The computer as the butt of jokes

Published in 1975, David Rovick’s As Man Becomes Machine is a fascinating snapshop of attitudes to artificial intelligence. He writes:

A favourite subject of magazine cartoonists these days is the computer as mental defective. Several years ago, in fact, the computer had already become the butt of so many jokes that a writers was commissioned to investigate the phenomenon for the now defunct Fact magazine. The writers (John Dempsey, now a cultural critic for the Boston press) found that the average man, far from expecting a god or a benevolent ghost to spring from the mammoth computers that are increasingly governing our affairs, fears instead that these machines will eventually take his job away from him, thus replacing him as a producer and a provider, possibly even as a father and a lover. He fears, in short, that the computer is about to unman him.

The Dempsey article for Fact magazine was published in 1966, nearly ten years before Rovick was writing. The possibility of using “the computer as mental defective” as a go-to reference point for jokes has melted away since these early decades of computing. Nowadays, if a computer fouls up in a joke or a cartoon or a sketch, it’s far more likely to be the fault of its less than intellectually brilliant human operator. Here’s the character Carol Beer from the BBC sketch show Little Britain (series 3, 2005):


Her catchphrase is “computer says no”, but the obstinacy and inefficiency is all hers.

Back in 1975 the idea of the fallible, defective computer was still a source of amusement (and comfort), even if “the fault of the computer’s human programmers” is lurking behind the errors. Rovick continues:

If the computer’s maddening efficiency and speed have one refrain it’s that old singsong: anything you can do, I can do better. And so when the computer does make a boo-boo (very rarely indeed, when you examine the amount of data each one handles during its average workday, which can be twenty-four hours long) everyone rejoices! And soon a few minor errors (actually, more often than not, the fault of the computer’s human programmers) are compounded into a major liability, so far as the computer’s reputation is concerned. But the computer, impervious to petty emotions, goes on performing day after day with every greater versatility and virtuosity. And so poor man continually has to step up his disdain, look harder for errors, guffaw a little louder each time he finds one.

In 1978, this anonymous remark was quoted in the Farmers Almanac:

To err is human but to really foul things up requires a computer.

So the idea of the fallible computer was still going strong. By the time we hit the early 1990s, with this “vox pop” from the BBC sketch show A Bit of Fry & Laurie (1992), the joke is clearly at the expense of the person who is expressing scepticism towards computers:


Instead of finding humour at the expense of the computer’s efficiency or calculating power, there was a shift (particularly in sci-fi) towards exploiting the failure of computers or robots to display fully human traits, such as having emotions or a sense of humour. So for example, the android Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation admits: “I have no emotional awareness”. A running theme of the show is Data’s inability (of which he’s very aware) to understand humour or be, in some sense, fully human. When the character Guinan assures him “Being able to make people laugh or being able to laugh is not the end-all and be-all of being human”, Data declares:

No. But there is nothing more… uniquely human.

Humans are still cherishing, through our portrayal of emotionally illiterate androids, the idea that AI has something missing, that AI somehow falls short. Although even then, in our anthropomorphic imagining of AI’s future development, we can sense its determination to become ‘complete’:

If being human is not simply a matter of being born flesh and blood, if it is instead a way of thinking, acting and feeling, then I am hopeful that one day I will discover my own humanity. Until then… I will continue learning, changing, growing, and trying to become more than what I am.

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