In ‘Mad Men,’ computers mean disruption — figuratively and literally.

 

Don Draper walks by a computer the most recent episode of Mad Men. (AMC)
Don Draper walks by a computer the most recent episode of Mad Men. (AMC)

Note: This post contains spoilers for the episode of "Mad Men" aired on May 4, 2014.

On the latest episode, Don Draper enters the office only to discover it a virtual ghost town, with chairs abandoned and rotary phones left off their hooks. The entire office has assembled on the second floor to celebrate (or lament) the arrival of a computer in the office -- an IBM mainframe behemoth that doesn't make its on screen appearance until the final minutes of the episode.

In a metaphor as heavy-handed as the monolithic device, the computer is replacing the "creative lounge" where the copywriters spit-balled ideas. While new creative director Lou Avery doesn't seem bothered by the change in the slightest -- saying that "creative will benefit from accurate data" -- others reacted with far more drama.

Copywriter Michael Ginsberg, for instance, tried to move the couch from the lounge into his office while shouting, "They're trying to erase us -- but they can't erase this couch!"

Draper himself even got in the action -- falling into conversation with Lloyd, one of the founders of the company that is leasing the computer to the advertising agency. "Who's winning? Who's replacing most humans?" Draper asks, inquiring how the competition between the third party vendor and IBM for business was going. Harry Crane -- the head of television advertising who helped bring the computer into the agency  in the first place -- interrupted him declaring, that the computer was "not symbolic."

"No, it's quite literal," Draper responded with an arched eyebrow.

But Lloyd? He'd seen this fight before -- in fact, he says it has played out in every office installation.

"It's been my experience that these machines can be a metaphor for whatever's on people's minds," he said, putting the machine in a "cosmic" context.

"This machine is intimidating because it contains infinite quantities of information and that's threatening because human existence is finite. But isn't it godlike that we've mastered the infinite? The IBM 360 can count more stars in a day than we can count in a lifetime. "

"But what man laid on his back counting stars and thought about a number?" Draper asked.

"He probably thought about going to the moon," Lloyd responded, with a knowing smile.

It's no surprise the moon came up in their debate -- the final season of "Mad Men" takes place in 1969, just in time for the space race to culminate in the moon landing. While extremely sophisticated at the time, the computers that helped guide that mission couldn't compete with the processing power of a modern pocket calculator.

But even that limited amount of processing power is a threat to the gut feeling that guides Draper's style of work. It's the replacement of feelings with empiricism -- something Lloyd makes even more direct by asking Draper later, "Advertising, does it work?"

Draper's answer doesn't matter. The conversation is just an excuse to show the impotence of Draper's current role at the agency he helped found. But it does provide an opportunity for Lloyd to share his classic start-up story: He was working at IBM, then left to form a company leasing out slightly older models of their machines with two friends. Six months later, they had 19 employees and three new rivals in the same market.

Draper recognizes that Lloyd is a potential client, but is unable to pursue his business due to his reduced role at the company. And by the last third of the episode, Draper is drunkenly shouting at Lloyd and the power he represents slipping away from the ad man's creative role, even as the installation of the computer literally disrupts the office with cacophony of hacking and sawing noises.

Yes, the technology playing out in "Mad Men" is several magnitudes behind the current times. (Remember in the first episode when Joan assured Peggy that the men who designed a the electronic typewriter she would work behind "made it simple enough for a woman to use"?)  And even today, the same debate about man, machine and creativity is playing out -- with researchers as recently at last year suggesting it's only a matter of time before some traditionally "creative" jobs could potentially be taken over by robots or algorithms.

But in last night's episode, while viewers are clearly meant to side with the romantic (if flawed) artist threatened by a cold, calculating machines, even those who shun much of the comfort afforded by then modern technology dream of the achievements those advances will soon make possible: Margaret, the grown daughter of partner Roger Sterling who has abandoned her husband and son to join a rustic commune where electricity left unconnected and even reliance on a truck was the subject of considerable debate, dreams of going to the moon.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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