The announcement of this year’s inductees into the Robot Hall of Fame® (‘powered by Carnegie Mellon’) reaffirms the celebrity of four highly mediagenic automata, all positioned at the centre of what historian Tim Lenoir (2000) has named the military-entertainment complex. Of the candidates, my vote would have gone to just one – Pixar’s Wall-E, about whom media studies scholar Vivian Sobchack has written so eloquently.
In her analysis of the film in which WALL-E stars as the last surviving/operating human-like machine, Sobchack reads the film as a portrait of humans becoming more frenzied at the same time that they are increasingly inert: a kind of inverse relation between motion and life. The recumbent and machine-dependent humans on the mother ship Axiom, Sobchack observes, are members of the ultimate leisure society:
their possibilities for demonstrating any meaningful human agency – purposeful effort, curiosity, desire – are both limited and regulated by the computerized screens and electronic machines that constantly surround them. Round as they are, these cartoon humans have been flattened into automated similitude (2009: 388).
At the same time, the ship that the supports the life of both humans and robots is itself the ultimate automaton: a deterministically directed entity, following out its program with perfect correctness but no possibility – until WALL-E’s intercession – of questioning the continued validity of the directive’s logic.
The program of the mother ship is the link that joins the film to two of Wall-E’s fellow inductees, Big Dog and PackBot, both of whom have appeared in previous posts.* That these two American armed robots-in-the-making should gain the popular vote is hardly surprising given their frequent appearances in the popular media. But it’s testimony as well to the degree to which the U.S. military comes second only to Hollywood in informing what we recognize as achievements in robotic design, and defining the limits of our collective imagination.
*see Don’t Kick the Dog and Arming Robots. The fourth inductee is Aldebaran Robotics’ NAO, whose synchronized choreography is impressive. But personally I’d rather watch Cyrus and Twitch from season 9 of So You Think You Can Dance …
Lenoir, Tim (2000) All But War is Simulation: The Military-Entertainment Complex. Configurations 8.
Sobchack, Vivian (2009) Animation and automation, or, the incredible effortfulness of being. Screen 50: 375-391.
See also Stacey, Jackie and Suchman, Lucy (2012) Animation and Automation: The liveliness and labours of bodies and machines. Body & Society 18(1): 1-46.