The Humanity of a Trash-Cleaning Robot

by Maggie Graham

Many people are familiar with the movie WALL-E.  You know, the one with the little anthropomorphic robot who is left for hundreds of years to clean up the waste and decay the human race left behind when they escaped to their technologically-enabled safe haven in the sky?


Okay, so maybe this is a grim topic to start off on, but there is a connection: garbage, responsibility, and humanity.  Stay with me here.

In Bush’s As We May Think, he provides a hopeful and thorough vision of what technology would be able to accomplish in the future.  To readers like me, who are only able to access Bush’s work through the technological banality which is a laptop, the predictions made by Bush are less than shocking.  “Yeah,” we say, nodding along.  “We have that… but did he really think we would still need a cord attaching that?”

There were other high-tech gems that readers would scoff at.  “How could we really accomplish such science fiction?” we ask ourselves.  Bush proposed a system called the Memex by which we could personalize information by creating semantic links between topics and entries in our computing device; these links would be forged to represent connections that the individual user saw and not semantic links which could be universally recognized.

The Memex

Bush seemed to see the technological revolution as one whose horizon glowed with the potential for expanding our humanity and subjectivity into technology; for after all, technology is a tool to be used.  However, Evgeny Morozov presents an alternate assessment of humanity’s relationship with our cyber-lackeys.

To save Everything, Click Here: the Folly of Technological Solutionism is what Morozov dubs his skeptic critique.  He describes the world in which we are living—one where our survival and comfort have become inextricably linked with a reliance on technology.  But this is not all.  Though his portrayal of our world fulfills many of Bush’s wildest expectations, there seems to be a frown upon the face now viewing it.

And as we know, frowns bring everybody down.

So why the frown?  Morozov explores the ways in which technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives.  We have allowed it not only to lighten our work load, as any effective tool should be equipped to do, but we have also allowed it to alleviate us in some of the more human tasks we are charged with—creativity, exploration, social responsibility.  Morozov comments on how the culinary arts continue to prove a challenge to those who wish the make the task of cooking ever simpler and less taxing of an ordeal by way of a guiding technology; this is because experimentation rather than rigid instruction fuels the innovation of culinary practice.

“Dear blogger,” interjects the politest of readers, “We’ve achieved something like the Memex, through new technology, haven’t we?”

Oh my dear, reader…

In fact we have not. Programs that personalize searches for us by tracking our internet activity and preferences cannot compare to Bush’s ideal of the Memex, for there has been one integral alteration here; the semantic connections are made for us and not by us.  Computers cannot be inspired in the same way humans can. They cannot create meaning where stringent logic would forbid it.

So the kitchen still needs our chefs and hidden Ratatouilles and we still have long way to go before we see the fictional Memex shuffle on into this mortal coil of ours…but what is happening with our dumpsters?

There are now dumpsters that use technology and social media to guilt citizens into being eco-conscious…yeah, I was getting some serious Big-Brother vibes when I read it too.  Morozov remarks how implementing social motivations or penalties around what should be regarded as civic responsibility could result in citizens who perform for image rather than accountability…

Back to the topic of garbage and accountability?  Wow, I bet you didn’t think I was going to link back to old WALL-E, did you?  Well, here I go.

I don’t believe technology is bad.  Neither do I believe it is good.  You may think me a bonafide fence-sitter, but let me explain, because I don’t think it is technology we should be worried about; rather it is the way in which we allow it to define us.  Like Bush, I hold great hopes for the future, but like Morozov I am decisively hesitant to allow technology to influence my actions and discourage those things which I view as distinctly human.

In my opinion, WALL-E was the most likeable character in the movie.  Why?  I think it is because he seemed to be the most human.  I’ll admit this is a contradiction, but the little robot breaks his instructed routine in order to show concern for a plant, and later for another robot.  He shows concern without a direct incentive to do so.  When the human race has succumbed to a life of ease and unaccountability, they start to seem less human and more mechanical.

SPOILER ALERT: Once they regain hope, these people, who have known no life but this, start to regain the sense of humanity that has been missing from their lives.

But shucks, WALL-E stills remains my favourite character.

I guess this has all been to say:  Technology is a tool and we can allow it to help us express our humanity… but what we cannot allow it to do is take that from us.


Image Source 1  β  Image Source 2  β  Image Source 3  β Image Source 4

As We May Think- Vannevar Bush


Morozov, Evgeny. To save everything, click here: the folly of technological solutionism. New York: PublicAffairs, 2013. Print.


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