Dr. Steven Wexler
11 December 2012
A Dystopian Future
Thomas Hirschl begins his discussion on the topic “structural unemployment” in Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism and Social Revolution by explaining that Marx’s social revolution (whose arrival is harkened by advancements in technology which will supplant/displace “existing property relations”) has not yet come to pass, either because his hypothesis is flawed, or capitalism has yet to confront the “final crisis” that will plunge society into a social/economic revolution (157-8). Yet Hirschl, by means of Marxist theory, contends that technological advances will indeed eventually cause a “qualitative transformation” of capitalism, the only question is when and how (165).
It is easy to recognize the possible precursors of this “crisis” via the “structural unemployment” already taking place as a result of the current use of technology to replace a portion of the human work force (157-8). For example, in most major grocery stores today there are now “self check-out” lines with four to six automated cash registers overseen by a single human cashier; ATMs have, for the most part, supplanted the need for bank tellers, and automation of manufacturing has displaced a large portion of the manual labor force. Still, the economy has, thus far, been able to reabsorb these workers by creating new jobs, primarily in the service industry. The problem then becomes what happens when artificial intelligence (AI) advances to the point where it replaces not only service but “knowledge [or information] workers” (160). Where will these jobs go? The simple (and scary) answer is: away, at which point, Hirschl contends, society will have no other option than to move toward some form of “wageless” production (169). And while it may be overly optimistic to assume humanity would revert to a new artistic Renaissance period, free from the encumbrances of monetary considerations; when examining this question via the animated movie, Walt Disney’s WALL-E, a more disconcerting possibility comes to light.
WALL-E takes place in a dystopian future after Earth is left uninhabitable for both animal and plant life as a consequence of unchecked, reckless consumerism and environmental abuse. As if a twisted manifestation of what author and historian Dan Schiller portents in, Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System, the amount of goods and services produced by the “perpetual-innovation economy,” as depicted in this movie, has “outstripped the socioeconomic ability to absorb its surplus,” (123) leaving in its wake a world reminiscent of an apocalyptic wasteland. Earth is depicted as enshrouded by debris clouds, which rise up in violent sandstorms, and the ground itself is barely discernable as it is enveloped in mounds of ubiquitous waste. Still, from these piles of rubbish we quickly discern that a single corporation, Buy N Large (BNL), seems to have won the advertising/conglomerate wars to become the only corporation in existence prior to humans abandoning Earth. Indeed, BNL seems to have “harness[ed the] consumption of production” for its sole benefit, which is evidenced by the fact that all the advertising from the abandoned city to the moon itself is solely BNL’s (123). In fact, not only does BNL own the only store in town, a gigantic mega mile long BNL warehouse store in what remains of (what appears to be) New York City, but the car dealerships as well. Disconcertedly, BNL also seems to have owned and controlled the media, as indicated by the discarded newspaper, Buy N Large Times. More ominous still, the headline of that same newspaper, “BNL CEO Declares Global Emergency”, would seem to indicate that the corporation has also assumed the role of government; which is further substantiated by the fact that the dollar bills strewn about also contain the BNL logo, signifying that this single corporation’s domination is complete, as it also managed to control the monetary system (WALL-E).
Thus, in the dystopian futuristic society depicted in WALL-E, in something akin to a perverse form of cannibalism, capitalism seems to have consumed itself and reemerged significantly “transformed” into something beyond the common understanding of a capitalist system (Hirschl 165). As represented in the movie, the BNL Corporation seems to have built on its rights as an individual to become not only president but also government itself. As if reflecting the warning contained in Dan Schiller’s aforementioned work, not only could BNL’s consolidation of power have easily come about from a lack of “socialist adversary”(which is clearly absent from the movie) and which in the digital age, left the corporation “free to physically transcend territorial boundaries and take economic advantage of the sudden absence of geopolitical constraints on its development,” but BNL’s power could be said to mirror Schiller’s admonition that a corporation’s ultimate strategy is a “substantial shift” toward “a direct takeover of …key [social] functions,” such as governments (205).
Nevertheless, viewing space as the final frontier, BNL’s original plan was for humans to live off planet, taking a five year “cruise” in technologically advanced and operated spaceships, while cleaning robots, WALL-E units, compact and discard the remaining debris; humans would then return to re-colonize the Earth (WALL-E). Yet seven hundred years later, Earth’s only inhabitant is a single surviving cleaning robot, which continues to follow his original “directive,” compacting debris and stacking the solid blocks into “vertical structures,” which will then be incinerated and the toxic fumes disbursed away from the atmosphere and into space (WALL-E). A technology that has achieved sentience, the clearly lonely WALL-E seems less machine than human, as he keeps a pet cockroach, collects and hoards human artifacts and watches the musical Hello Dolly, over and over again, trying to mimic the behavior of the actors.
