"Computer." (Chug-chug-chug) "Working." Futures of Text, as Predicted by Star Trek, Rossum's Robots, and Gadget Salesmen

Proposal Title: 
"Computer." (Chug-chug-chug) "Working." Futures of Text, as Predicted by Star Trek, Rossum's Robots, and Gadget Salesmen
Presenter(s): 
Abstract: 

Over some five decades, the Star Trek franchise's depiction of human-computer interaction, via a dramatic-exposition-friendly voice interface. What was in the 1960s an imagined verbal precursor to the command-line environment (Kirk would typically invoke the the interface by saying "Computer," which would be followed by a chugging sound effect and the computer's response, "Working.) exists within the post-textual Flusserian future (in Does Writing Have a Future [2011], Vilém Flusser argues that writing is no longer necessary as a medium of intellecutal expression, because everyting that can be written, and much that cannot be written, can already be mediated in other forms). What insights can we gain about the future of composition when we study how science fiction and speculative marketing have depicted the creation of texts in the future? Our present-day awareness of this tension invites us to consider how the tension between the new affordances imagined by speculative storytellers (including the 1921 play Rossum's Universal Robots) and the new ways of consuming and controlling promted by corporate marketers (from Dicatphone to Apple).

Proposal: 

Over some five decades, the Star Trek franchise's depiction of the human-machine interface, via a dramatic-exposition-friendly voice interface. What was in the 1960s an imagined verbal precursor to the command-line environment (Kirk would typically invoke the the interface by saying "Computer," which would be followed by a chugging sound effect and the computer's response, "Working") is an all-purpose interface that dominates a largely post-textual Flusserian future (in Does Writing Have a Future [2011], Vilém Flusser observes that everything that can be written, and much that cannot be written, can already be mediated in other forms). What insights can we gain about the future of composition when we study how science fiction and speculative marketing have depicted the creation of texts in the future?

In the Czech play Rossum's Universal Robots (1921), artificial office workers take dictation and use typewriters with inhuman efficiency, but are incapable of original thought. ("They'd make great university professors," a business executive says.) Humanity, which has grown biologically sterile as Robots taken an ever-increasing share of work, is destroyed by living, factory-built laborers incited by revolutionary pamphlets ("Robots of the world, unite!"). The Robots, whose factories can mechanically reproduce everything but Robots, are themselves doomed by a melodramatic "misssing papers" plot twist: the executive's fearful wife has burned the manuscript containing the formula for creating new Robots. The play mines the romantic tension of the traditional early-20thC "office comedy," as a white-color environment populated only by men and Robots is visited by an idealistic young woman who wants to raise the Robots' social awareness. Similar tensions between labor and capital, between female and male, between reproduction and scarcity, has a surprising real-world counterpart. Early 20thC marketing campaigns for Dictaphones aimed to convince both the female office workers and male executives that  using a Dictaphone would simplify the composition of business correspondence, enhanicng the more fulfilling parts of everyone's labor.  The fact that the word "typewriter" used to mean "the woman who operated a typewriting machine" hints at what we can learn from exploring the gender and labor politics of historical innovations in textual composition. In the case of both fictional and commercial specualtion, the passing of time reveals a tension between, on the one hand, the new affordances offered by imagination and, on the other hand, the constraints of prevailing convention and the medium in question. The resulting dialogue mediation between Snow's "two cultures" of humanism and science, and offers another venue for exploring Hayles's "technogenesis" (the co-evolution of humanity and technology; How We Think, 2012).

Nevertheless, several classic Star Trek plots prominently feature old-fashioned books, such as those favored by a crusty defense attorney in "Court Martial" (1967), and the history of Chicago mobsters that becomes another planet's holy writ in "A Piece of the Action" (1968). A similar tension hovers over depictions of composition. A signature element of the series is the orally updated "Captain's Log," while in the episode "The Conscience of the King," (1967) Dr. McCoy is seen working on a medical report using a grey stylus on a wedge-shaped proto-iPad. In the very next scene, Captain Kirk, after looking something up on his computer monitor, uses what looks the same stylus to scrawl words on a piece of paper. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Qpid," (1991), Picard obsesses over revising what he calls a "lecture" -- we see him frowning at his computer monitor, though we do not see a keyboard or any other interface the character might have used to write the text.  Various episodes of Star Trek: Voyager explore the concept of authoring a holodeck simulation (e.g. "Worst Case Scenario," 1997).  Our present-day awareness of the limits of mediated speculation invites us to consider how a similar tension informs our response to the technological predictions made by the manufacters and marketers who assure us that technology will revolutionize our work as writers. Isabel Pederson's exploration of the rhetoric of emergent technology (Ready to Wear, 2013) and the Selfes' Politics of the Interface are useful guides to tracing the tensions found in the the past's depiction of the future, and cutural parallels in promotional videos by Apple and Amazon that create cultural expectations that are no less prescriptive and manipulative.

Context: 
Speculation on the future of composition, as imagined via science-fiction and as promoted by the marketers of emerging technology (from Dictaphone to Apple), provides a mediated link between Snow's "two cultures" of humanism and science, and a discipline-specific venue for exploring Hayles's "technogenesis" (the co-evolution of humanity and techology; How We Think, 2012).
Proposal Type: 
individual