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Robot Love (In a Good Way)

By Kirk T. Wood, United Church of Christ of La Mesa

     I was watching Pixar Studio’s Wall-E recently, as I do from time to time when looking for a quick pick me up, to chase away the (in this case post-holiday) blues.  As most of you probably know, Wall-E is a light hearted sci-fi movie for kids of all ages, set in a far future scenario, where humans have abandoned earth to float around in a luxury spaceship after polluting the planet so badly it has become unlivable.  Watching the movie again, I found myself thinking about the future, and feeling rather hopeful.  Not, perhaps, in the short term, nor about my own life in particular.  But about the long term survival of humans as a species, and about planet Earth’s ability to recover, and renew life, after we have done our worst.

     In Wall-E the robot helpers that humans create, for ship-board comforts, and back on Earth as automated clean-up crew, take center stage in the main storyline, about robots falling in love, and unintentionally teaching humans what it is to be human again.  As good science fiction often does, this movie reveals more about those of us living in the present day culture (21st century US of A) in which it was created, than it does about the way things might actually be in the future.  For instance: how we manage to use our new information technologies, not to become more connected to the rest of the world, but to become more insulated in our own little worlds, or how our desire to spread democracy, and in its wake, consumer-capitalism, around the world, mostly just helps fill more landfills, and pollute other folk’s natural resources. 

     I recently saw a video presentation about how Facebook, Google, and other social and informational networks on the internet have begun using bubble programs to personalize the content each of us receives.  This personalization serves to give a user information which the automated program thinks that individual wants to hear and see, and filters out things with contrary viewpoints to those sites and friends that the user most often visits.  Often times this means that important news stories will be filtered out of web-searches, and friends with differing viewpoints may no longer be present on your social network, unless you subscribe to their walls.  The big ideal which the internet was based on is: that we – each person on Earth – would now be able to be in contact with all the other people around the world, and gain from them ideas, opinions, information, and interpersonal relationships that were previously impossible, and would not always agree with our own point of view.  And while human nature dictates that we often gravitate toward those who seem the most like us, we don’t need personalizing programs to reinforce (or enforce) this tendency, without our knowledge or consent.  In Wall-E, each human on board the luxury space cruise-liner, floats around on their own personalized mobile-chair/information center.  Each one in their own self contained bubble, until Wall-E, or another malfunctioning (read ‘free-thinking’) robot, disrupts their routine, and opens their eyes to a larger world around them. 

     One of the funniest conceits of the film is that the world government has merged with a worldwide corporation, so that the leader of all Earth’s people at the time of the abandonment of Earth is known as the World CEO.  Thus consumer-capitalism has conquered, and destroyed, Earth.  Looking at the recent economic crisis in the US and around the world, we see just how devastating things can be for persons and other living things when those in power in our duly elected democracies consistently favor wealthy corporate entities over citizens’ rights, and sustainable living practices.  And when environmental disasters occur, like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, governments and corporations try to show their independence from one another by playing the blame game rather than fixing the problem or getting clean-up help where it is most needed and effective, in a timely manner.  These, and other, contemporary concerns are acknowledged, and then skewed for comedic purposes in Wall-E.  But on this occasion, my heart and mind focused on the glimmer of hope for the far future of humanity and the world.

     I took away a message of hope for our grandchildren to the nth degree.  No matter how badly we manage to screw things up on this planet we call home, no matter how far we go to run away from our problems, in the long run, humans will finally grow up and claim our responsibility as stewards of the Earth and citizens of the Universe.  And who knows, maybe along the way we’ll invent robots capable of falling in love with each other, and teaching us what it is to be human again.

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