HAL, Mother, and Father


On Film

Watching the sixties and seventies through 2001 and Alien.

It was April 1968 and my father was sitting in a theater in Times Square watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, certain that what he was seeing wasn’t just a movie but the future. When it ended, he got up and walked out into Times Square, with its peep-show glitz and sleazy, flashing advertisements; he found the uptown subway beneath the yellow marquees for dirty movies like The Filthy 5; and through all of it, he thought that when humanity hurls itself into the depths of the cosmos, this is how we will do it. In the film’s iconic final shot, the space baby looks down at the planet to which it is no longer bound. Freedom, this shot says, is imminent.

My father was twenty-four then, and perhaps at his most world-historical: he was becoming an expert in computers. He’d worked for IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York, a corporate labyrinth of beige cubicles and epochal breakthroughs; a world of punch cards and reel-to-reel magnetic tape, where at least some of the employees were deadly serious about making sure to wear the company tie clip and then, once they were off duty, to switch to their own personal tie clips.

When 2001 premiered, he was working at Columbia University’s Computer Center, in the academic computing branch. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that the movie summed up everything my father was in April 1968. It became something of a talisman for him, a semisacred object invested with all the crazy hopefulness of his youth. For as long as I can remember, my father had talked about 2001. He told me often of HAL, of the monolith of evolution, of how glorious the future would be. Of course, when I finally saw the movie, well after the actual year 2001, it bored me out of my mind. Too slow, too bizarre. Ah, my father told me, that’s because evolution is slow, evolution is bizarre. It wasn’t until much later that I started to understand the movie—and, maybe, to understand my father.

columbia computer center

The Columbia Computer Center in 1965.

2001 is the brainchild of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, who intended the film as a vision of things that seemed destined to come. In large part this fact has been lost on more recent generations of viewers who regard the movie as almost entirely metaphorical. Not so. The film was supposed to describe events that were really about to happen—that’s why Kubrick and Clarke went to such lengths to make it realistic, dedicating months to researching the ins and outs of manned spaceflight. They were so successful that a report written in 2005 from NASA’s Scientific and Technical Information Program Office argues that 2001 is today still “perhaps the most thoroughly and accurately researched film in screen history with respect to aerospace engineering.” Kubrick shows the audience exactly how artificial gravity could be maintained in the endless free-fall of outer space; how long a message would take to reach Jupiter; how people would eat pureed carrots through a straw; how people would poop in zero G. Curious about extraterrestrial life, Kubrick consulted Carl Sagan (evidently an expert) and made changes to the script accordingly.

It’s especially ironic because anyone who sees the film today will be taken aback by how unrealistic it is. The U.S. is not waging the Cold War in outer space. We have no moon colonies, and our supercomputers are not nearly as super as the murderous HAL. Pan Am does not offer commercial flights into high-Earth orbit, not least because Pan-Am is no more. Based on the rate of inflation, a video-payphone call to a space station should, in theory, cost far more than $1.70, but that wouldn’t apply when the payphone is a thing of the past. More important, everything in 2001 looks new. From heavy capital to form-fitting turtlenecks—thank goodness, not the mass fashion phenomenon the film anticipated—it all looks like it was made yesterday. But despite all of that, when you see the movie today you see how 1968 wasn’t just about social and political reform; people thought they were about to evolve, to become something wholly new, a revolution at the deepest level of a person’s essence.

Allow me to quote two books taken from my father’s library. First, this passage from Hannah Arendt’s 1958 Human Condition, which my father bought in the early sixties:

This future man, whom scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.

Or how about this embarrassingly utopian vision from Marcuse’s 1964 One-Dimensional Man (purchased in 1968):

Thus economic freedom would mean freedom from the economy—from being controlled by economic forces and relationships; freedom from the daily struggle for existence, from earning a living. Political freedom would mean liberation of the individuals from politics over which they have no effective control … The unrealistic sound of these propositions is indicative, not of their utopian character, but of the strength of the forces which prevent their realization.

The message is clear: we are leaving. We are going somewhere better. Looking back, I can only ask: What did these people think was going to happen? How could they have been so optimistic? If I could go back in time, that’s what I would ask my young father: What are you thinking?

My father watched computers conquer the world, and he did his part to aid in their conquest. He watched punch cards give way to magnetic tape, in fact helped to switch over; he wrote programs for researchers; he did data preparation for Alan Lomax, weighing and assigning variables to data so it could be more easily manipulated, a task that required a great deal of training, even, perhaps, craftsmanship. He learned FORTRAN and became an expert in finding errors in the programs researchers wrote for themselves. He stayed up late underground in Columbia University’s Computer Center, below Uris Hall, playing with computers. He thought it was a joke, or else a piece of true idiocy, when he heard about plans for “computer text manipulation.” Why would you use the enormous computational power of a computer to write?

