Inflection point

Today somebody was wearing a tee shirt that said “The only winning move is not to play.” He told me he was disappointed that most people didn’t recognize the quote. Being appropriately geeky (as, I suspect, are many of you reading this) I recognized it right away as the key line from the 1983 John Badham film “WarGames”. The complete snippet of dialog is between Dr. Falken and his supercomputer Joshua, who has just gone through the exercise of evaluating the outcome of every possible permutation of thermonuclear war:

Joshua: Greetings, Professor Falken.

Falken: Hello, Joshua.

Joshua: A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?

What fascinates me most about this film is that it represents a precise inflection point in the popular culture – the moment when the programmer became the cool guy who got the girl. Certainly TRON had come out a full year earlier, but Bruce Boxleitner played him as pointedly nerdy – almost the antithesis of cool.

In contrast, Matthew Broderick, three years before he reached his apotheosis as Ferris Bueller, was identifiably cool and sexy, the teen rebel beginning to discover that he is a natural leader – witnessed just as he is coming into his considerable powers. This is essentially the same archetype that appears over and over again in literature. He is Prince Hal in “Henry IV, Part One”, James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause”, Simba in “The Lion King” and Josh Hartnett in “The Faculty”.

The reason I find this change significant is that it pinpoints the year 1983 as the year the United States first experienced a massive shift in perception of its own power. Historically the power brokers in America had been those men (and it was pretty much always men) who wielded control of industrial production – John D. Rockefeller with his vast holdings in petroleum, and steel magnates like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie, followed somewhat later by a succession of powerful leaders of the automobile industry from Henry Ford to Lee Iacocca.

America was seen as mighty because of its industrial and manufacturing base, and this continued to be true after WWII and throughout the Cold War. Even the space race was a display of industrial brawn, the ultimate athletic feat of a nation that had worshiped the sheer physicality of transportation since the Wright Brothers and Ford had changed everything in 1908.

But of course now things are different. We are well into an era that worships a newer variety of Alpha leader, and a different kind of throne awaits Prince Hal. This is the era of Bill Gates, of Steve Jobs, of Larry and Sergei – of the supremacy of information over physical power.

Even our recent presidential election has been a triumph of the thinking man over the warrior – an outcome that would have been inconceivable in 1952 or 1956, when the intellectual Adlai Stevenson was practically laughed off the national stage when he attempted to go mano a mano with Eisenhower the war hero. But this time the election was fought and won on the internet. Obama the cool thinker – descendent of Matthew Broderick’s David Lightman – handily beat out McCain’s attempted channeling of John Wayne.

I would argue that the release of Badham’s cautionary film was the moment when this power shift first entered the national zeitgeist. The popular embrace of the internet era in which we all now live, where information is power, where teenagers view the cyber-creations of Will Wright with the same sense of reverent awe that a long-ago generation reserved for the physical feats of Harry Houdini, can be said to have begun a quarter of a century ago, with the release of “WarGames”.

3 Responses to “Inflection point”

  1. troy says:

    Huge logistical mistake…

    I always assumed that Ballet Dancers would be the “new cool” in the 80s…

    Live and learn…

  2. Ben Kanegson says:

    In 1983, “computer literacy” was required to operate machines that were not ubiquitous as they are today; the “cool nerd” was the only guy who had the combination to open the box that held the power. And, as the public’s sense of the mysterious power of the computer spread, a series of 80’s cool nerd films followed, including “The Last Starfighter”, “Real Genius” starring the ultra cool Val Kilmer, “Weird Science”, “Revenge of the Nerds”…

    Today, of course, the mystery is gone and all the Cool Kids are on Facebook. That’s how we know the shift to the information age is complete. But as the economy craters, Google’s market cap has halved, and the Big Three dinosaurs stand hat in hand, there is something different afoot…

    There is a growing sense of instability, a nostalgia for the solid foundation of an industrial base. The number crunchers and paper pushers on Wall Street are perceived to have caused the crisis, and real building of real things is the accepted core of the stimulus plan to get us out of it. Anachronistic octagenarians like T. Boone Pickens and Warren Buffett are suddenly the go-to guys who can save us, building wind farms and solar panels and using old time common sense. WPA imagery is invoked in the call to invest in bridges, roads, energy projects and infrastructure.

    Of course, all the tools created in the information age will be used to facilitate these projects, but, if the public mood is reflected on film, I would look for a story where the hero goes back to his roots and builds something physical.

    Ben

  3. Yeah, right. There is not much difference between physical world and information. Physical world is just another kind of information (we connect to real world and “browse it” to achieve such goals as: survival, travel, experience). Although physical world is very important, it’s an illusion as ‘everything else’.

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