From The Archives

Jean Shepherd’s Computerized Christmas

Almost three decades before his “A Christmas Story” became a TV staple, the radio maestro took a look at Christmas Yet to Come in the pages of the Voice.


[Editor’s note: Already well-known for his free-form radio show, Jean Shepherd (1921–1999) began writing for the Village Voice in the May 9, 1956, issue. His inaugural essay — “How Hi the Good Life of Madison Avenue’s Fi?” — was, appropriately enough, about hi-fidelity stereo systems and the way advertising agencies portrayed them as part of America’s post-war “good life.” Fast forward a few months and Shepherd had his own column in the Voice — titled “Night People,” a nod to his 12:30 to 5:00 AM nightly gig on WOR radio — and was eagerly taking on Christmas hucksters. It was apparently a subject dear to Shepherd’s heart, because decades later we are still enjoying 24-hour TV marathons of A Christmas Story, Shepherd’s comic love letter to all that is cheesy, sweet, and poignant about American Yuletide.]

Merry Christmas From Little Brother
December 19, 1956

I envision the day, and it isn’t too far off, when all a person will have to do to take care of his Christmas-card list is to send along his IBM Special Xmas Address Tape to a department store, and the whole thing will be done. Postage and all will be included in the package price, which also pays for cards, printing and handling.

Perhaps he won’t even have to go to the trouble of sending the tape, for the thing could be kept on file at the store with the cards going out automatically, completely untouched by human hands. He might be called upon to make an occasional deletion or addition to the list, but this too could be done automatically at any time of the year by simply telephoning into the store’s Friendship Department, where the changes would be piped directly into the Christmas Card Circuit, without any possibility of mistake.

His Complete Profile

Even the selection of the card would be automatic, since the customer would have on IBM file in the Taste Department his complete aesthetic profile — carefully geared to grade everyone from Complete Slob to Arid Aesthete — which would electronically select the one card most suited to the customer’s scientifically determined taste. The only thing left for the customer to do would be to shell out the dough. There would probably be some method to make this automatic too, but I refuse to think in that area.

Already one automation firm has put on the market a genuine blight called an “Organization Coordinator” which is an Orwellian dream. It is a smooth-crackle-finished cabinet that comes in numerous decorator colors to match any decor and designed to be a thing of beauty in itself. All it does is watch. It uses no batteries, wires, ink, or lead, and is completely silent in operation, 24 hours a day.

In Black and White

The function of this monster is to record on a chart the comings and goings of anyone who wanders into its field of electronic vision. Placed on a man’s desk, it will put down in black and white the information that the inhabitant went to the john for 16 minutes, 22 seconds, beginning at 3:07 p.m., and then got up for a coffee break 11 minutes later.

Little Brother. I can just see the thing set up next to the Coke machine in order to silently eye the gang as they gather for The Pause That Refreshes. A real Aid to Better Living.

This stuff may sound almost too incredible to be true. But the little horror really is on the market and sells for a measly $59.75, with a six-month money-back guarantee. Oddly enough, the advertising brochure makes the remarkable statement that it is a morale-booster around the office. So it really isn’t too far off for the Christmas-card thing, after all.

Packaged Everything

And think of the advantages. There is a sign in Bloomingdale’s that reads “Personalized Greeting Cards,” which when translated means cards that have the sender’s name mechanically printed upon them. Apparently it never occurs to the sender that by this device he has actually depersonalized his card, in the very act of deleting his hand-written signature. Thus the word “personalize” has really come to mean exactly the opposite. Just another step in the direction of Packaged Everything, which seems to be our current definition of progress.

There is a store in Chicago which for a sum geared to the customer’s budget — as it is always put — will take care of all his Christmas shopping in a lump package that includes wrapping, gay greeting notes, and delivery to the giftee. The giver doesn’t see a single gift or wrap a package during the entire merry holiday season. Ring the welkin! The store took out an ad stressing the theme of “Make this a convenient Christmas,” apparently referring to the old inconvenient Christmases that entailed all that old fashioned loving care that used be lavished upon giving. The very thing that made the gift valuable is thereby progressed out of existence, and the only thing that remains is the antiseptic exchange of department-store merchandise in carload lots.

Whose Home?

In a way, it reminds me of the sign in the window of a nation-wide string of candy stores: “Give Home-Made Fudge This Year.” Whose home did they use for the fudgemaking, and I wonder if they messed up the kitchen? You know how fudgemaking is, especially when the kitchen table is all covered with holiday wrapping stuff. Have a Merry One on Old Gaunt Rockwell here, and be sure to keep your marble bag closed.

Jean Shepherd may be heard from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. every Sunday evening over WOR. An article of his appears in the December edition of Town and Country and in the January issue of Saga there is an excellent piece about Shepherd’s book, “I, Libertine,” and its repercussions radiowise.