By Karen Asp
“Imagine a robot that quietly and discreetly enters your neighborhood, collects your refuse bin and empties it into the refuse truck” (Volvo 2015). With this invitation the Volvo Group announced last fall that it was developing an autonomous “smart machine” to take over a task currently performed by people.
The “robot-based autonomous refuse” (ROAR) machine would save the “truck driver” from the hard physical labour associated with bin collection, the company said. Volvo’s announcement elicited commentary in Fortune Magazine on implied job losses in the industry (Zilman 2015). Refuse bin collection is often performed by teams of people on a truck (as suggested by Volvo’s own illustration, shown above), not just a driver.
The invitation to “imagine a robot” thus bounced back with a Getty stock image of “A trashman collecting the garbage in Radio City.” Reprinted in the Fortune article without the original shoot date (1941), the photo serves as a seemingly timeless image of a hardworking man whose livelihood is at stake in the quest to automate the labour process with “smart machines”.
This all-to-familiar dialectic of the labour process imaginary takes an odd twist in the Volvo story. As a writer at The Verge pointed out, on close inspection, Volvo’s illustrations of the ROAR-bot suggest kinship with WALL-E, the star of the award-winning 2008 Disney/Pixar animation film (Savov 2015). As Volvo presents its graphics without explanation, one is left to speculate on why the company’s invitation to “imagine a robot” leads with a subtle invocation of WALL-E.
Perhaps it is obvious: in the film, WALL-E is portrayed as a heroic and romantic figure. In pursuit of his true love, the haughty robot EVE, he inadvertently ends up saving humanity, and the Earth to boot. Moreover, WALL-E (which stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter: Earth-Class) is portrayed as a diligent, obedient working-class dude. He packs his lunchbox every morning, and heads off to his job, the job of collecting and compacting the mountains of trash left behind by a civilization of over-consuming humans. Drawn as a good, romantic, hard-working guy, it is not hard to see why the figure of WALL-E surfaces in representations of Volvo’s proposed ROAR-bots. But WALL-E, the movie, is an oddly complex composition, one that, by no means, delivers Volvo from the contradictions of automation.
Bear in mind that the film’s director, Andrew Stanton, insists that he did not set out to make a political statement about overconsumption, environmental degradation or wastefulness (Fritz 2008a; WALL-E Production Notes). These broader themes came together through a process of bricolage driven by “the idea of a little robot left on Earth.” The “WALL-E Production Notes” in the Pixar Talk Blog quote Stanton saying, “We had no story. It was sort of this Robinson Crusoe kind of little character – like what if mankind had to leave earth and somebody forgot to turn the last robot off, and he didn’t know he could stop what he’s doing?” The story is built up from this enigmatic figure.
Stanton describes being moved by the loneliness of the solitary robot, hardwired to perform a task, working for no purpose other than to work. He realizes that the purposelessness of the robot’s labour represents the common condition of “real life”; not that “real life” is pointless but that people “fall” into habits and routines – the “program of life” – through which we “avoid” discovering the point of it all. As the backdrop to the story, this situation is framed as the pervasive condition of a “universe that has lost the understanding of the point of living” (Fritz 2008b; WALL-E Production Notes).
In this context, the last robot’s lonely situation is the problem Stanton sets out to solve through the story of WALL-E. Loneliness, if not induced, is at least sustained by automation. He portrays love as the “point of living” and thus opposite loneliness, and “irrational” romantic love as the disruptive force that “defeats life’s programming.” In a universe that has “lost” the point of living, WALL-E the robot thereby represents “the most human thing left.” His journey, from hardworking automaton to self-directed lover and saviour represents the story of humanity becoming human again.
Seen this way, WALL-E is a very human romantic tale played out on a post-apocalyptic stage with the lead character represented through an animated machinic object. (Indeed, the “WALL-E Production Notes” state that the main character was intentionally rendered with non-android (non-humanlike) features so that audiences could better “read character” into it). According to Stanton, the backdrop to this story was pieced together in order to come up with a plausible account of why there might come a time when the last “man” standing is a lonely robot. Thus the story emerges: humans had to abandon the Earth because, due to their overconsuming habits, it had become too polluted for continued habitation. They departed on automated luxury cruise spaceships owned by megacorporation Buy-n-Large (BnL). In the meantime, BnL sends robots to Earth to clean it up, with the hope that humans can return someday (WALL-E Production Notes).
