15 March 2005

Robots Manifesto

Caught the new Robots movie Saturday. Contrary to the reviews, the movie isn't so bad. In fact, it's almost revolutionary in the BushCo era: it critiques the mantra that the sole purpose of running a business is to make money and attacks our seemingly pervasive acceptance of planned obsolescence.

That being said, the movie doesn't really bite much deeper than platitudes about "filling needs" rather than simply greed. It's a story we've seen before (e.g. Oliver Stone's Wall Street), Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, etc.), but as Willa Cather said, "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." Sometimes we retell them in good ways; sometimes we retell them in bad ways. Mr. BigWeld (voiced by Mel Brooks) is that benevolent old boss of yore, who was an inventor first and a businessman second. You may remember that idyllic generation, or maybe you don't, because the few who existed were anomolies who existed mainly in movies. Certainly they didn't run major corporations like BigWeld Industries. People like Andrew Carnegie ran those things (sure we all know about the Carnegie libraries D.C.'s own Carnegie Institution, but Mr. Carnegie came to philanthropy when he could afford to -- after he'd ruthlessly dealt with his workforce for several decades, destroying countless lives in the process). The good old days were taken up by ten or twelve hour workdays, with only Sundays off. As for benefits...well at least robots don't really need benefits.

Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor) is that starry-eyed small town amateur inventor who goes to the big bad city to live out his dream of joining BigWeld in its altruistic vision of "See a need, fill a need." Insert standard country bumpkin encounters big city gags here. After finding out, however, that BigWeld Industries is under the control of Ratchet (voiced by Greg Kinnear) and that Ratchet has discontinued supplying spare parts -- thereby forcing all robots to either upgrade or join the scrap heap -- Rodney takes it upon himself to fight the system through guerilla repairs (see Brazil). Really, though, this aspect of the movie is the most revolutionary, although most likely unintentional. Rodney throws a wrench in the system of planned obsolescence by keeping these older durable goods working. In this robot society, marketing pressure appears to be very low: MTV isn't dictating to most younger robots how they should act or dress; robot Maybellines aren't flooding the robot consciousness with messages of youth and beauty. The robots are more interested in keeping their bolts together than in conforming to Ratchet's vision of ideal body image. Sure sure you've heard it before from Sesame Street through Arthur: we're all different and wonderful...But here's Rodney not just affirming difference but actually rejecting consumer culture and actively driving down the need to replace last year's model with this year's model. As any economics 101 student would tell you, good god man the next step is anarchy, as thousands are thrown out of work and warehouses sit stocked to the gills with goods no one needs...

I'm hoping the next movie actually links the consumerism to a demagogic political leader's exhortations to "spend spend spend in the interest of national security."

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