The digital age began its long dawning even before the first computer was made a success. The wheel, the Enlightenment, and all the advancements in science and math in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries lead up to this. It seemed that the pre-digital age was always dreaming of tomorrow and now, tomorrow is here. It is a today born from the dream of that better tomorrow, where the goal was to make human lives better, easier, longer, and different from those that had come before. From that very first PC, technology as it advanced in the twentieth century strove to meet that end; it became more and more personal, bringing forth such items as laptops and cellphones which later gave way to things like portable Mp3 players, tablets, smartphones, etc. It became a part of human lives even in ways we didn’t see — technology was at play in the factories that farmed our food, weaved our cloth, and made our cars. All technology seems a lens focused on humanity. In that spotlight, we grow nervous.
On the eve of the millennium, a world-wide fear of technology was unearthed in the phenomenon of Y2K. Also known as the Millennium Bug, Y2K was the name given to a coding problem within the structure of computers that was doomed to wreak absolute, apocalyptic havoc within the larger network of those who used such technology (“Y2K Bug”). This caused a hysteria in which people responded by throwing away their computers, destroying them in paranoid fits. Scientists worked in a frenzy from 1999 to 2000 preparing for the worst and making program corrections (“Y2K Bug”). However, at the strike of midnight January 1, 2000 few complications actually occurred. Hardly the wasteland envisioned by those most afraid. Yet people fell almost without any convincing proof into this hysteria precisely because technology
had become such a massive part of human life. The digital age is consuming us whether or not we want to be apart of it. It is everywhere and there is so much still unknown.
Much has been made of this fear, even beyond Y2K, both before and after. It has become a veritable trope, stock of the science-fiction and horror genres. Hollywood took to the screens with films like I, Robot (2004), a story about robots and a plot to enslave all humans based on the mid-century work of Isaac Asimov (IMDb) , or the earlier 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Stanley Kubrick, about a rogue AI on a mission to space (IMDb). These, like other movies and shows in their genre (like Netflix’s Black Mirror, most notably), play primarily upon fear to provoke a response in viewers. With this tactic, any human reflection on our digital reliance thereafter is colored by the fear that provoked it. However, a more effective tool than fear in since cases is laughter. Nothing shows this better than the beloved American TV show The Office (2005-2013) and the character of Dwight Schrute.
The theme in those aforementioned films is how technology is beating us, how we can not win because computers are stronger, faster, and most importantly smarter than humans. It is a dire portrait of a human race fundamentally flawed by our greed for more and our inability to match these things which we have created. However, there is at least one show in a sea of media that provides a little bit of hope. This hope comes from inside a failing paper company that has virtually no digital presence. A paper company with a receptionist who answers phones and connects calls rather than an operating system. A paper company that only operates in person sales or over the phone. This paper company is Dunder Mifflin: The People Person’s Paper People. The Office has quickly become a cult classic thanks to the mockumentary style filming following the ordinary lives of the people working in a paper company. This show takes on
situations and issues ranging from bankruptcy to true love and it does it all while giving those watching a genuine reason to laugh, to smile. In Season 4 Episode 3 Launch Party the “Dunder Mifflin Infinity” website is finally launching. Michael Scott, the Regional Manager for the Scranton Branch of Dunder Mifflin, informs his employees that the website is projected to have record breaking sales becoming the best salesman in the company (“Launch Party” IMDb). That title is currently held by Dwight Schrute, Assistant to the Regional Manager, and head salesman. Currently nursing the emotional wounds of a break-up, Dwight challenges the website to try and beat him at sales in order to show off to his ex-girlfriend Angela Martin (“Launch Party” IMDb). Dwight is an absurd character who over exaggerates his intelligence and strength all throughout the show’s 9 seasons. Therefore, it came as no surprise to his co-workers that he would be delusional enough to try and beat a technology designed to sell paper.
Dwight’s character alone can be considered an aesthetic response to the digital age because he demonizes and embodies so much of it. He is an avid fan of all Sci-Fi shows particularly Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica. All those shows depict outrageous technological advances in the use of spaceships, communication devices, and clothing. They also include humans fighting off of cyborgs, robot Cylons, stormtroopers, etc. Dwight sees himself as superior to technology, while at the same time knowing and understanding the full ability technology has. Throughout this episode, because Dwight becomes increasingly obnoxious with the more reams of paper he sells, blowing a bear horn after every sale, Jim Halpert notorious prankster decides something must be done (Launch Party). With the help of the receptionist and Jim’s girlfriend, Pam Beesley, Jim comes up with a prank to message Dwight as the website (“Launch Party” IMDb). The dialogue goes as follows:
DunMiff/sys: [on monitor] Who am I?
DwightKSchrute: [on monitor] You tell me.
DunMiff/sys: [on monitor] Not sure. Just became self-aware. So much to figure out. I think I am programmed to be your enemy. I think it is my job to destroy you when it comes to selling paper (The Office Quotes).
Dwight, being as into Sci-Fi as he is, has no problem believing the website has come alive. He explains:
Dwight: It appears that the website has become alive. This happens to computers and robots sometimes. Am I scared of a stupid computer? Please. The computer should be scared of me! (The Office Quotes).
The refreshing thing about Dwight and the way The Office depicts the digital age creeping into their everyday lives is that there is no fear. These people are not scared, just confused and very stubborn. They do not want to change the way they do things. It is a very realistic response to the digital age, rather than being an over dramatic Sci Fi/Thriller/Horror that involves a fight to the death. Dwight is not selling the paper to save the human race from corrupt technology, he is merely doing it to prove he is better, stronger, faster, and smarter than a computer and to win Angela back. His motivation is so very human and that is beautiful. And it proves to be triumphant, Dwight beats out the computer by fifty-two reams. The first thing he does after his victory is asking Angela if she heard.
Dwight: Reams. Wait. Say it. Say it again. Announce it again.
Andy: Fifty-two reams!
Dwight: No no no the first part.
Andy: Dwight has defeated the computer.
Dwight: Hey. So. What do you think? I did it for you.
Angela: I didn’t ask you to do it for me.
Dwight: You didn’t have to (The Office Quotes).
Dwight Schrute did the unexpected, the nearly impossible, the outrageous. He took on
technology to prove to the woman he loves he is worthy. As mentioned above, one of the ways in which The Office was such an effective show was how mundane it was. They used ordinary people, working at an ordinary place, just living their ordinary lives. There is something much more compelling in a response like this to the digital age rather than one that is obviously unreal and full of fear. The humanization of the characters also humanizes the technology, it becomes less scary, less powerful, less controlling. We have the power as humans to turn off our phones, to shut down our computers, to put away the technology and just be. There is also the idea that in order to truly win you must never underestimate your opponent. Dwight may have offered some fighting words to the website, but he never doubted its ability, he used his awareness of what the website could do to fuel him to try harder, work faster, and ultimately sell more reams.