Issue #62: IBM,  Vidéothèque

Jim Henson

There is so much content about IBM online that it became quite complicated to pick an entry for the Vidéothèque section this month. We are talking about a company with monthly marketing budgets bigger in absolute numbers than the average yearly payroll of a small or medium enterprise; and with more than 100 years of history, there are quite a few stories to be told about it.

Had we chosen to follow the marketing and advertising route, there would be countless examples to showcase. For example, the “Solutions for a small planet” campaign of 1994 by Ogilvy & Mather’s, with short commercials recorded in Vietnam, Paris, and Buenos Aires, featuring people from all over the world exhorting the virtues of IBM, and even showing nuns whispering about OS/2 or monks raving about Lotus Notes. Right after came the “eBusiness” campaign of the late 1990s, with spots about web security, servers running linux, and killer apps. But probably the most epic one would be the series of TV commercials for the IBM PC, starting in 1981 as the 5150 hit the market, and featuring Billy Scudder as Charlie Chaplin.

Had we chosen a more historical perspective, we would have pointed our viewers to the product announcement of the IBM 1401; a video about the System/360 by the Computer History Archives Project; another one about the IBM AS/400; a rare 1963 film about the 1410 Data Processing System; or IBM’s own creepy centennial video. Or we could have mentioned countless, more recent fan videos about various IBM products, such as a walkthrough of the Selectric typewriter, an unboxing of a 1988 IBM PC AT with a Model M keyboard, or a dissection of an IBM Z16 mainframe by none other than Linus Sebastian.

In this case, however, we have opted for a less well-known piece, commissioned by IBM to Jim Henson in 1967. Yes, the Jim Henson, the same one of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show fame, who was also a prolific filmmaker taking the occasional order for a corporate video (and no, that is not the person shown on the cover picture of this article; more about that in a minute). For those young enough to recall the names of Sesame Street or The Muppet Show, maybe you will remember Yoda, a character designed as a puppet by Henson and George Lucas for “The Empire Strikes Back”, but puppeteered by Henson’s longtime colleague Frank Oz. In short, suffice to say that the influence that Jim Henson has had on popular culture during his admittedly short life (he died of an infection at the age of 53) transcends this short article.

This month’s Vidéothèque movie is, then, IBM’s “Paperwork Explosion”, a surprisingly (for a large corporation such as IBM) experimental and enjoyable short promotion movie, produced by The Jim Henson Company in 1967, the same year Pink Floyd released their first album, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”. In the opinion of this author, this connection works wonders; if you do not believe me, try to imagine Hans Keller, presenter of the TV program “The Look of The Week”, watching Jim Henson’s movie with the same face with which he listened to Pink Floyd perform “Astronomy Domine” in the studio of the BBC. Yes, that look.

“Paperwork Explosion” is, as far as this author knows, the sole existing specimen of a psychedelic corporate video. (“Psychedelic Corporate Video”… it would make for a wonderful title for an upcoming Tame Impala album. I should probably register the name.) The movie is, primarily, a promotional vehicle to sell the recently released IBM MT/ST. This was an electromechanical and non-electronic device consisting of an IBM Selectric typewriter coupled with a magnetic tape recorder, allowing typists to record and recover letters and to perform primitive versions of tasks such as mail merge, a duty nowadays carried by word processors.

The least thing “Paperwork Explosion” does is, however, to show the device itself; rather, what we see is a sequence of (literal) explosions, followed by interlaced sequences of IBMers talking about the need for speed in our modern world.

Frantic. Explosions. Frenzied. More. Explosions. Do more with less. Explosions. Capitalism. Corporate. Explosions. Think. Speed.

The movie is as enthralling as it is weird, with some hints of Henson’s unique humor sprinkled here and there in the composition; the most visible of which is this unnamed farmer appearing every so often. A farmer, whose portrait is featured on the cover image of this article, who appears completely detached from the urban setting one associates IBM with; in a decidedly bucolic, soothing, and non-technological environment.

(Also, by the way, do not you think he looks suspiciously similar to Waldorf, one of Henson’s most popular Muppets?)

The most important section of “Paperwork Explosion” happens towards the end of the movie, when we hear IBMers repeat the same phrase ad nauseam; one that contains “Think”, the single-word slogan dear to IBM’s ethos and history:

IBM machines can do the work, so the people have time to think.

Machines should work. People should think.

Something our farmer friend wholeheartedly agrees with:

So I don’t do much work anymore; I’m too busy thinking.

The core message sang in unison by those IBMers is timeless and fundamental. (Do we need to say it? Yes, we do.) Répétez avec moi: in our world of ChatGPT and other wonders, we must ponder over the phrase above and remember that, however amazing DALL·E and other similar tools might be, they are just that: tools. We should use them not for corporate greed, blind innovation, or job destruction, but rather as ways to enhance our own senses, helping us build a better world with them; and not just for a few, but for all of us, always placing the human condition at the center of every consideration.

This month’s Vidéothèque video, “Paperwork Explosion”, is available on YouTube, and paraphrasing Steve Jobs, is better viewed after dropping some acid.

Cover snapshot chosen by the author.

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Adrian Kosmaczewski is a published writer, a trainer, and a conference speaker, with more than 25 years of experience in the software industry. He holds a Master's degree in Information Technology from the University of Liverpool.