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I.B.M.'s "The Paperwork Explosion"

Posted by Josh Rothman  May 24, 2011 10:01 AM

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Writing at West 86th ("a journal of decorative arts, design, history, and material culture") Ben Kafka, a media history professor at N.Y.U., highlights a magnificent marketing film from 1967: I.B.M.'s "Paperwork Explosion." "Commissioned by IBM," Kafka explains, "the film was directed by a little-known experimental filmmaker named Jim Henson and scored by the Raymond Scott, the composer and inventor who wrote most of the tunes behind Looney Tunes, introduced the first racially integrated network studio orchestra, and pioneered electronic music with such technologies as the Orchestra Machine, the Clavivox, and the Electronium."

Henson and Scott’s collaboration explains, no doubt, the film’s considerable formal intelligence and diegetic wit.... The film promotes the IBM MT/ST, a machine released in 1964 combining the company’s Selectric typewriter with a magnetic tape disk. Operators entered text and formatting codes onto magnetic tape; they could then make simple changes before printing a clean copy of the document.... Among historians of computing, the MT/ST is best known as the first machine to be marketed as a “word processor” (a term that, as Thomas Haigh has pointed out, emerged at the same moment as Cuisinart’s “food processor”).

"The 'paperwork explosion,'" Kafka concludes, "expresses both a threat and a wish. The threat, of course, is that we are being overwhelmed by paperwork’s proliferation, its explosion.... The wish is to convert all this cumbersome matter into liberating energy, which is exactly what explosions do." To which I'd only add: "The Paperwork Explosion" shows just how amazing Mad Men should have been!

Henson was, as Kafka writes, an "experimental filmmaker": before the Muppets, Henson made large numbers of avant-garde short films. They tend to be free-associative and madcap in tone, with lots of crazy music and quick, humorous juxtapositions. Some of them were broadcast on TV -- NBC actually commissioned Henson to make experimental films for a show called Experiment in Television, which ran from 1968 to 1971. Many of them are available on YouTube:

Ripples (1967)

Excerpt from Time Piece (1966)

Excerpt from The Cube (1969)
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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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