Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Automation, Fact Checking and the Decline of the News Business (plus Tracy and Hepburn)

 Following on "CORRECTION—China Does NOT Have 90 Million Empty Apartments".

A look back.
First posted July 2, 2017:
From the Los Angeles Review of Books, May 11:

After the Facts

By Adam Morris

“I KNOW YOU, FRIEND,” the voice began. The video ad regurgitated by my feed addressed me in the second person. Arrested in mid-scroll, I let the commercial keep rolling: the algorithm had done well to find me on a day I wasn’t certain I knew myself. Was it something I retweeted?

But the voice wasn’t speaking to me: the gruff Australian went on to state he knew every unit of pressure exerted on “my” 59-ton frame. He was talking to an oil rig, whose every shining surface was lovingly rendered in the expensive clip. It wasn’t that the Twitter algorithm didn’t care about me. My browser knew I’d been reading up on Watson, a cloud-based supercomputing service developed by IBM. The admen knew my gender and sexual orientation, too, which explains why I got the Watson ad with the butch Aussie, instead of the one about guide-dog puppies I had to find for myself.
IBM’s Watson first entered the public eye in 2011 when “he” defeated Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, two of the most accomplished champions ever to appear on Jeopardy! After showboating in primetime, Watson was put to work in the private sector, where his services are expected to earn untold millions and save IBM from financial ruin at the hands of Silicon Valley upstarts. Watson’s first jobs were in the medical sector, where his natural language recognition and massive consumption of medical trial and study data give him an encyclopedic advantage over the average human doctor. Press about Watson’s success in the clinic is generally enthusiastic and describes him as a tool that will make the profession more efficient by enhancing the speed and accuracy of medical diagnosis.

Meanwhile, other forms of automation in the health-care industry are rapidly mechanizing the rest of the doctor’s office, eliminating thousands of positions in reception and laboratories — jobs predominantly held by women. “All that will be left of the old doctor’s office” Forbes predicts, “is a doctor or a nurse who will read the chart and discharge patients or send them to a hospital for further tests and necessary procedures.” The savings associated with the cost-cutting efficiency of automated doctor’s offices will not be passed on to consumers, but will instead be retained by insurance giants. The era that IBM eagerly heralds as revolutionary for human health care is likely to be one that will involve fewer people and many more machines.

We’ve seen this movie before. In fact, some saw it 60 years ago, when 20th Century Fox released Desk Set (1957), a romantic workplace comedy directed by Walter Lang and starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. The office in Desk Set doesn’t belong to a doctor, but to a broadcasting corporation. The film’s villain, however, is a computer modeled on one of Watson’s ancestors. “Her” presence is what makes Desk Set a futurist text, one relevant to workers six decades later: the film foretold the threat that computer automation posed to the white-collar, middle-class workforce — especially to women — and to accuracy in the news media.
After the Facts - Los Angeles Review of Books
Film has long been concerned with automation: silent masterpieces like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) expressed early preoccupation with, and enthusiasm for, the power of technological innovation to transform human life. Toward the end of the classic Hollywood studio era, Desk Set became the first major motion picture to feature a computer in a leading role.

Desk Set was scripted by Phoebe and Henry Ephron from a 1955 play by William Marchant that ran on Broadway. Computers were still so rare and unfamiliar that the Desk Set crew required special consulting from IBM to get the details right. The opening credits of the film thank IBM for its cooperation in the film’s production: much like IBM’s Twitter ad campaign for supercomputing services, this was a remarkable feat of product placement for something that almost nobody could buy.

The adaptation casts Hepburn in one of her famous spinster roles as librarian Bunny Watson, the punchy chief of the reference department at the fictional Federal Broadcasting Company. Like the Jeopardy!-winning supercomputer, Bunny’s character takes her name from Thomas J. Watson, the longtime chairman and CEO of IBM. Tracy plays Richard Sumner, a consultant dispatched to study the efficiency of the reference department, which consists of Hepburn and three assistants. Miss Watson quickly discovers that Sumner is the inventor of an “electronic brain” machine: a massive mainframe called EMERAC, the Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator. Throughout the film, EMERAC is sometimes referred to as “Emmy,” and takes feminine pronouns. Bunny and her staff suspect that Emmy is being introduced to their department to automate and eliminate their jobs.

Most of the film transpires in the reference department, located on the 29th floor of the FBC’s New York headquarters. When Sumner first arrives, all three reference assistants are on the phone: Joan Blondell’s brassy Peg Costello, the “resident baseball expert,” fields a query about Eskimo nose-rubbing; the refined Miss Blair (Dina Merrill) advises a caller against naming lethal poisons on air; and the timid Miss Saylor (Sue Randall) quietly takes a call about a black velvet strapless dress she’s seen in a shop window. Together the women make up one of the on-call research and fact-checking teams that were once a vital organ in every major broadcasting and news organization — even though their work throughout the film is trivialized by the cute subject matter written into the script....