Will we be connected or conquered by new media? An apprehensive yet hopeful glimpse into our future through the posthuman eyes of WALL-E
The following is an essay written by Virginia Streit as part of course work for her Master of Communication degree. The brief was to use a work of fiction to explore our uneasy relationship with technology.
With its strong environmental message and anti-consumerism theme, Pixar’s 2008 robot romance WALL-E appears at first to be a precognitive warning about the future of mankind if we remain on our current diet of super-sized fast food and disposable goods. The film tells the tale of the last robot on Earth, left to clean up the mess after the human population is evacuated into space aboard the ‘Axiom’, a kind of ark designed to keep its inhabitants in luxurious sanctuary, until the climate of their home planet is deemed safe enough for return.
Closer inspection reveals however that WALL-E is a metaphorical exploration of our relationship with the new media technologies which we have come to depend on, their effect on us and on the world around us. The film is an attempt to answer the question asked by theorists occupied with future new media and posthumansim: will technology connect or conquer us?
The film’s focus is on the story of two intelligent robots: the titular character WALL-E and his friend EVE. WALL-E, or ‘Waste Allocator Load Lifter – Earth’ is a trash compactor designated to cleaning up waste. EVE’s directive is to find evidence of vegetation (her name stands for ‘Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator’) and bring it back to the Axiom as proof that the planet is once again inhabitable.
The Axiom is a simulation of Earth, providing the humans aboard with not only the basics for survival, food and air, but entertainment, stimulation and companionship, should they choose it. More than an enormous floating sperm bank, storing the human species for future repopulation, the Axiom is a utopia, a triumph of technological achievement, a ‘humanity machine’ capable of the sustained replication and maintenance of the human species.
The humans aboard the Axiom are cogs within this machine; cyborgs who have merged with the technology around them to become part of the ultimate directive: to protect human life. As a “hybrid of machine and organism” (Haraway 1991, p.149), the humans have technological prosthetics: the hover chairs they glide about in; the personal communications and entertainment screens which seem permanently fixed in front of their eyes. These are posthuman beings, at one with the new media technologies they use, allowing themselves to be shaped by their computers, even as their ancestors built those computers many generations before (Hayles 1999, p.47).
These cyborgs live in a post-gender world (Haraway 1991, p.150). Plump-cheeked and round-bodied, the humans have few visible sex-defining characteristics. They do not dress individually based on today’s gender norms, nor do they engage in traditional male or female interpersonal rituals, such as sport or dating. There are children; however there don’t seem to be any parents and with no interaction between the adults, the implication is that even reproduction has been automated. There are no gender politics, there is no inequality; the cyborgs aboard the Axiom live their lives with equal passivity.
‘Buy N Large’ (BNL), a fictional mega-corporation appears constantly throughout the film; its logo on discarded rubbish, billboards, and oversized drink cups. Children onboard the Axiom are taught “B is for Buy N Large, your very best friend”, indoctrinating them into brand worship from an early age. In events prior to the film, BNL was created with the merger of two huge corporations, becoming so large, it owned the media, healthcare and multiple governments (Williams 2013).
Mega-company mergers are not unfamiliar to the world today, one rather ironic example being Apple Inc, which at the time when WALL-E was released had a huge stake in Pixar itself. Two years earlier, another media giant, the Walt Disney Company had purchased Pixar, however Steve Jobs, founder of both Apple and the animation studio, remained chairman (www.pixar.com/). References to Apple appear frequently in the film. When WALL-E’s battery is recharged, the audience hears the unmistakable Macintosh computer start-up chime. One of the characters, Auto, the Axiom’s autopilot, is ‘voiced’ by Apple’s own MacInTalk, a text-to-speech program developed for its computer operating system (www.behindthevoiceactors.com). Whether intentional or not, this real world link reminds audiences that the events of WALL-E are not as implausible or far away as they might like.
But the film isn’t so much about the consumerism or the power of global corporations as it is about the technology which enables them. In WALL-E the collection of intelligent, purposeful robots, the communication screens and hover chairs used by the humans, and the ship Axiom itself, are what “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (McLuhan 1964 in Wardrip-Fruin & Montfort ed. 2003, p. 203).
WALL-E describes the potential effects of our current technological trajectory. Even though technologies like electronic billboards, television and the internet are the media which enabled BNL’s global takeover, it is important to remember that BNL was run by humans, not machines. Through technology, BNL was able to change human existence, first by enabling excessive consumerism, then by transporting them into space, and lastly by providing a safe life aboard the Axiom. Today’s technology, such as televisions, computers, tablets and smartphones, has enabled global mega-corporations, not unlike BNL, to prosper.
In WALL-E, these technologies have produced somewhat of a nightmare. Humans have lost autonomy and struggle to assert themselves against the pre-programmed directive of the Axiom’s robots. They have forgotten what it is to be human, must re-learn to walk and to interact with each other.
However the future isn’t all bad. When used wisely, technology engages “critical thinking, activism, democracy, and quality” (Poster 1995, p. 33). In order to gain knowledge about life on earth, the ship’s captain, McCrea uses digital archives to learn about soil, the sea, hoedowns and pizza, concepts which are no longer known aboard the Axiom. Technology enables learning, growth and understanding, ultimately inspiring McCrea to fight against a lifetime of apathy and to lead his people back home to begin a new life on Earth.