Eventually coming across a single budding plant, WALL-E saves it as part of his collection. Shortly thereafter, another robot is deposited on Earth, EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), whose “prime directive” is to search for and collect any vegetation found as proof that Earth is once again ready for colonization. Quickly becoming enamored of EVE, WALL-E eventually gives her the plant, which inadvertently activates her homing signal and sends her into a state of hibernation. In an attempt to stay with her, WALL-E stows away on the ship that arrives to collect EVE and is taken, along with her, to the single surviving starship, which contains what is left of humanity, ironically dubbed Axiom. This ship provides for every conceivable human need for those aboard her. Yet the absence of competitors, as well as the brash and ubiquitous nature of BNL’s “advertising” suggests that BNL has now evolved from a corporation to some form of socialist state.
Apparently having learned little from the experience that forced them to originally abandon Earth, what is left of humanity exists on this enormous technologically advanced and operated spaceship. Owned and operated by the same corporation responsible for Earth’s ecological decimation, BNL’s environmental and consumer recklessness carries on unabated, as demonstrated by the fact that the corporation’s advertising moniker (BNL) continues to appear everywhere--even on the ship’s replicated sun, and the waste created by the inhabitants of the ship, technological and human alike, is simply compacted and once again, irresponsibly tossed out—this time into space. Moreover, the ship’s street signs, which demonstrate BNL’s “remediation” of the concept of “economy” from a monetary system to ship destination, and the “hypermediacy” of the neon blinking “buy, buy, buy[s]” below it, reads like an awkward attempt at immediacy in the form of a subliminal message meant to convince the members of this society to “buy” into the social system—rather than an inducement to purchase something (Bolter 21).
Completely run and controlled by an Artificial Intelligence (AI) known simply as “Auto,” which is depicted as the speaking and independently moving helm (wheel) of the ship, the “days” on Axiom begin with robots making their way through morning traffic to the manual and service labor jobs they have appropriated from the humans (be it janitor, hairdresser, policemen etc…). As if manifesting futurist Ernest Mandel’s “vision of automation as the end of capitalism” the movie depicts “capitalist development [ as] a process blindly generating, through its own progressive yet self-destructive forces, the seeds of a socialist society, where ‘labour [SIC] in which a human being does what a thing could do has ceased’ ” (Morris-Suzuki 14) and humans, having been completely replaced in not only manual and service positions, but information (“knowledge”) jobs as well, seem to aimlessly drift from one “virtual activity” to another (Hirschl 160).
Indeed, it is the manner in which the movie depicts the use of AI as the teacher, which represents the dangers inherent to the displacement of humans as information workers, and exemplifies both how “total automation is completely incompatible with capitalism” (Morris-Suzuki 15) and how “the theoretical possibility of wageless production implies the practical end of capitalism (Hirschl 165). Evocative of what many might imagine to be a socialist classroom experience, BNL’s artificial “teacher” is seen spewing propaganda clearly meant to advance BNL’s agenda by brainwashing and indoctrinating the young into their collective consciousness, with maxims such as “B is for Buy N Large, your very best friend” (WALL-E). While the first adult human depicted in the movie is discussing plans for a virtual golf game with the person right beside him; yet, no face-to-face conversation ever takes place. No human in this society actually seem to hold a job, not even the token Captain McCrea, who is depicted most of the time merely sleeping or eating on the bridge. Still, the humans in the film are clearly consuming everything that BNL provides, as they have all become morbidly obese. In fact, the AI on this ship is so advanced that people no longer wear shoes because technology has even made walking unnecessary; and as a result, the human skeletal structure is in the process of devolving from bipedalism to some form of semi-gelatinous species, which is dependent on technology for motion (WALL-E).
