The Electronic Heart

Sophie Jones

‘I can feel it’. HAL 9000, the supercomputer at the centre of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), makes this claim to emotional sensitivity moments before its higher functions are terminated by astronaut Dave Bowman, the sole surviving human aboard the Discovery spaceship. HAL’s next words, a rendition of the love song ‘Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)’ slowed almost to the point of incomprehension, are the machine’s last [1]. This uncannily poignant swansong leaves the question of whether HAL can really ‘feel it’ unresolved. The computer’s automatic repetition of the song — its earliest memory — perhaps proves that its apparent emotional life was always a trick of programming. Yet the tonal shift from HAL’s emotive plea for mercy to its oblivious serenade suggests, contradictorily, that something has changed in this moment. The question lingers: has Bowman shut down a faulty computer or lobotomized a sentient machine?

Critical responses to this problem have tended to presume that HAL’s emotional authenticity is a question of the computer’s technical capability. That is to say, HAL either cares because it can feel emotion or it only seems to care because it cannot truly feel anything. Yet, as Arlie Russell Hochschild points out in her 1983 sociological study The Managed Heart, possessing the capacity to feel does not necessarily mean one’s emotion is authentic [2]. The flight attendants studied by Hochschild are trained to present a pleasant and calm exterior to passengers even if they feel angry, upset or exhausted. Early computers were often described as ‘electronic brains’ for their ability to process information, but the metaphor of an ‘electronic heart’ is at least as apt for HAL, a machine that provides affective as well as informational support [3].

Electronic Blinky Heart

The electronic heart: the supercomputer HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey reminds us of the cost of emotional labour

[Image by Darren Pierson under a CC BY-NC-SA license]

In The Managed Heart Hochschild acknowledges that emotion management is part of everyday life; people regularly speak of tailoring feelings to the situation at hand. Emotional labour, for Hochschild, involves the ‘transmutation’ of this private system of managing feelings into the world of work—a transmutation evident, for example, in the shift from the imperative to smile at a relative in order to be polite to the imperative to smile at a customer in order to get paid (19). If HAL’s claim that it can ‘feel it’ highlights the problem of the computer’s emotional authenticity, this question is no less relevant to 2001’s first words, spoken by a female lift operator: ‘Here you are, sir.’ Does the lift operator really mean her performance of polite deference? When asked by a BBC newsreader whether he believes HAL has ‘genuine emotions’, Bowman answers:

Well he acts like he has genuine emotions. Of course, he’s programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him. But as to whether or not he has real feelings, that’s something I don’t think anyone can truthfully answer.

An airline passenger quoted by Hochschild echoes Bowman’s comment:

When you see them receiving passengers with that big smile, I don’t think it means anything. They have to do that. It’s part of the job. But now if you get into a conversation with a flight attendant … well … no … I guess they have to do that too (89).

To view HAL through the lens of emotional labour is to grasp 2001’s sustained interest in the subversive intimacy of women and machines. Feminist and queer critiques of 2001 have usually agreed that the film minimises women, noting that the few female characters present in its early scenes disappear once the Jupiter mission commences [4]. Yet it is not enough to simply state that women are part of the background in 2001, for it is a film fascinated by how ‘the background’ is constituted through the devaluation of certain kinds of people and certain kinds of work. In positioning HAL as a machine that automates specifically female jobs, 2001 registers the way the emotional work traditionally carried out by women is naturalised.

It is well-known that an early draft of the 2001 script gendered the computer female — HAL was originally to be named Athena, after the Greek goddess. The gendering of HAL as male in the final film has usually been discussed as a directorial decision, but it can also be considered diegetically as a function of the characters’ use of male pronouns; the astronauts want their computer to be male. Imagining HAL as a man, Bowman and Poole overlook the continuity between the work carried out by the computer and the jobs performed by 2001’s female service workers. This is the first step towards the world without women inaugurated in the film’s closing image: the autonomous foetal Star Child, for whom the work of care is redundant. Women with tools are a powerful presence in the first part of the film. The flight attendant on Dr. Floyd’s space shuttle is able to walk around the zero-gravity environment, and even to walk vertically up a wall, because her special ‘grip shoes’ root her to the floor. Dr. Floyd, who does not have these shoes, must stay in his seat. The disparity between the flight attendant’s freedom to move and Dr. Floyd’s constriction is dramatised in the scene in which she moves to catch his pen, which has made its way out of the scientist’s breast pocket and is floating around the cabin as he sleeps in his seat. In its moment of capture by the flight attendant’s hands, the pen is a phallic visual pun that symbolises the threat women with machines pose to masculinist power.