WALL-E is a parable about the effects of technology on our society. Whether Facebook makes us anti-social or Google makes us lazy thinkers are discussed by news media, academia and in the blogosphere. One commentator made the point that “we are continually responding to incoming stimuli and feel tremendous pressure to be ‘in touch’” (Casey 2012). Like a family sitting in their living room using their smartphone to text or ‘tweet’ people who are not physically present, humans in WALL-E glide around interacting with each other via personal communication and entertainment monitors, rather than interacting face-to-face.
Cultural and health effects of media use are studied enthusiastically. Speculation that watching television might effect a person’s weight due to its sedentary nature and the increased likelihood of snacking during this activity, has been well-researched but is largely been unfounded (Walsh-Childers & Brown in Bryant & Oliver ed. 2009, p.475). New media has been criticised for negatively impacting the dynamics of ‘real’ life interactions (Casey 2012). Instead of enjoying an event, we now watch it through the viewfinder of our Smartphone while recording it and when we can’t think of the answer to a question we turn to Google instead of working it out for ourselves (Porter 2013).
Whether these concerns are true or not, WALL-E expresses our fears about media effects. Personal communication and entertainment monitors allow constant contact with others, similar to today’s smartphones (Campbell & Ling in Bryant & Oliver ed. 2009, p.596). This could have positive and negative results, their type of use dictating the impact upon the user. However in WALL-E humans are hungry, lazy and incurious creatures; numb to everything beyond their technological prosthetic. Through media use, they have become poor replications of their ancestors; technologically enhanced yet with limited organic functionality.
However technology is neither good, nor is it bad, according to WALL-E. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Hal 9000, Auto is only acting according to his programming; it was humans who gave him his orders. Auto and the other robots are nothing more than extensions of their human creators and users (McLuhan 1964 in Wardrip-Fruin & Montfort ed. 2003, p. 204). 700 years after Axiom left Earth, the original human programmers have long since died and the robots can only act upon their embedded directive.
It isn’t just the robots aboard the Axiom which lack free agency. At the start of the film, WALL-E is compelled by programming to clean up Earth. However he enjoys leisure time, has a nostalgic attachment to items he collects, and ultimately falls in love. These random, non-programmed experiences give WALL-E the ability to break free of duty and act on his own accord.
In the world of WALL-E, being human isn’t a question of whether the character was “manufactured or born, made of flesh and blood or of electronic circuits” (Hayles 1999, p.163). EVE’s struggle for autonomy, to be independent of her programming, recalls the importance of owning oneself in liberal humanism (Hayles 1999, p.86). EVE moves beyond duty and servitude, becoming a free agent when she abandons the plant she has been programmed to protect in favour of helping WALL-E.
If “labour is the humanising activity that makes man” (Haraway 1991, 1598), then the robots depicted in WALL-E, with their busyness and programmed duties, appear more human than their fleshy companions. In contrast to EVE and WALL-E, Captain McCrea has been stripped of his responsibilities, is without purpose, and through a lifetime of complacency has lost the desire to function autonomously. When he realises he has overslept, he laments to Auto, “12:30! Why didn’t you wake me for morning announcements? It’s the only thing I get to do on this ship.”
WALL-E, EVE and their robot companions care for each other and help each other through crisis. They develop empathy not just for other robots, but also for the humans, taking actions to ensure their return to Earth. It is perhaps this empathy, this caring for each other which makes the robots more human than humans (Hayles 1999, p.164). In comparison, the film’s human characters don’t even notice each other. When knocked off his hover chair, one man is unable to get up due to his obesity and lack of muscle development. None of the other humans seem to notice him, let alone try to help him, such is the disconnect between their physical selves and their virtual presence on their communication monitors.
McCrea must re-learn how to be human, after he realizes that Auto will not allow the Axiom to return to Earth. In a telling moment, 2001: A Space Odyssey’s theme song, ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ plays as McCrea stands on his feet for the first time in his life and takes one big, shaky step. After de-evolution as a result of technological miss-use, this moment is symbolic of a new phase of evolution. McCrea’s step may be one small step for man, but it is one giant leap for mankind. Below him on the ship’s main deck, other people are finally seeing each other face-to-face, rather than through their monitors, having been flung from their hover chairs. The empathy demonstrated by the robots has enabled them to rediscover their own humanity and they reach out to help each other.
Finally humans and machines have recognised their kinship and are united in their efforts to return to Earth. However WALL-E is damaged in the process. EVE attempts to repair him, replacing his CPU, but when he reboots, he has lost his personality, his previously very human-like traits, and appears instead like a soul-less machine with a sole objective, to compact waste. EVE holds his hand and kisses him, and the memories sparked by this connection reignite WALL-E’s self. Director Andrew Stanton stated that the movie demonstrates how “irrational love defeats life’s programming” (McConnell 2008), and this moment is the culmination of that sentiment.
Finally, WALL-E depicts an evolution beyond the fat, micro-boned cyborgs aboard the Axiom, as humans and machines, already complexly intertwined, merge with a third entity: nature. The posthuman cyborg becomes a positive union of organic and machine, labouring to remake Earth, one seedling at a time.
The film presents scenarios at extreme ends of the ultimate possibilities of our posthuman future. If the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan once famously declared, then WALL-E tells us that technology has the power to drastically change not only our lives, but the world we live in. Perhaps we will become dominated by the technology we use and our fears of becoming stupid and unhealthy because of new media will be realised. Or perhaps we will use technology to connect with each other, and with nature, in order to realise a harmonic cyborg existence. According to WALL-E, the key is to remember what makes us human: our collection of experiences and memories, the ownership of the self, and our relationships with others.
WALL-E 2008, Feature film, Pixar Animation Studios, California
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