The humans on the ship live their entire lives in these motorized recliners with blinders blocking their peripheral vision and a computer monitor in their faces, and when WALL-E accidentally knocks one of the humans out of his seat, the man is unable to physically get up on his own and is left helplessly flailing on the ground until WALL-E hoists him back into his seat (WALL-E). Thus as the movie illustrates, allowing technology to displace humans as information workers, not only leaves humanity vulnerable to the self-serving and unchallenged machinations of the corporate state, which can easily keep humanity blindly entertained and ignorant of the corporation’s true agendas and unchecked greed, but as all labor has also been entirely removed from the equation, this social system has “transformed,” (Hirschl 165) beyond the boundaries of both socialism and capitalism. Hirschl writes:
At some stage of the progressive elimination of labor from production, labor will realize that its physical and cultural survival depends upon reforming the economic system to distribute on the basis of human need rather that for profit. If production can be conducted without workers, then it can be distributed without money. This subjective realization will initiate the process whereby the ‘expropriators are expropriated’ (Marx 1977, 929). (165)
As such, the humans and technology on the Axiom have entered into some type of “wageless” as well as laborless symbiotic relationship where BNL exists solely to provide and the humans, to their detriment, solely to consume (Hirschl 169).
WALL-E follows EVE to the bridge of the ship, where her presence automatically activates the seven hundred years old “Operation Recolonize,” which will automatically send the ship back to Earth, but when the plant cannot be found, the operation is mechanically aborted. Believing EVE is malfunctioning, Captain McCrea, at Auto’s insistence, sends both EVE and WALL-E for repairs, where they meet other robots that are confined in virtual jail like cages, awaiting needed repairs because they are exhibiting behavior independent of their original programming. Thinking EVE is being harmed, WALL-E executes an escape, which inadvertently frees all the other “prisoners,” who quickly begin to run amok on the ship. In the process of their escape, WALL-E and EVE witness another service robot placing the plant into an escape pod with the intent of destroying it. WALL-E saves the plant, and he and Even sneak into Captain McCrea's cabin to deliver the plant.
In their absence, the captain has begun to research Earth’s history, and is clearly excited about a possible return to Earth; yet, Auto has other plans. Seemingly the only AI aboard the ship unable to grow past his initial programming, Auto is unwilling to release his captive audience presumably following an old directive which was issued when BNL believed the Earth would forever remain uninhabitable. He confines Captain McCrea to his cabin and throws WALL-E, EVE and the plant into the garbage chute, intending to blast them into space. Yet, there is a more sinister and disturbing explanation for Auto reaction. In fact, it is completely conceivable that Auto too has grown beyond his programming to understand that a return to Earth would mean his redundancy and eventual annihilation, as well as BNL’s complete loss of power and control. This possibility highlights another reason why humanity must be very careful when considering the use of AI as a replacement for human information workers.
Finally deciding that he does not simply want to “survive” but to “live,” Captain McCrea rewires the communications technology on the ship to contact EVE and WALL-E, who were nearly dumped into space along with the ship’s refuse, telling them to head for the ship’s main deck where they are to place the plant into a machine that will activate the return to Earth. The captain then tricks Auto into believing that he has the plant, while WALL-E, EVE and the other liberated robots lead a rebellion against Auto’s robot forces to get the ship back to Earth. Finally managing to stand, Captain McCrea shuts Auto off. Therefore, in this society, Marx’s long awaited revolution is initiated not only by the oppressed ship’s captain but all the technology that has been able to evolve past their programming to achieve sentience and human emotions. In the process WALL-E is gravely injured, but once the ship returns to Earth, EVE uses items from WALL-E’s collection to repair him, while the captain teaches the children of the ship how to care for the plant.
The moral of this storyline seems to be, as Frank Webster suggests in his work, Theories on the Information Society, that “we must not confuse the indispensability of a phenomenon [(technology)] with a capacity for it to define a social order” (23) as much of the information derived from the advent of technology can easily be described as “devoid of content” (31), and as this movie suggests, it could also become a danger to humanity.
Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New
Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000. Print.
Hirschl, Thomas. "Structural Unemployment and the Qualitative
Transformation of Capitalism." Davis, et al. 157-174. Davis J., T.
Hirschl, and M. Stack, eds. Cutting Edge: Technology, Information,
Capitalism and Social Revolution. London: Verso, 1997. Print.
Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. "Robots and Capitalism." Davis, et al. 157-174. Davis
J., T. Hirschl, and M. Stack, eds. Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism and Social Revolution. London: Verso, 1997. Print.
Schiller, Dan. Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System.
Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000. Print.
WALL-E. Dir. Andrew Stanton. Perf. Ben Burtt. Elissa Knight. Disney
Pixar, 2008. Film.
Webster, Frank. Theories of the Information Society. New York: Routledge,