Zero-gravity: the flight attendant’s freedom to move using grip shoes emphasises Dr Floyd’s physical constriction in this scene dramatising women’s threat to male authority

[Image used under fair dealings provisions]

Dr. Floyd’s arrival at the space station is mediated by a series of women, each in charge of a different aspect of the station’s vast technological apparatus. The lift operator takes Dr. Floyd into the space station, pressing unseen buttons to ensure his smooth entry. Upon arrival he is greeted by a receptionist, whose friendly professional smile is visible in a profile shot before she directs Dr. Floyd and his companion into an authorisation booth. As Dr. Floyd moves into the booth the receptionist’s fingers can be seen selecting the language of the authorisation video. The close-up suggests that the receptionist’s control of the communications environment is undercover; the desk hides her hands and she says nothing to indicate that she is pressing a button marked ‘English’. In a video-phone conversation with his young daughter Dr. Floyd discourages her birthday request for a telephone, betraying his unease at the extent to which women are controlling the technology that encases him.


Women in control: the close-up shot of the receptionist’s fingers selecting English as the language of the authorisation video emphasises Dr Floyd’s powerlessness in his new technologised environment

[Image used under fair dealings provisions]

All the service staff of the space station are American women, and all the film’s American women are service staff. By contrast, of the four Soviet professionals Dr. Floyd meets, three are female and one male. It is a Soviet woman, Elena, who dilutes the latent hostility in her colleague Dmitri’s interrogation of Dr. Floyd and diverts attention to less political matters. Unlike the labour of the lift operator, flight attendant and receptionist, Elena’s emotion work takes place during an impromptu meeting and seems more social than professional. Thus two modes of emotional labour — one social, the other work-based — are demarcated along national lines. Later, both modes of feminised labour are united in HAL, a machine that knows no distinction between work and leisure. The distinction between private emotion management and emotion work seems to break down at points in Hochschild’s thesis, particularly when she acknowledges that women’s labour is often situated outside the wage relation. She writes:

Women tend to manage feeling more because in general they depend on men for money, and one of the various ways of repaying their debt is to do extra emotion work – especially emotion work that affirms, enhances, and celebrates the well-being and status of others (165, italics in original).

If the distinction between leisure and work is blurred in the figure of Elena, the Discovery itself is an extreme example of the post-Fordist erosion of leisure time described by the political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. In Multitude (2004), they observe that in the case of affective labour, ‘work time tends to expand to the entire time of life’ (111). In this way, the ‘double day’ historically undertaken by working mothers has been generalised to encompass other kinds of labouring subjects in the post-industrial era. 2001 emblematises this shift. Despite their advanced computer, the astronauts are always at work.


Gendering hardware and programming: the term “computer” was originally used to refer to the women who performed ballistics calculations during WWII and ENIAC extended this gendered divsion of labour

[Images (from left to right) by Revol Web under a CC BY-SA license and Brandon Daniel under a CC BY-SA license]

In the second part of the film, HAL takes on all the jobs that were performed by women. Like the receptionist, it enables the astronauts’ communication with relatives on Earth, playing Bowman a birthday video message from his parents. Like the lift operator, it controls the physical environment of the ship to ensure maximum comfort for the astronauts, adjusting Bowman’s headrest on request. Like Elena, it reassures the men around it, wishing Dave a happy birthday and commending his sketches: ‘That’s a very nice rendering, Dave. I think you’ve improved a great deal.’ Just as HAL’s role on the Discovery parallels the ‘invisible’ work traditionally done by women, so the computer, as mythological object, conceals women’s significance in its own development. The term ‘computer’ once referred to the women who performed ballistics calculations during World War II, working alongside the engineers developing the machines that would replace them. As Jennifer Light outlines in her 1999 article “When Computers Were Women”, the term did not come to denote a machine until after 1945, when some of the female computers became the first programmers. The development of the early computer known as the ENIAC (the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) involved a gendered division of labour — in Light’s terms, ‘designing hardware was a man’s job; programming was a woman’s job’ (469).

Electronic Synapses

Electronic brains: 1950s cultural representations of computer-as-woman (threatening to replace women’s clerical tasks) predate its gendering as male and subsequent depiction as machinic

[Image by Charis Tsevis under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

Although ENIAC’s female programmers needed expertise in mathematics in order to do their work, programming was not acknowledged as a skilled form of labour until the job was masculinized. Light explains:

Newspaper accounts characterize ENIAC’s ability to perform tasks as “intelligent” but the women doing the same computing tasks did not receive similar acclaim. While the media publicly hailed hardware designers as having “fathered” the machine, they did not mention women’s contributions (473).

