Computers Are Useless. They Can Only Give You Answers

Pablo Picasso? Louis Zukofsky? William Fifield? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Since you are a computer expert you might enjoy this mordant quotation from Pablo Picasso, the most vital artist of the 20th century:

Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.

Recently, I was examining a poem by another influential modern artist, the poet Louis Zukofsky, and I was surprised to find the following words ascribed to “Pablo”:

Calculators can only give answers.

Based on the context I think Zukofsky was crediting this saying to Pablo Picasso. The section of the poem with these words was published in 1967. Can you determine which of these quotes is accurate? Was Picasso really talking about calculators or computers? Or did he use both quotes?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence for this quotation located by QI appeared in an interview article published in The Paris Review 32 of Summer-Fall 1964. The article called “Pablo Picasso: A Composite Interview” consisted of a collection of interviews conducted by the prize-winning author William Fifield together with his interspersed observations. Interestingly, the word “computer” did not actually appear in the text written by Fifield that gave rise to the modern quotation [WFP1]:

I feel I am nibbling on the edges of this world when I am capable of getting what Picasso means when he says to me—perfectly straight-facedly—later of the enormous new mechanical brains or calculating machines: “But they are useless. They can only give you answers.” How easy and comforting to take these things for jokes—boutades!

It is clear the Fifield was talking about devices that today would be called computers. QI believes that it is also possible to see how both versions of the saying highlighted by the questioner could have been derived from the text in the Paris Review.

Fifield later revised his comments and introduced a third slightly different version of the saying as discussed further below. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The Summer-Fall 1964 issue of Paris Review published an article by William Fifield that included a remark by Pablo Picasso as given above. The article also discussed an artwork by Picasso called “L’Homme au Mouton” (Man and Sheep) located in the marketplace square of Vallauris. Fifield stated that it was “hung and strewn all over with his children’s clothes” because it was used as clothes rack. Picasso laughed about this and said [WFP2]:

Art requires disrespect!

A version of this maxim and the one about devices that only give answers were both incorporated into the poem of Louis Zukofsky titled “A”-18 that was published in 1967 [LZPP]:


together.  Man and Sheep: Odysseus with the Sacrifice:
his kid’s clothes sprawled over the stone, Pablo—
‘art begs disrespect, calculators can only give answers.
Bad, good: horses or sheep in a field.’

The poet Zukofsky probably selected “calculator” based on the phrase “mechanical brains or calculating machines” printed in the Paris Review. QI’s work on this post was greatly aided by the online resource “Z-site: A Companion to the Works of Louis Zukofsky” edited by Jeff Twitchell-Waas [ZJTW]. Extensive line-by-line annotations for the work “A” are presented on the site. QI would also like to thank Zukofsky expert Mark Scroggins for his kind help and for his pointer to Z-site.

In 1982 William Fifield published “In Search of Genius” which contained interviews with several individuals whom Fifield identified as geniuses including Picasso. Fifield presented two versions of the aphorism. He updated the vocabulary and referred to computers instead of calculators or brains. In addition, the instance on page 40 contained a novel alternative prefatory phrase attributed to Picasso “What good are computers?” that was not present in the Paris Review [WFP1]:

He said contemptuously: “What good are computers? They can only give you answers.” I think it the most significant single thing I ever heard him say. Answer is the dead stop. Probably creation shall prove a manifold instantaneous adjustment to thousandfold things; the “conclusion” but a stop, and all real artworks unfinished.

The instance on page 145 was closely based on the text in the Paris Review. The word “computers” was substituted into the passage, and the word boutades was omitted [WFP2]:

I feel I am nibbling on the edges of this when I am capable of getting what Picasso means when he says to me—with a perfectly straight face—of computers: “But they are useless. They can only give you answers.” How easy and comforting to take these things for jokes!

In 1983 Fifield’s book was reviewed in the New York Times, and the striking remark ascribed to Picasso was selected and reprinted. The reviewer recognized that there were two versions and she chose the one on page 145 [NYWF]:

Picasso makes a charming comment on computers: “But they are useless. They can only give you answers.” In fact, Mr. Fifield likes this one so much he quotes it twice.

Later in the 1980s the quotation was altered by the removal of the pronominal reference. The phrase “But they are useless” was replaced by “Computers are useless”. Here is an example from a quiz question that was published in Orange Coast magazine in 1986 [OCPP]:

18. “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”
a. Lee Iacocca
b. F. Lee Bailey
c. Dr. Helen Caldicott
d. Pablo Picasso
e. John-Paul Sartre

The answer given by the magazine was d.Pablo Picasso.

The important reference work The Yale Book of Quotations does contain this saying and cites the version based on page 145 of Fifield’s book [YQPP].

In conclusion, QI believes that this quotation originated during a conversation between William Fifield and Pablo Picasso. However, the phrasing given in the Paris Review in 1964 was not ideal for memorization and transmission. The initial statement used a pronoun for the pivotal referent; hence, it was not self-contained. Even Fifield did not like the phrasing and offered another version of the quote in 1982.

A careful statement might be rendered as follows: [As Pablo Picasso said of computers]: But they are useless. They can only give you answers.

Yet, the common modern version: “Computers Are Useless. They Can Only Give You Answers” is semantically a reasonable match to the expression recorded by Fifield.

(Many thanks to Kevin Kelly of Wired whose fascinating email led to the construction of this question and the pursuit of this exploration. Kelly located Fifield’s book and noticed that there were two versions of the saying. Thanks also to Mark Scroggins for assistance as noted above.)

[WFP1] 1964 Summer-Fall, The Paris Review 32, “Pablo Picasso: A Composite Interview” by William Fifield, Start Page 37, Quote Page 62, Paris Review, Inc., Flushing, New York (Verified on microfilm)

[WFP2] 1964 Summer-Fall, The Paris Review 32, “Pablo Picasso: A Composite Interview” by William Fifield, Start Page 37, Quote Page 66, Paris Review, Inc., Flushing, New York (Verified on microfilm)

[LZPP] 1967 August, Poetry, “A”—18 by Louis Zukofsky, Start Page 281, Quote Page 286, Volume 110, Number 5, Published by Poetry Foundation. (JSTOR) link

[ZJTW] Z-site: A Companion to the Works of Louis Zukofsky, Editor Jeff Twitchell-Waas, Notes to “A”-18, 393.28: Man and Sheep: Odysseus with the Sacrifice. (Accessed z-site.net on 2011 November 4) link

[WFP1] 1982, In Search of Genius by William Fifield, Page 40, Morrow, New York. (Verified on paper)

[WFP2] 1982, In Search of Genius by William Fifield, Page 145, Morrow, New York. (Verified on paper)

[NYWF] 1983 February 13, Nonfiction in Brief by GraceAnne Andreassi DeCandido, [Review of In Search of Genius by William Fifield], Page BR16, New York. (ProQuest)

[OCPP] 1986 May, Orange Coast Magazine, A Quotable Quiz by Jerry Holderman, Start Page 156, Quote Page 157, Volume 12, Number 5, Published by Emmis Communications. (Google Books full view)

[YQPP] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Pablo Picasso, Page 591, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)