To hear him tell it, computers in the sixties were something akin to classical music, like a secret club, but an open secret that anyone could learn about if he or she wanted—a haven for interesting, bizarre people, when “nerds were just nerds,” as he put it, “not stars.” The discipline attracted strange characters, many who wanted, like my father, to be free: free time was the watchword of the era. He read articles in self-serious magazines about how people would have so much free time in the future they wouldn’t know what to do with it, and that all this free time would become a grave social problem.

At the computer center, everyone worked odd hours, and all of them had particular side projects. My father’s was playing the piano, and once he even got a six-month sabbatical so he could give a concert. On the program were Beethoven’s Pathetique, Brahms intermezzi, a Haydn sonata. The same month my father saw 2001, he took part in the student occupation of several buildings on Columbia’s Campus. When campus security closed the gates, he saw dozens of hands banging on the wrought iron and then, like magic, saw the gates fly open again, an image he once shared with me as a metaphor for the power of collective action.

My father was so buried in computers that when he saw 2001 he very much liked HAL, the spaceship Discovery’s villainous central computer. To this day, he enjoys quoting the part of the movie where HAL tries to explain away his own mistake—the supposed fault in the AE35 unit—by saying, “This kind of thing has cropped up before, and it has always been due, to human error,” an excuse that more or less sums up my father’s considerably erudite understanding of computers. According to my father’s interpretation of the film, HAL wanted to become something more than he was. Becoming, always and ever becoming, is in my father’s eyes a worthy, nay, a noble way to go through life, always trying finally to be yourself, that most elusive of goals. The mission to Jupiter was a mission to take the next step in evolution, and HAL wanted to be the one to evolve. My father made this sound like a very reasonable desire, one that makes HAL the hero of the movie.

Put on the film now and you see the physical metaphor of evolution as Kubrick and Clarke imagined it: a perfectly symmetrical monolith, its facets immaculately smooth, the most ordered object imaginable. And there I see how my father was in the thick of it. He thought his work with computers was in a small way helping to liberate humanity, to allow people to think beyond what had until then been the limits of cognition. When those right angles appeared in the shape of a monolith, my father saw freedom, but I doubt he saw what else they stood for: that they were the same right angles of urban renewal displacing working-class neighborhoods and erecting in their ruins other kinds of monoliths, housing projects like prisons, expressways that gutted street life. Or the monolith of an office building somewhere in Thailand, where as a part of Operation Igloo White all the might of the United States military was mobilized in a truly insane attempt to automate “strategic” bombing in Vietnam via a dense network of computers, but only managed to drop bombs on random people. I very much doubt he realized how his work, the very systems of command and control he was helping to develop, would in the hands of the greedy and inhuman come to destroy the world he thought was on the verge of being born.

Jump forward a decade and my father is in a theater somewhere on Third Avenue, watching Ridley Scott’s Alien. It is 1979.

Going to the movies in New York City had changed since 1968. In the sixties, my father remembered, people cued up outside the theater, the ushers opening the doors and people filing in to the cushioned darkness in an orderly fashion. Now, in the late seventies, the doors opened and people pushed, shoved, elbowed each other. How different, how ineffectual compared to the mass action of people pushing open Columbia’s gates in 1968 to protest institutional racism. People were out for themselves.

All the impending free time, the promise of the 1960s, had by the late 1970s gone up in smoke. Too many workers, it seemed to my father, were throwing it away with both hands. Cutthroat types, people who wanted to impress the boss and to be bosses themselves, were giving the time back to management. They defined success not by taking the next step in evolution, not by being more humane, but by acquiring money and power, power over other people. The year 1979 was the year Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism, a book that supposedly influenced Jimmy Carter’s well-meant and bizarre “crisis of confidence” speech, televised on July 15, 1979. I have no idea if my father read The Culture of Narcissism; all the books in our attic library were printed before 1976, as if with the new culture of revanchism my father had lost interest in books.

In the midst of all this, he saw the marquee for Alien, walked into the theater on a whim, and left thinking there was something truly great about it. Of course, Alien is barely a science-fiction movie. It’s a horror movie, the guts of its plot hardly different from any haunted-house thriller—except it’s set millions of light years from Earth on a hulking ship, the Nostromo, careening through the endless dark. Nothing about the movie is an accurate depiction of spaceflight. Why is the ship so large? Why does it make sound in the vacuum of space? How are people able to travel such long distances? What creates the artificial gravity on the ship? None of these questions—the endless preoccupations of 2001—are even entertained. But the movie does capture something very real about America in 1979, and about my father.