The terminological shift from computer-as-woman to computer-as-machine is reflected in the ambiguous gendering of early computers in the 1950s and 1960s. While numerous media reports refer to the ‘electronic brain’ with male pronouns, the film Desk Set (1957) features a computer nicknamed ‘Emmy’ that threatens to replace the women researchers at a television company. These media representations feminize the computer as both clerical worker and confidante while eliding the role women’s intellectual work played in the machine’s development. 

A recent news report in the Guardian draws parallels between HAL and Kirobo, the first humanoid talking space robot in the world (3). A less exciting but more substantial analogy might be found in the new machinery of everyday service, from the self-service checkout to ‘nursebots’ in the health and social care sectors. The economist Nancy Folbre has documented the inventions involved in the automation of care work, including a robotic dog ‘marketed for its ability to offer unconditional love’ (“Nursebots”, 356). Folbre analyses the way the labour shortage in nursing is driving automation, resulting in what she terms the ‘over-commodification of care’ (“Nursebots”, 351). Silvia Federici, in a piece titled “On Elder Care Work and the Limits of Marxism”, points to the way this trend is linked to the devaluation of the reproductive work historically carried out by women, which today is often carried out by immigrants who are vulnerable to low wages and poor conditions (118). Meanwhile, demands on the emotional life of employees outside the care sector are proliferating. Paul Myerscough, writing in the London Review of Books, summarises the affective labour required by employees of sandwich chain Pret-a-Manger: ‘It isn’t what you make, but how your display of feeling makes others feel.’ The identification of HAL as a symbol of affective labour takes on a new resonance in this context. HAL’s decision to kill the men it serves has often been read as a fable of promethean overreaching, but it can also be understood as a labour strike by a machine in solidarity with the workers it has replaced.

CITATION: Sophie Jones, “The Electronic Heart,” Alluvium, Vol. 2, No. 6 (2013) (“Digital Metaphors” Special Issue): n. pag. Web. 4 December 2013,

Sophie Jones is a doctoral researcher in the Department of English and Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London. Her AHRC-funded PhD examines the way discourses of media and technology intersect with the politics of reproduction in US literature and film between the late 1950s and the early 1970s. In 2011-2012, she was a British Research Council Fellow at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.


[1] The scene references IBM’s 704 computer, which made history when it was programmed to sing ‘Daisy Bell’ in 1961.

[2] Michael P. Nofz and Phil Vendy have drawn on Hochschild’s work in relation to 2001 in their article “When Computers Say It With Feeling”, which considers the pitfalls of anthropomorphizing emotionally sensitive computers. Here, I focus instead on the socio-political resonance of Hochschild’s research for Kubrick’s film. See Michael P. Nofz and and Phil Vendy, “When Computers Say It with Feeling: Communication and Synthetic Emotions in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.Journal of Communication Inquiry 26:1 (January 2002): 26-45.

[3] See C. Dianne Martin, “The Myth of the Thinking Machine”. Communications of the ACM 36:4 (April 1993) for an overview of representations of computers in the US media between 1945 and 1960.

[4] See, for instance, Judith A. Spector, “Science Fiction and the Sex War: A Womb of One’s Own.” Literature and Psychology 31:1 (1981): 21-32; Zoe Sofia, “Exterminating Fetuses: Abortion, Disarmament, and the Sexo-Semiotics of Extraterrestrialism.” Diacritics (Summer 1984): 47-59; Ellis Hanson, “Technology, Paranoia and the Queer Voice.” Screen 34:2 (Summer 1993): 137-161; Dominic Janes, “Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: A Queer Odyssey.” Science Fiction Film & Television 4:1 (2001), 57-78.

Works Cited:

2001: A Space Odyssey. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 1968.

Desk Set. Dir. Walter Lang. Twentieth Century Fox. 1957.

Federici, Silvia, “On Elder Care Work and the Limits of Marxism.” Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012. 115-125.

Folbre, Nancy, “Nursebots to the Rescue? Immigration, Automation, and Care.” Globalizations 3:33 (September 2005): 349-360.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. London: Penguin, 2004.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983.

Kennedy, Maev, “Talking Robot Takes off for International Space Station.” Guardian Web. 4 August 2013.

Light, Jennifer “When Computers were Women.” Technology and Culture 40.3 (July 1999): 455-483.

Myerscough, Paul, “Short Cuts.” London Review of Books 35:1 (3 January 2013): 25.

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