“Machines — should work — people — should think”


Paperwork Explosion, Jim Henson, 1967

From West 86th:

“The government’s laws and orders will be transmitted to the furthest reaches of the social order with the speed of electric fluid.” Such was the promise made by the chemist, industrialist, and minister of the interior Jean-Antoine Chaptal in 1800. It could be said to signal a shift in the West’s way of thinking about official recordkeeping. The idea of the paperless office was born.

Media historians have long recognized the astounding versatility, portability, and durability of paper, which is in many respects the ideal material support. As a corollary, the paperless office has been dismissed as a “myth” by social scientists, information engineers, and corporate consultants alike, who predict that paper’s many affordances will continue to make it indispensable. And a myth it is, but not (or at least not only) in the simple sense typically employed in these contexts. The paperless office should also be interpreted as a myth in the Lévi-Straussian sense of the term, that is to say, an imaginary resolution to real contradictions.

What contradictions? We get a preliminary idea by examining a remarkable little film, The Paperwork Explosion (1967). Commissioned by IBM, 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.

“Paperwork Explosion”, Ben Kafka, West 86th