Desk Set is a frothy romantic comedy, watchable not only for the delightful repartee and chemistry between its stars, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, but also for its endearing naïveté regarding the advent of the computer. Filmed in 1957, it is also one of the first movies to feature a search engine.
Hepburn plays the role of Bunny Watson, the head of the reference library for a broadcasting network, whose job and those of her three librarians are threatened by the installation in their office of an “electronic brain”. The computer, called EMERAC (a not so veiled reference to the world’s first general-purpose computer ENIAC), has been designed by an efficiency expert (Richard Sumner, played by Tracy) to relieve the staff of the drudge tasks of responding to the thousands of questions—we would call them queries today, I suppose—that they field as part of their job. The film is peppered with them, from the banal to the esoteric: What songs are sung on Thanksgiving? Who holds the record for highest lifetime batting average? Does the king of the Watusis drive a car? What is the annual damage done by the spruce budworm?
Viewing the film at a time in which we longer look up things but google them, we can only smile when Sumner reassures the librarians that machines will never be able to handle the more complex tasks of intelligence because, as he maintains, there are “too many cross-references.” Or not think of Siri’s or Google’s fuzzy logic and natural-language search capabilities when in response to a query about the geography of Corfu typed, or rather punch-carded, as ‘curfew’, the computer spews out the verses to a relatively obscure but once popular Victorian poem about the ringing of a curfew bell in Cromwell’s England. “Do you mean Corfu? Showing results for curfew,” we half-expect the machine to print out.
The New York Times’ film critic at the time, Bosley Crowther, complained that the human-machine conflict threw the film “out of dramatic kilter.” “It simply does not seem very ominous when they threaten to put a mechanical brain in a broadcasting company’s reference library, over which the efficient Miss Hepburn holds sway.” Ahem.
Indeed, the “brain” in Desk Set is not much of a threat, at least not an ominous one. The film pokes fun at the single-mindlessness of the machine and its utter dependence on the quality of input it receives and the code it runs (at one point its sibling in Payroll issues the entire staff dismissal slips). This was, after all, a time when the notion of a machine capable of learning was merely a trope of science fiction for most viewers, as was the concept of a search engine that had at its disposable an indexed reservoir of tens of billions of pages of information and 20 million digitized books.
Bunny is indeed a dauntingly bright and witty woman, with a store of knowledge in her head—including the verses to the aforementioned poem—that makes the reference library, which is smaller than her fabulous, fireplace-equipped Upper East Side apartment, superfluous. (Apparently reference librarians in the 1950s made more money than they do now). At times she eerily foreshadows our googling self. Before meeting Sumner for a first lunch date, she manages to dig up information on his academic record, army service, marital status and employment history. “But I only had half an hour,” she says when Sumner compliments her for the thoroughness of her background check.
The queries lodged in Desk Set are anonymous. The callers never seem to leave their name, but there’s no reason why they wouldn’t, other than haste; their questions are harmless. We, on the other hand, leave traces of our identity every time we go online, forever shedding our digital DNA, as Witch Hazel left behind a few hairpins from her scraggly hair every time she dashed off the scene in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. In our tweets and updates, our music playlists and tumblr blogs and Instagram posts, our traces are deliberate and our presence online, curated. (Who among us doesn’t think beforehand, if only for a few seconds, of the impact a photo or status update will have on our friends and followers, or check the likes and retweets and reblogs it has garnered once we post it?)
Search terms are different, however. Our queries for how-to’s and why’s, like our search for porn or help, are made with an audience of one in mind and entered in the belief of anonymity, as if we were transported from our screens to the darkened privacy of a confessional booth, whose thickly latticed screen hides our visage from the faceless intermediary of an even more unknowable God.
Though we are not seeking remission of sins but knowledge, we are as vulnerable and exposed as we might be in the confessional. Alone in front of our screen, we declare our passions and anxieties, raw and unedited, and reach out for guidance and reassurance. There, interspersed with our queries for pickling recipes and plot synopses, stand our fetishes and unexplained rashes, conveyed in a stream of binary bits to the unpolluted sanctum of a distant data center, a heaven with no music save for the hum of the massive cooling systems. Few realize that their frailties and desires are being silently archived. Not only the sites we have visited—we all know we’re being tracked, though perhaps not to the extent we imagine (CNN, for example, has at least a dozen trackers that spring into action when we land on its home page)—but also the search terms themselves are being recorded.
