Wall-E Preview, cirica 1909

Introductory note: Hello, American Scene readers. I’m this David Robinson, not this one or this one. I work at the Center for Information Technology Policy and sometimes blog at Freedom to Tinker. With Reihan’s kind encouragement, I’ll be giving TAS a shot. Comments welcome…

To follow up on Peter’s post, with something a little different: On Friday night, I too went to see the incontrovertibly adorable new film Wall-E. I started out skeptical—the opening scenes suggested we were in for a buddy movie about the adventures of a trash compactor and cockroach—but was, like basically everyone else, won over by the anthropic charm of its computer-generated, profoundly humane robots.

Ultimately, these robots find their way to a starship containing the remainder of the human race. These people—our imagined descendants—are pampered and infantilized by a ship that takes care of them, caters to their every need, and seems to reduce their existence to hovering around in futuristic floating barcaloungers that can barely contain their uniformly morbid obesity. The ship’s inhabitants appear to direct all communication through the videophone, even when (as in an early vignette in the film) the two parties to a conversation happen to be right next to each other.

These scenes are powerfully reminiscent of The Machine Stops, a 1909 science fiction story by E. M. Forster. It describes a world where people live underground and have lost their ability to care for themselves, relying entirely on a Machine whose workings remain opaque to them but which they treat as a deity. They are obese; they communicate by videoconferencing; they have no sense of their physical surroundings; and they are generally helpless and pathetic. I would wager that some familiarity with this story was deliberately cooked into the Wall-E screenplay.

It struck me as food for thought, particularly given the beautiful new movie theater in which I happened to be watching the film: extra wide seats that made the armrest inconveniently far apart, and large in-arm holders for giant soda cups. The helpless whale-like humans on screen—constantly consuming whatever caloric treat the movie’s Wal-Mart like “Buy ‘n Large” conglomerate had to offer—seemed to be an implicit commentary on the increasing scale of actual Americans. But, as Bill pointed out afterward, the criticism was deftly tempered: by the movie’s end, we’re told that long-term acclimation to reduced gravity is the real reason for this generate state. It lets the filmmakers have their cake and eat it to: Sending an obvious signal of disapproval about our expanding national waistline, under the cover of an exploration of the second-order effects of a high tech future in outer space.