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Schizophrenia of computers in Dr. Strangelove

by Critical Commons Manager

Computers are both the cause of total planetary nuclear destruction and the means by which a post-apocalyptic pleasure palace will be constructed in Dr. Strangelove. This schizophrenia is exemplary of the way computers were depicted in popular culture during this era, when most people had only the vaguest idea of the capacities and limitations of computational technology. Although extremes of utopian and dystopian visions of technology frequently coexist in movies, Dr. Strangelove is particularly effective at highlighting the cultural ambivalence of this historical period.

Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove

by Critical Commons Manager

Two remarkable films addressing the issue of nuclear war as a result of the technologization of American military defense systems were released in 1964, Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. Although generically distinct - Fail Safe is a deadly serious suspense drama, while Dr. Strangelove is a comedic satire - the two films share share a central narrative about the United States starting a nuclear war with the Soviet Union that cannot be stopped because of a technological system that limits the possibility of human intervention. In Dr. Strangelove, a deranged anti-communist military base commander sends bombers into the USSR, while in Fail Safe a technological malfunction triggers an unstoppable chain of events resulting in the nuclear destruction of Moscow and New York. While much has been written about these two films as reflections of cultural anxieties of the Cold War era, especially in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, my primary concern is with the role attributed to technology in the two films and the divergent consequences of each.

Both films are predicated on a fundamental critique of technology. In Fail Safe, the critique is specifically targeted at the speed and automatism of the computer systems that control the nation's defense systems. This is ironic, given that speed of calculation was the primary measure of a machine's usefulness during this period, which saw increasing complexity of input data related to air defense. Fail Safe enforces a rigid dichotomy between the compassionate, level-headed humanity of the U.S. President played by Henry Fonda, and the cold, corporatism of his German-American national security advisor, Professor Groeteschele played by Walter Matthau. Groeteschele is aligned with the computational logic of the computer systems responsible for the crisis as he coldly calculates the number of casualties that may be expected from detonating a nuclear bomb over New York. Characters in Fail Safe repeatedly bemoan the speed with which machines carry out their programmed tasks, making them impossible for humans to check and ultimately control. The inevitability of failure and the incapacity of human beings to effectively monitor computer processes directly results in nuclear holocaust, but an equally pointed critique is directed at the rigidity of military protocols that preclude the pilots charged with carrying out the nuclear attack from exercising reason or judgment in response to pleas from family members who explain that their mission was mistakenly initiated. Instead, trained, obedient soldiers become an extension of a faulty technological apparatus, literally executing the programs of an attack scenario designed to prevent any deviation from orders, no matter how illogical they may be.

In Kubrick's film, nuclear destruction results from the deliberate actions of a psychopath, while computers effectively compensate for other areas of human failing. Still, in Dr. Strangelove, computers are directly responsible for enabling humans to dispassionately bring about the end of all life on earth. Once the end of the world is deemed unavoidable, due to the computerized activation of the Soviet doomsday machine, computers are then enlisted to relieve government officials of the burden of deciding which humans should be spared from death. The head of weapons development, the eponymous former Nazi played by Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove gleefully predicts that computers would be the most effective means of selecting survivors to repopulate the earth, focusing on the need for a disproportionate (10:1) ratio of "stimulating" females selected for their "sexual fertility."

Dr. Strangelove plans to use computers to select survivors of nuclear war at a ratio of ten "stimulating" females for every man

On the brink of nuclear war, American government and military leaders make a plan for surviving doomsday in an underground pleasure palace

from Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Creator: Stanley Kubrick
Posted by Critical Commons Manager