By Joe Ferguson
Earlier this year PBS and the New York Times ran stories on the impact of outsourcing human labor to technology. Opinions are mixed. Some experts predict a future where people, unburdened of tedious physical labor, will be able to pursue more intellectually-enriching pursuits and countless recreational activities. Others see a future filled with huge swaths of unemployed laborers.
In the mid-20th century, futurists were optimistic about the trend. For instance, in a 1967 TV broadcast Walter Cronkite said, “Technology is opening a new world of leisure time. One government report projects that by the year 2000, the United States will have a 30-hour work week and month-long vacations as the rule.”
That didn’t work out, and recent forecasts are not so upbeat. The Associated Press asserts that millions of middle-class jobs have been “obliterated by technology.” Oxford researchers project that 45% of US jobs are vulnerable to computerization. These dystopian predictions are not new, however, and they have been revisited in a revival of William Marchant’s 1955 play, The Desk Set.
You may be familiar with the 1957 rom-com starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, but it was originally produced for Broadway and featured actress Shirley Booth. Though 60 years old, the work contains surprisingly relevant themes.
The play opens in the Reference Department of a large broadcasting company in downtown Manhattan. Four very-competent researchers handle a bevy of desperate callers needing all manner of information. A methods engineer enters and begins to tape measure the dimensions of the office, raising concern among the researchers--the women are aware that there have been large layoffs in the payroll and accounting departments since the company installed an electronic brain called EMERAC (short for Electro-Magnetic Memory and Research Arithmetic Calculator).
Bunny Watson, the manager, goes to bat for her department saying the job they do could not be done by an electronic brain. The methods engineer, Richard Sumner, is convinced otherwise, and continues his efforts. Romantic tension is introduced in the part of Abe Cutler, a shy, conflicted coworker pursuing Ms. Watson.
The romance cools, but the efforts of Mr. Sumner escalate and the EMERAC is installed. The ending is a bit different than the 1957 film, so I encourage you to see the play if you are able. Needless to say, this is not a new piece, so there is no spoiler here--the women keep their jobs, as the research they do is too complex for the electronic brain.
The piece was humorous, engaging, and touched on many timely themes--outsourcing, gentrification, and women’s roles in the technology industry. The cast and crew handled all things aptly, providing the audience with an evening of levity, romance, and a number things to reflect on.
The ending proved a bit saccharine for my tastes, but it echoed the optimism of the 1950s American workplace. It is in line, however, with the opinion of MIT economics professor David Autor who believes we are still far from the day when machines can do the complex physical and mental tasks that are easily and cheaply done by humans.
An easy--and comforting--interpretation of the piece would be to assume that because it’s been 60 years since this play premiered, and most workers have still not been replaced, there’s nothing to worry about. A more disquieting interpretation, however, would be to see the original play as a warning we didn’t heed, and that people have been, and are continuing to be, displaced by technology. Either way, we need to consider the consequences of technological advances, or the outcome 60 years from now may not resemble the ending of a feel-good, romantic comedy.
The Desk Set was performed by Bay Area theater company No Nude Men, and featured the acting talents of Megan Briggs, Andrew Calabrese, Alan Coyne, Lisa Drostova, Abhi Kris, Allison Page, Carina Lastimosa Salazar, Marissa Skudlarek, Jeunee Simon, Alejandro Torres, Kitty Torres, Nick Trengove. It was directed by Stuart Bousel.
The Desk Set is playing at the EXIT Stage Left Theatre in San Francisco.
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