We encounter WALL-E some 700 hundred years after the spaceships left, and after all the other robots had stopped working due to malfunction. He has miraculously developed a “personality,” and has learned to fantasize about companionship by watching old musicals on a TV. Listening to the tune “Put on your Sunday clothes” from the Broadway hit Hello Dolly, he dreams about the romantic possibilities of the world “out there,” the world “outside of Yonkers.” That libidinal energy finds its object when someone from “out there,” the robot EVE, comes into his world. EVE is, in fact, sent by the BnL spaceship to detect signs of plant life on Earth. While searching for such life, she and WALL-E become friends. However, when she acquires the seedling plant WALL-E has found, she obeys her “directive” and returns to the ship. WALL-E’s pursuit of EVE takes him from the interior space of lonely routine, out into the world where love has retreated.
Yet that world turns out to be pervaded by the effects of witless automation. For one, the ship’s operating program has been automatically overwritten by a command that prevents eventual return to Earth, turning the cruise “holiday” into a pointless, endless traverse of deep space. For another, the human occupants have become so habituated to “fully automated luxury” consumerism they have lost all bodily sense and capacity for non-commodified connection to other people. They live in a social space overwhelmingly configured by labour-saving devices and narcissistically driven, digitally mediated, consumption fantasies. They are portrayed as unable to connect with each other emotionally, or even physically, their bloated, baby-like bodies suggestive of a physical abjection that mirrors the abject condition of the Earth their forebears left behind. A relevant excerpt can be viewed on Youtube under the heading Human Dystopia.
It is not surprising, then, that the romantic arc of the story of WALL-E entails the return to Earth, not only of the protagonist, but also of that “humanity” that had abandoned it in the first place. The story suggests that without loving attachment to an object outside itself, the “program” of humanity is stuck in a solipsistic and destructive command loop, bound to repeat itself. Moreover, the drive to annihilate physical labour through automation, figured in the scenes of spaceship residents unable to walk even inside the ship, is presented as having contradictory outcomes even for those meant to benefit most from it. “Look, I don’t want it to be offensive but if you had no reason to do anything anymore,” Stanton said, “If everything had been figured out and technology made it that easy never to have to get up, then I guess this would sort of set in. It’s kind of happening just with my remote in my living room.” (quoted in Fritz 2008b)
Taken as a very human tale, these elements of the story come across as indictments of automation — of the automation of macro-social processes (the ship of state on “autopilot”), and of the presumed need for more automation of the activities of everyday life. WALL-E, with EVE, represents the (miraculous) transcendence of seemingly hardwired code. In the universe where we meet WALL-E, automation had become so oppressive, so inhuman, that only the irrational force of love, delivered by a machine, could save humanity from such servitude. Taken as a very human tale, a tale set at the end of the future being cast by Volvo with its invitation to “imagine a robot”, the story does suggest (however unintentionally and haphazardly) that the automatic pursuit of automation is a problem that needs to be solved rather than a solution to every problem.
Nonetheless, lest it be thought that the WALL-E movie resolves this problem, it should be noted that the narrative structure and its stakes are themselves decidedly programmatic. It follows a structure of separation (earth – spaceship, body – spirit), exclusion and abjection (defiled, abandoned earth), and ultimate reunion (resurrection) in which what is really at stake is the quality of humanness. Put differently, even though robots figure large, this is a story about saving humanity from itself (with “humanity” something of a blank page). Even though there may be sacrifices along the way, heroes and ordinary folk alike, universal “humanity” is saved. And it is with this thought that we can begin to glimpse again the figure of the “trashman” from Radio City in the invitation to imagine a robot. Not because the “trashman” is that saved humanity but because he is the one being squeezed out by a universalizing narrative of salvation that has more to do with saving costs than to do with saving people from the hardships of work. More on this in a future blog.
(Feature image source: “Robot-based autonomous refuse collectors” — Volvo 2015)
Fritz, S. 2008a (Jul 1). How director Andrew Stanton & Pixar created WALL-E: Part I. Newsarama. www.newsarama.com/326-how-director-andrew-stanton-pixar-created-wall-e-part-1.html
Fritz, S. 2008b (Jul 4). How director Andrew Stanton & Pixar created WALL-E: Part II. Newsarama. www.newsarama.com/358-how-andrew-stanton-pixar-created-wall-e-part-ii.html
“WALL-E Production Notes.” Pixar Talk Blog. www.pixartalk.com/feature-films/walle/wall-e-production-notes/
Savov, V. 2015 (Sep 16). Volvo’s ROAR robots will take all the heavy, smelly lifting out of trash collection. The Verge. http://www.theverge.com/2015/9/16/9336229/volvos-robots-roar-trash-collection
Volvo Group. 2015 (Sep 16). Refuse truck driver is supported by robot. Global News. http://news.volvogroup.com/2015/09/16/refuse-truck-driver-is-supported-by-robot/
Zilman, C. 2015 (Sep 17). Garbagemen may loose their jobs to robots. Fortune Magazine. fortune.com/2015/09/17/garbagemen-jobs-robots/