Otto's Night Watch: 'The Day Ottomation Came to the Night Watch.' Flashback Friday
Here’s the next installment in our continuing series of republished "Otto’s Night Watch" columns written by Otto Boutin, which appeared monthly several decades ago in Printing Impressions. In this week's short story, Otto carries on a conversation with "Mr. Machine," the Linotype he's in charge of operating. The concept of Artificial Intelligence wasn't even a phrase in the dictionary when Boutin penned this column 50 or so years ago, which makes this humorous post seem even more remarkable.
The Day Ottomation Came to the Night Watch
I’ve given up the habit of talking to myself while running a Linotype. Many of my buddies, feeling lonely at a lonely trade, carry on long conversations with themselves. Sometimes they drive themselves to drink from listening to their troubles.
I don’t talk to myself. I talk to the machine.
Conversation does not have to consist of words. Every diplomat knows that words are used to obfuscate, not to enlighten. Animals communicate very effectively without words. When a dog blinks an eye, wags a tail, or wiggles an ear, you know he’s telling the truth. When your wife is using words, she’s probably misleading you. To learn what she really means, watch the way she blinks an eye or wiggles an ear.
That’s the way I talk to machines — without words. Being a monitor, I run three Linotypes at once. Two of the machines are rather young and the generation gap between us is too wide. So I just feed them the tape and let them do their thing.
The third one, called Mr. Machine, is five years old already, mellow with age. We have a few aches and pains in common. I spend more time with Mr. Machine than I spend with any human being. In fact, I spend more time with him than I do the entire human race.
Sometimes Mr. Machine talks too highbrow for me. That’s because he has a much better background than I have. He comes from a family of well-educated engineers. By the time he left the delivery room he already had a good set of habits. His early days were spent under the tender loving care of specialists.
Compared to him, my own beginnings were very haphazard. I couldn’t even afford a delivery room. I had a gypsy midwife.
When I was introduced to Mr. Machine, the first thing he asked was, “Where are you from? M.I.T or Cal Tech?”
"I dropped out of grammar school,” I said.
And he wouldn’t talk to me for a week. That’s how snooty some of these sophisticated machines can become.
One day he saw me reading a page from a paperback book. I keep pages stuffed in my pockets, where the boss won’t see them.
“What are you reading?” asked Mr. Machine.
“About lost civilizations,” I replied. “There must have been dozens of them, maybe hundreds. We know that the human race has been here for a half million years, but we can account for only 20,000. What happened during the other 480,000 years? Iron and steel would have rusted and vanished, leaving only the rocks for us to study. And so we keep judging the past according to the rocks. Maybe sometime, under the Antarctic ice, we will find a Boeing 707, loaded with atomic bombs.”
Mr. Machine snorted. “Why should you care about lost civilizations? Your job is to get 14 lines a minute out of me. You have no right to be worrying about anything else. You’ve got too many loose ends, a sloppy job of writing. Your nerves are the same as my wires, you know. And your nerve centers are the same as my terminals. But I’m reliable. When somebody wants a capital A they get a capital A. From you they might get anything from the Moonlight Sonata to the shirring of a Tibetan prayer wheel. Your wires are scrambled. That’s why you keep daydreaming about things that are none of your business. Sometimes you even hum a song. Those songs bug me. You don’t need music to produce 14 lines a minute.”
“No, I guess I don’t,” I admitted. “But I’m getting adjusted. I used to sing, but now I only hum.
“You’re improving,” said Mr. Machine, “but you still have a lot of loose wires. If you want to get ahead in the world, be like me. I know what my job is and I do it. No distractions.”
“D’you think I’ll ever become as good as a machine?” I asked, hopefully scratching my head with a screwdriver.
“You may come close, but you’ll never be as perfect. You weren’t designed properly. For instance, why do you need two feet? The feet are a handicap. Instead of standing where you belong, you’re wandering all over the place. Yesterday you were chasing a lady proofreader down the aisle. The designers should have eliminated your feet and put you on a stationary pivot, permitting you to swing from machine to machine.”
“But I have to go out to lunch.”
“They could bring it to you like they bring mine. They feed the metal into my pot and I don’t have to move an inch. Don’t you envy me?”
“Sometimes I do,” I admitted. “You get free housing, for instance. And the minute you start squeaking you have the machinists doctoring you up. And the electricians are checking your circuits all the time. Sometimes I think that my neural circuits need a checking. But I can’t afford a psychiatrist.”
“You need plenty of work done on you, that’s for sure,” said Mr. Machine. “But stick around a while and all those loose ends will get clipped off. Then you’ll become as efficient as a machine as any of us.”
When I got to my room that night I was determined to make Mr. Machine proud of me. I didn’t play any records and I didn’t read a book. I didn’t write a poem and I didn’t whistle a song. I didn’t look at holy pictures and I didn’t look at dirty pictures. I just sat and stared at a blank wall, feeling the numb kind of comfort all machines must feel when the power is turned off.
But I still had one bad little human trait. It guided me to the tavern across the street. I wanted to have a last stein of beer with the human race.
It must have been one of those loose ends of fate that put me on a bar stool next to a gal named Dixie. After a few drinks she told me that she had been a chorus girl in Earl Carroll’s place in Hollywood during World War II.
“I was one of his long-stemmed American beauties,” she said proudly through wrinkled eyes. And she gave me a glimpse of her credentials.
We sat together till three o’clock in the morning. And then, arm in arm, we did a soft shoe dance on Michigan Boulevard while singing “Me and My Shadow.”
And as she was fading into the darkness she tossed me a kiss and said, “Stay human. It’s more fun.”
The alarm clock shook me out of bed, as usual. I showered, shaved and hurried through the shredded wheat while reading the headlines. I buttoned my shirt as I ran to the subway. Breathless, I got to the newspaper building, squeezed into an elevator, and glanced at the clock as I rushed to my three miracles of automation.
“Hello,” said Mr. Machine. “You made it on time again, with ten seconds to spare. You’re getting to be as reliable as any of us.”
“I can’t understand it,” I said, automatically pressing a yellow button. “I had no intention of coming to work today. I wanted to stay human. But one reaction led to another, as if somebody were controlling me with perforated tape.”
“I know how you feel,” said Mr. Machine, sadly shrugging his elevators. And he scrambled a line in the assembler.
“What’s the matter with you today?” I complained. “You’re not reacting properly.”
“I just don’t feel like working,” he said. “D’you see that latest model down the aisle? They took the cover off her last night.”
I turned to look. “She’s really streamlined,” I said. “But what’s that got to do with producing 14 lines a minute?”
“When everybody was gone last night I blinked at her. And she blinked back.”
“So what?” I demanded impatiently. “We’re half a galley behind schedule.”
Mr. Machine nonchalantly tossed some mats to the floor. “Well,” he drawled, “as we were blinking I did some thinking. And I came to the conclusion that there was more to life than 14 lines a minute.”
“You must have a loose wire somewhere,” I said. “I can’t get a line out of you. I’m calling an electrician.
Mr. Machine blinked his red lights, green lights and yellow lights just for the hell of it. And he was humming some kind of love song, real loud. Then he blew a fuse.