BY MATTHEW PARSONS
I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about Mad Men for a while now. This is a show that has become a fairly large part of my life, particularly in my current and ongoing state of unemployment, so I should hope that I’d have something worthwhile to say about it by now. And, finally, I think I do.
Granted, WORST may seem a strange place to say it. After all, Mad Men is a show about the 1960s, while WORST tends not to be about that. In fact, as I’ve noted before, WORST tends mostly to be about now. However, this apparent discrepancy can be reconciled thusly: Mad Men‘s 1960s setting is a giant red herring designed to keep viewers from noticing that the show is a covert social commentary about our world, today.
I’m going to prove that in a second. But first, let’s talk about the Internet.
The Internet is scary. It’s scary because change is scary. Nobody likes change, no matter how old they are, what country they’re from, or at what point in history they lived. Nowhere is that more obvious than in newsrooms in the past several years. There’s a sense that the digital age is not so much something to be adapted to as it’s something to be defended against. Given the widespread cutbacks in newsrooms everywhere, it’s easy to see why social media and blogging are sometimes seen as more of a threat than an opportunity.
I’ve experienced this firsthand. I’ve been in rooms full of long-time professional journalists where the anxiety over social media makes the air feel thick. And, after watching the most recent half-season of Mad Men, I was led to wonder whether showrunner Matt Weiner had been in rooms like that, too (I guess this is the point where it’s customary to warn you about spoilers. But, if you’re concerned about spoilers in Mad Men, you’re watching the show wrong. No matter what Matt Weiner tells you).
The season seven episode “The Monolith” takes its name from the IBM System 360, a room-sized 1960s computer that the advertising agency at the centre of Mad Men installs in what was once its employee lounge. Its tall, rectangular central console resembles that other famously sinister symbol of human progress, the monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. If, like some of my friends, you’ve never gotten past the first few minutes with the monkeys, the monolith seems to turn up every time that humanity makes a technological leap forward.
There’s a palpable sense of anxiety around the office that one day, those things will replace us all. The significance of the computer taking up the space where the agency’s employees used to spend the bulk of their time is not lost on our protagonist, Don Draper. Harry Crane, the show’s staunchest tech advocate, assures Don, “It’s not symbolic.”
“No,” replies Don, “it’s quite literal.”
Today’s reporters and editors must sympathize deeply with Don. Talk of algorithms, SEO, and online metrics are the 2014 equivalent of Harry Crane’s effusive remarks about the precision of computer-generated market data in 1969. And, as for computers literally replacing people, the above-mentioned newsroom cutbacks might seem to indicate that Don’s fears have come to pass.
Whether or not that’s true, the sense that technology has facilitated the demise of journalism-as-we-know-it (and many people’s jobs along with it) reflects a set of decades-old (and probably centuries-old) anxieties.
“The Internet is killing long-form journalism!”
“Twitter is killing our attention spans!”
“It’s not symbolic. It’s quite literal.”
All of this leads me to believe that Weiner and the various other writers on Mad Men have been using the contemporary media’s response to the Internet as a model for how his characters respond to scary new technology. I might be wrong, but it kind of doesn’t matter. The point that Mad Men is making, intentionally or not, is that our institutions have always been suspicious of new technology, and we are no more or less threatened today than we were in 1969. And, as both Don Draper and the present-day media are rapidly discovering, it doesn’t matter how much we resist. We all get dragged into the future eventually.
So, if you want to get a sense of how a stressed-out modern newsroom feels, watch Mad Men. And, if you want to get a real, tangible sense of how the denizens of a 1960s advertising agency might have felt about computers, all you need to do is walk into the offices of a modern-day news organization. ♦
Photo via AMC