On the Centrality of Religion & Conditioning to Dystopias

Maybe it’s because I’m reading Lessig’s Free Culture in the midst of all this, but damn if E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” isn’t eerily smilar to Pixar’s Wall-E.  I read the Wikipedia article on the movie, and while many other sources of borrowing are credited, Forster’s little gem of a story is never mentioned.

(image from http://www.sffaudio.com/images08/wallecopyrightcriminal500b.jpg) – **NOTE: Pixar did NOT plagiarize from Forster. “The Machine Stops” is now in the Public Domain.

Now (and this is hilarious given the tension between wikipedia and its beleagured opponent Britannica), there is a great story on Britannica’s blog called “Machines Do Stop” in which the obvious connection is articulated. Score 1 for Britannica on that one, for sure.

Here, from the Britannica article, are some of the most striking similiarities:

As in WALL-E, “The Machine Stops” is set on a future Earth whose surface has been blasted into inhabitability by waste and pollution. Writing when radio was in its infancy, