In a desolate wasteland, a lonely droid collects the remains of a civilization long since departed. With a cockroach as his only friend, the last Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth Class (abbreviated WALL-E) inhabits the Earth for seven hundred years while collecting the forgotten debris. Though utterly alone, WALL-E keeps an enthusiastic attitude towards his duties. Since the departure of humankind, WALL-E has constantly gathered, compressed, and stacked the rubbish into towers of trash. Often, these towers will sway and collapse, destroying the work that WALL-E has completed, leaving an infinite loop of collecting, stacking, and collapsing. Most would consider this existence a fate equivalent to the hell that Sisyphus endured after cursed to incessantly roll a boulder uphill, however WALL-E finds joy and purpose in his duties, performing them gleefully. For seven centuries, this continued, until one day WALL-E discovered an object he had never encountered: a plant.
Later, during what appeared to be a typical day, WALL-E witnessed a space ship float down from the sky, from which a floating egg-shaped entity emerged. WALL-E studied the phenomenon closely, for this was the most unusual occurrence within the last seven hundred years. The floating egg-shaped entity (later identified as an Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator, or EVE) surveyed the land, obviously searching for an object, but failing to locate it. WALL-E shadowed EVE for many days before EVE interacted with WALL-E. EVE inquires as to WALL-E’s “directive,” to which WALL-E demonstrates his duties in response. When WALL-E returned the question, EVE merely responded “classified.” But this exchange demonstrates the key element of the film: humanity. Through interaction, EVE was transforming into a more humane being, but not through just any interaction, but through touch. Until WALL-E came into physical contact with her, EVE did not deter from her “directive,” which we learn later is to find evidence of life, which WALL-E had discovered. Through this initial touch, EVE started her metamorphosis into an entity possessing humanity.
In infancy, we humans require interactions with other members of our species to develop properly. The famous psychologist Harry Harlow showed that monkeys deprived of maternal interaction exhibited underdeveloped and purely robotic behaviors. Touch produces chemicals that help an infant grow both physically and mentally. Touch also reduces the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which in high levels during infancy, has been attributed with stunting physical development and causing autism. In a very famous and tragic discovery in Romania, many orphans fed by machines and deprived of all human touch died during the communist dictatorial reign of Nicolae Ceausescu. The few children fortunate enough to survive, grossly lacked any normal social skills or functioning, as reported by the neuroscientist Mary Carlson. Neuropsychology may suggest that our social functioning depends on early physical interactions with other humans, but do these chemicals and behaviors equal humanity? Can a robot have humanity? The film WALL-E seems to give one answer to these and other questions concerning humanity, which mirror many of Hans-George Gadamer‘s theories.
For Gadamer, we come to understand the world around us through interaction with one another. “Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society and state in which we live.” This process, called hermeneutics, is how we learn and can have justified and true beliefs about anything. We as a society use hermeneutics in all aspects of life to ascertain knowledge. Using an exchange of questions, answers, reviews, and incorporations, we approach a more accurate understanding of a subject. But even after this study, we can never fully reach a pure understanding, much like an asymptote. In WALL-E, any character with whom WALL-E interacts approaches humanity. The next robot WALL-E encounters, MICROBE OBLIVIATOR or M-O, cleans incessantly to fulfill his directive. When M-O finds WALL-E covered in a plethora of foreign contaminants, M-O fervently sanitizes him. But despite his diligence, the contaminants still remain. M-O follows WALL-E off the course of M-O’s directive, showing his ability to make informed and independent decisions, a purely humane quality.
Later, we meet our first human. Using the word “humans” very loosely, we see that they have developed over the past seven centuries into a highly robotic and automated species, with very little self expression. When Mary falls from her floating chair and waits while another android arrives to pick her up, WALL-E performs the duty of another robot, and through this touch, also transfers his humanity to Mary. Mary notices elements of the ship that have surrounded her for all of her life, that she has failed to see beforehand. This theme of touch and transference continues throughout the film in many scenes. But why does WALL-E possess humanity, but the humans no longer do?
Perhaps due to his longevity, WALL-E garnished humanity through interacting with the artifacts of civilizations long past. In his home, WALL-E shelved many found objects that he later studied. Like a robot anthropologist, he learned how to be human by studying how to be human. But study alone didn’t suffice. He also practiced his humanity. When we realize this, the answer to the question, “Why do the humans no longer possess humanity?” becomes simple: they no longer practiced it. When an entity with humanity interacted with the humans for the first time, they developed their humanity by imitation, much like we do as children. But after this examination, it begs further questioning: from whom or what do we imitate our own humanity? That question dates back further than Aristotle, and a mystery that will continue to remain unsolved.
By Guy Stridsigne 4/4/11
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