Google tells me I have a history of 44,000 or so searches, which, it assures me, only I am entitled to view. That makes for a lot of questions.
I wonder if I had fewer to ask before Google? Or have I become more inquisitive simply because it is easier to find answers now? Has the access to such answers, however ambiguous or contested they may be, made me less patient with not knowing and increasingly unable to tolerate delayed clarification?
Granted, many of these search terms have to do with work and most are of interest to no one, not even myself any longer, except perhaps as a curious record of the projects I have worked on or the topics that have snagged my curiosity while writing. Others, however, furnish clues to a more private identity, the terms that witness a short-lived enthusiasm (“gay Asian comedians”) or long-standing obsession (“nutritional data for bogue”), the pointers to injury (“infraspinatus”) or travel destinations. And then there are those that reveal an inner fold of identity I have shared with very few people.
A study of these terms will not disclose everything about me. The imaginary biographer rummaging through this archive will know nothing of the extent of my generosity or openness, nothing of my capacity to love or forgive. She will not be able to determine if I have been a caring partner, though she may suspect when I have been an unfaithful one. But mining these data could reveal whether I am compulsive or frivolous, or prone to addiction or forgetfulness. It could tell whether I’m credulous or skeptical. The investigator could pick up clues not only of my interests and taste but also of aspects of character more difficult to quantify. She would note my particular anxieties and minor obsessions and in the end discover one or two things I have told no one else.
I have not yet deleted my search history, though it’s easy enough to do. Perhaps I would if I knew the archive would be published for pubic viewing. I tell myself I keep it because I may want to work with this archive at some point, but I know that my reluctance to erase it derives from the same aversion I have to throwing away old t-shirts and running shoes that have long outlived their usefulness, or deleting the notes for a post I know I will never write. It’s a piece of me.
Kyriaki Goni, a visual artist recently featured in at the 2015 Athens Digital Arts Festival, has done both in her work “Deletion process_Only you can see my history”. Goni downloaded from Google the 10,650 terms in her eight-year search history, which she then mapped to a grid of an equal number of white squares, each representing a query. An algorithm selects a random cell, revealing the term on a large screen; at the same time it accesses Google and then deletes the term. The act of deletion trips the white of the particular cell to black, simultaneously triggering the printing of the search term on a scroll of paper. The user can click on the any of the remaining white squares to view a term. Eventually, when all the terms have been deleted, the entire grid will be a void of black space, and only the scroll of queries will remain of this curious archive of self.
As in my search history, most of the terms are quite ordinary, nouns that would have figured in questions that landed on Bunny’s reference desk (or her Greek equivalent): artist bios, Foucault, movie titles and tax deadlines. But others, like manicure shops and second-hand clothing stores are private, and a few, like herpes, startingly so.
Alone in the exhibition room, I watched transfixed as one search term after another flashed on the screen for a few seconds, blackening the cell and prompting the printer to add another line to the tangible record of her questions in an act of self-revelation and self-eradication at once intimate and disturbing.
I’m not yet ready to delete my search history. How could I discard it? It is a bit like a portrait painted by an artist with a merciless eye to my flaws and fallibilities but unmistakably me. Its uncensored litany of entreaties and questions does not yield a pretty picture but not a terribly ugly one either, and arguably no more a faithful presentation of my identity than the self I curate on social media, which is just me viewed from a different angle and illuminated by a different light. But only the vain would discard an unflattering photograph.
Featured image: screenshot (cropped) of Kyriaki Goni’s work, “Deletion process_Only you can see my history”.
For those who have not yet discovered their search history, it’s available here: https://www.google.com/searchhistory/
Readers interested in the widgets that track their online presence (and eager to block them) could investigate the Ghostery application. WordPress, you will be relieved to discover, has only five, and none is an ad tracker.