“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.
4.8: The Loss of Lois
— Danny Horn