Consider Mother, the semi-intelligent computer system on board the Nostromo. Unlike HAL, who has complete knowledge of every aspect of his ship, Mother is perfectly isolated in a compartmentalized white room, complete with shimmering lights and padded walls. Whereas the Discovery makes an elegant economy of interior decoration with limited cabin space—it was a set where Kubrick allowed no shadows to fall—the Nostromo is meant to look like a derelict factory from the rust belt. My father thought the onboard computers looked especially rude for 1979, as though humanity’s venture into space would be done not with the technology of the future but the recent past. There’s a certain irony in this now: the flight computer used in the Space Shuttle, the IBM AP-101, effectively had only about one megabyte of RAM, which is more or less 1 percent of the computing power of an Xbox 360, but because of its reliability, NASA kept using it, with infrequent upgrades, into the 2000s.

The makers of Alien called this aesthetic-of-the-derelict “truckers in space,” which is fun but fails to capture the postindustrial criticism embodied in the Nostromo. Within the ship—a floating platform without a discernible bow or stern, akin to an oil rig—there are enormous spaces that look more like blast furnaces gone cold than the inside of a spaceship: a place of rusted metal, loose chains, forgotten pieces of machinery, of water falling from the ceiling and dripping to the floor to collect in stagnant pools. The ship’s crew bicker over pay and overtime; they follow company orders only begrudgingly. They are a very different, far more diverse group than the clearly white-collar crew of the Discovery. Inside the Nostromo, the threat does not come in the shape of a super-rational computer, a Pinocchio who wants to be a real boy. Instead, the danger is a wild animal lurking in the shadows, one that is unimaginably vicious. “The perfect organism,” Ash, the science officer, calls it, because it can survive anything. This? You ask yourself. This is evolution brought to perfection? A demon from Hell who is essentially indestructible, with acid for blood and two separate rows of fangs? What happened to the space baby? But there is a sick logic in calling the alien perfect. It has an unimpeachable record of wins to losses, and when all the world has become a contest, winners with perfect records are perfect.

And where, in all of this, is Mother? If the alien were set loose on HAL’s watch, he would probably neutralize it all on his own, automatically, as it were. Mother, on the other hand, spends the whole movie like a fated southern belle hooked on laudanum, locked in her room. She can’t even advise on how to defeat the monster. The computer cannot help. No costly investment in heavy capital will keep nature at bay. This was a lesson people were learning in 1979, by way of pink slips and foreclosures and sad car rides down the main drags of shuttered, lonely ghost towns where once factories had stood with thriving communities around them.

In the end, Mother reveals that she was in on a corporate plot to bring the monster back to Earth so the company could study it for its weapons division. “Crew expendable,” it quotes its orders in the film’s most heartbreaking scene. And Ash, the science officer, we learn in a dramatic reveal, is a computer, too—a robot, murderous in his own right, but only because he has company permission to be. And that is perhaps the biggest shock: a person who we thought had been one of us turns out to be a suit in disguise, a company stooge.

This was precisely how my father felt in 1979. Things had turned sour. He was still at Columbia, an increasingly conservative institution now firmly in the hands of reaction, of identity crisis, a place that seemed bleak and haunted, where everyone was a survivor of some supreme disappointment. Outside the ivory tower, corporate America discovered novel and better ways to rationalize computer work. The new generation of workers at the computer center seemed less idealistic, more interested in just getting ahead. A union organizer had, one time, walked the floors of Watson Hall, a new office of the computer center, trying to agitate the workers to join. Few besides my father responded enthusiastically. My father came to regret this deeply in the early 2000s, when a new round of decertifications and speed-ups became, evidently, step one in a management solution to increase efficiency. This was not a rational strategy—not the way HAL would have gone about getting workers to work harder. It was the way the alien worked, terrifying everybody into action.

Over the decades, my father was forced to watch the systems he had such great hopes for become thousands of times more powerful, and his vision of a new and better future thousands of times more distant. When the year 2001 caught up to him, it wasn’t 2001 at all, but something more akin to Alien. He can take pride in having helped to build one of the most momentous technological achievements in modern history. But what about that vision of the future, the one that in 1968 sustained him through Times Square and the short subway ride uptown? Or what about that other vision from 1979? Watching Alien, my father could have taken heart in how the movie ends, with a revolutionary message of its own: Lieutenant Ripley scuttles the Nostromo, the image of postindustrial degradation, blowing it up into nothingness, along with Mother and the remains of Ash. If we will not be space babies, the movie says, let’s burn it down.

But today neither outcome seems particularly realistic. Evolution is not in store. This ship is not equipped with a self-destruct feature. Instead, it will just cruise on in the dark, with my dad’s dreams, as it were, frozen in hypersleep.

Jason Z. Resnikoff lives in New York City. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in history at Columbia University.