different place, but for many reasons, I was living on the cutting edge. It was a wild time. So much has changed.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. In that year of 1983, I was working at a computer store. One day I had to install a PC at a government office and explain the concept of DOS. Imagine the blank faces. If you’ve never used a computer, it’s a daunting task to become literate. Imagine someone who’s lived decades without ever touching a computer.

    I could write a book about those days (and I’ve started it already). We always got a laugh out of the way Hollywood depicted computers. Talk about illiterate!

    I’m torn about whether the bar is too low to become a user. Good: anyone with patience and a system can learn to code, so there are no gatekeepers. Bad: anyone can learn to code, so there are lots of bad actors.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I too lived through the era you’re describing, and was at first a Luddite supreme. I was extremely irritated by the full-page newspaper ad for one of those how-to courses which presented a few lines of Basic code and then, in large letters, “If you can’t read this, you just became illiterate.” If I’d known about those anti-computer magazines, which I did not, a few well-chosen articles from such would have been balm to my soul. I was converted to pro-computer feelings by a friend who pointed out the capacity for fast, easy revisions on a word processor; I immediately went straight from a manual typewriter to a TRS-80, skipping the tedious intermediate steps of an electric typewriter and those things that allowed you to change the last six words or so before typing them out. (ElectrONic typewriters??)

    But one part of the 1983 predictions proved true. Computer people, and the industry that was trying to sell the new personal computers to us, got way over-the-top excited about how everybody would become a computer PROGRAMMER. Hence the irritating ad copy I quote above. But absolutely not; many have, as Ralph says, but what has really happened is that everybody has become a computer USER. Most people use computers as a hugely useful and varied tool, not caring about how the tool is produced and maintained. Still not illiterate, therefore; computer “literacy” now mostly means being able to use one, not program it, right?

    And of course it has brought about the joy and pleasure of laughing at movies and other story media that think they’re being up-to-the-minute in their treatment of technology, but succeed only in losing their relevance and accuracy in months, not years. We are about to enjoy such a pleasure here, obviously.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I, too, skipped directly from using a vintage 1940’s manual typewriter to using MS Word on an IBM PS/1 Consultant.

      When I was taking a Novell networking course in the 1990’s, the instructor expressed an aversion to the phrase “Computer User.” He cited the analogous descriptive term “Drug User” and told the class he thought that the {Noun} + “user” nomenclature equated those two groups of people in a derogatory manner.

      I thought he meant that it was insulting to recreational drug users to equate them linguistically with computer nerds. Later I learned it was for him the other way around.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. and those things that allowed you to change the last six words or so before typing them out. (ElectrONic typewriters??)

      Had one of those in college! It drove me nuts because it was designed for someone who understood computers, not typewriters, but it was better than trying to use the computer lab, where the damn things would happily devour the paper you’d labored three hours on (the frantic scramble for floppy discs to save work every hour when they rebooted is burned in my brain.)

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  5. I marveled when I found out that one of the hottest actors in Hollywood would be playing a computer jock in this movie. “SEE Richard Pryor sitting quietly at a desk! THRILL as he reads a screen! Feel your pulse POUND as he types! GASP as he rummages around for the correct manual!” Absolutely brilliant use of a four million dollar talent.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Thanks for the reminder of how things were in the good olde days of 1983, when this movie came out. I cannot remember if I was computer-literate enough at the time to roll my eyes at time.

    Didn’t Gus learn about the computer training course he took from the back of a book of matches?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah. That must have been some course to not only teach him how to use and program computers but also give him enough engineering knowledge to draw up the plans for the super-computer that could do anything, including (almost) beat Superman.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Here’s the beginning of a Computer Talk entry from spring 1983, called “Computers can be incredibly stupid“:

    Ha! That reminds me of my favorite computer article of all time that was in a (1986?) Harvard Lampoon parody of USA Today with an article titled “Artificial Intelligence is Real Bullshit”. It basically said that computer scientists realized that computers had been pulling a fast one on us and really weren’t very smart, quoting one as saying, “Artificial Intelligence is bullshit, and now, so are we!”. Some telltale hints included:

    Computer trying to distract you with a “digital light show” on its monitor
    Computer refusing to answer, telling users “You already know the answer!” or “What do you think the answer is?”
    Computer offering you discounted vacation package deals.

    Wow, I need to find a copy of that someday, but I guess it looked too much like an authentic issue of USA Today, so they’re rare.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Ahhh, computers. The Kryptonians of our society: mysterious, powerful, controlling all aspects of our lives, yet without enlightenment or wisdom.

    The computer age sealed us all in that space crystal and shot us into the universe, and most of us were just as helpless as baby Kal El in their grip. Who knew where we’d end up, once we could turn knowledge to bytes and communication to tweets? So much power, so much potential…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. My two bytes worth.

    Vocational school in my last 2 years of high school. A ‘computer lab’ with 1960s era card punch machines; the Hollerith Code was the all, ANSII COBOL was going to be what the successful job seeker must know. An IBM System 10 Model 3 with removable hard drives the size of pony kegs, a printer roughly the size of a refrigerator, and two – – TWO tape drives.
    This was the future, people! Okay, there were three or four workstations with CRT terminals, and (ultra- ultra- futuristic) one IBM 4752 Dual Datastation that used floppy disks, but everything else was geared toward the almighty punch card, boxes and boxes and boxes of them. Oh, the heartbreaking feeling of dropping that carefully-made stack of cards on the way to the reader! Damn, just trying to save time by fanning, flexing and joggling while you were walking! The murderous wait while the computer ate the cards and blinked its lights and cogitated and printed sixty lines of… WRONG WRONG WRONG data. Back to your desk with the worthless green-and-white sheets of printer paper to try and figure out where your program was buggy. GIGO (garbage in garbage out, if you don’t know).
    And finally the nerdgasmic moment when the paper spat into the tray and O Heaven! A neat column of numbers and letters, alphabetically ordered, all the mathematical information correct! That job at Bell Telephone would be yours for the asking, six figure salary and corner office!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. One of my favorite middle grade novelists is Gordon Korman, a Canadian who published his first book when he was 14. He’s pushing 60 now and still at it, but those early books are still his best, especially a series called “Bruno & Boots” about a smart aleck schemer and his nervous best friend.

    The absolute best one is The War with Mr. Wizzle, published in 1982. The premise of this book – which was, again, written by an actual 18-year-old, albeit a dork who wrote middle grade novels instead of talking to his peers – is that a new teacher is going to make them use a computer in class, and they’ll never have any fun at school again because computers are boring.

    It’s a genuinely hilarious book, but also a fascinating artifact of that moment in history. Eventually, of course, Korman realized that every kid loves computers, so he rewrote the book in 2003 so Mr. Wizzle’s plan is to use computers for classwork only. I haven’t read that version, but I’m sure it’s a lot less interesting.

    Anyway, that’s what this post reminded me of, a book I loved in 5th grade.

    Like

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