Category Archives: William Fifield

Computers Are Useless. They Can Only Give You Answers

Pablo Picasso? Louis Zukofsky? William Fifield? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Our reliance on computerized systems seems to grow every day. The following mordant quotation has been attributed to 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.

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