Over the next week I’ll be posting my thoughts on the different events in Ambiguously Human, starting the with films and then the installation. Here’s the first one, on Wall-E.
Wall-E initially interested me in the context of this project because its heroes are robots that are robotic only in very particular aspects of their lives, and the humans are often robotic. There’s a reversal of roles.
The humans in Wall-E are shown to be mindless consumers. They receive all their nutrition from drink brought to them by robot attendants, they change the color of their clothes immediately when informed a new one is in style, and they exist almost entirely in the digital world. They don’t care about Earth and don’t really seem to know much about it. Children are educated by robots and the content is essentially a commercial. They may be biological humans, but their bodies are atrophied and they don’t use their minds for anything highly individual. They act like robots.
By contrast, several of the robots have personalities and do things because they want to, not because they’re programmed to. Wall-E, the titular and central character, is a waste disposal robot who’s been left on Earth to clean up after humans have fled for the temporary safety of a luxury space liner. In the opening scenes we see that at one point there were many, probably thousands, of “WALL-E” (Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-class) robots roaming the Earth and creating neat stacks of the omnipresent garbage, but our Wall-E is the only one left. Wall-E continues to perform his programmed action – collecting, compressing, and stacking garbage – but he’s developed a personality and hobbies. He collects things, like Rubik’s cubes, light bulbs, and rubber ducks, which he stores in his house inside a larger, inert WALL-E robot. Wall-E loves the musical Hello, Dolly! He records songs to play during his travels and collects a garbage can lid as a hat to dance along when watching it at night. He even has a pet: a friendly cockroach, the only biological living thing we see on Earth for most of the movie.
For Wall-E, robotic behavior signals his death. During the course of the film he gets badly injured and Eve, his robot love interest, brings him back to Earth to repair from broken-down WALL-E parts. When Wall-E restarts, he acts completely robotic. He doesn’t communicate with Eve; he crushes the things she shows him from his collection as trash; he completely unconsciously goes about his programmed activity of trash disposal. We understand that he’s no longer Wall-E, who was defined by his individuality. Now he’s just another WALL-E unit. Of course, the film doesn’t actually kill off the main character; a spark from a departing “kiss” from Eve brings him back. His return is indicated by his quirks resurfacing: how he won’t let go of Eve’s hand and the angled way he holds his eyes.
Wall-E developed essentially alone on Earth, but Eve seems to have gained consciousness or her personality while performing her job that involved ongoing robot and human contact. Eve is an EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) probe sent out by the human’s ship to check Earth for plant life, which would let them know it’s safe to return. When we first see Eve a shuttle is dropping her off on Earth and she begins arbitrarily scanning the world around her for plant life. Once the shuttle leaves, though, it becomes obvious that she was hiding her individuality. She takes off flying around the area in a way that’s very playful and clearly only for her enjoyment, not as part of her programmed mission.
The human-ness of these robots seems to be unintentional and the implications of having sentient servants are largely ignored. When Wall-E follows Eve to the ship he introduces himself to a couple humans who talk to him as though to another person without condescension and only mild surprise, but those humans still order around and even kill other robots without any concerns. There does seem to be a spectrum of human-ness in the robots shown in Wall-E. Wall-E and Eve are highly individual. They still obey their programmed directives, but they also choose many of their actions. Both of them go out of their way to do things they enjoy or care about.
On the other extreme, we see many robots on the ship that seem completely robotic. They look and act interchangeably. They don’t offer any hints of sentience. It’s one of these robotic-robots that two humans destroy in a scene played for laughs. They’re having a fun, romantic, and individualistic evening in the ship’s pool (the rest of the ship’s inhabitants are condemned for living in virtual worlds) when a robot attendant tells them to stop splashing. In a very mild state of annoyance, one of the people splashes water on the robot to short it out.
It does make a certain amount of sense (and of course is convenient for all the biological humans involved) to treat robots behaving robotically as inhuman tools, but view the robots that display human communication and individual choice as peers. It would be difficult to implement, though. When exactly does a robot pass from robotic to human? How do you test for human qualities? But of course, in the film these humanized robots are largely ignored rather than integrated into society. The robotic repair ward is a kind of quarantine area until misbehaving robots can be fixed, but it also becomes clear that these robots are the very ones that have some degree of personality when they help Wall-E and Eve with their newfound mission.
What really struck me was how strange and interesting the character Auto is. Auto is the ship’s autopilot system. Initially he’s the only one with access to classified information about the status of Earth and he becomes the film’s primary villain. In the context of how Wall-E shows the spectrum of human-robot, though, he occupies a very uneasy place, and thinking about how exactly he fits in has changed my reading of the film as a whole.
Auto is the bad guy of the film because he doesn’t want the humans’ ship to return to Earth. He works very hard at sneaking around and then outright fighting the humans and robots who are trying to make that return happen. However, when we discover his reasons for averting this return at all cost – that he was ordered to do so – he no longer fits so well on the human end of the spectrum like Wall-E and EVE. It becomes clear that he has only ever been following orders, just like the pool attendant robot. In that sense, it could be alright to kill him for parallel reasons – he was never really alive, so turning him off isn’t morally wrong. But that’s not how Auto is characterized and it’s not how his death is played. Instead, he’s made out to be responsible for his actions, as though he’s the active villain and not just the proxy for one. Switching him off is a moment of triumph for the humans and human-esque robots in the film because they can achieve their goals.
I think in treating Auto as the story’s villain, though, human responsibility for the situation is avoided. We might intellectually understand that it’s really President Shelby Forthright’s fault for ordering Auto never to return, but the emotional victory is against Auto and it’s not directly tied back to the President. Moreover, the humans on the ship who have gone so long without caring for the Earth in any way, not even registering that the point of the EVE probes is to someday return to Earth, are not implicated in responsibility. Their naïveté is played for laughs when they finally do return to Earth and the ship’s Captain McCrea excitedly talks about farming pizza plants.
Auto serves as a kind of scapegoat for the whole immense process of abusing and nearly destroying Earth, separating life from its connections to the Earth, and then putting it all out of mind. But of course, all the evidence tells us that there’s no way Auto could have been responsible for or even chosen to perpetrate any of these actions. He was just following orders as a simple robot. When Captain McCrea argues with him, Auto’s arguments for not returning to Earth are simply that he’s been ordered not to. He doesn’t take on the case for himself. The willingness of the remaining humans to push all that responsibility onto Auto is concerning – not because it’s unfair to Auto, who after all seems to be a non-sentient machine, but because the people are so blatantly abdicating responsibility and not truly working to counter their complicity.
Of course, Auto might be sentient after all. The actions Eve chooses to engage in all align with her programmed directive; it seems that at a certain point she chooses to follow them rather than being blindly bound to them. That could be the case with Auto, as well. Maybe he believes, of his own choice, that staying on the liner with him is the best option for humanity. Either way, Auto is a really interesting character to think about in the context of this question of the human-object boundary.
What do you think about the human-object spectrum in Wall-E? Comment or email me!