Computers Always Make Mistakes

Getting back to the beloved subject of standard TV plots, last week’s episode of Better off Ted used one of the most indestructible of all sitcom stories: a computer error declares that a character no longer exists. Even though everyone can see that the character is still there and that the computer made a mistake, bureaucratic/corporate rules require that the character be treated as dead, nonexistent or unemployed until the computer error can be fixed. Often nobody has the authority to fix the computer error, thus necessitating some kind of Wacky Scheme to correct it, cf. Portia Di Rossi’s Wacky Scheme to crash the company’s computers and reboot the system.

Alternate versions of this plot: the computer declares that a male character is a woman; the computer matches up two totally incompatible people. The key thing here is that there is always a computer error and it always has results that can be described as disastrous.

The “computer error” story has been done over and over again since at least the ’60s, when pop culture started to become aware of the Punch Card Menace. Computers have changed, their place in our lives has changed, but the story is always the same: we depend on computers to do everything and store all our records of what we do and who we are, and if there’s one incorrect record in a computer, it can ruin your life because nobody has the power to question the computer’s decision. The theme is always that computers have too much power over our lives. I’m not denying that it’s true, since I am typing this on a computer; I’m just saying that that’s the message that TV has been sending us for over 40 years.

Of course this story, and the theme, has its roots in earlier satires of bureaucracy and red tape, where people’s identities were erased (or nonexistent people created) due to filing errors. But since the ’60s it has been exclusively associated with computers, at least on TV comedy. And it’s a plot that many, many comedies turn to, often with some variation on the following dialogue exchange from an episode of All in the Family:

ARCHIE: Who died?
EDITH: You did, Archie.
(Puzzled, quizzical look from Archie; audience laughter, canned applause; fade out.)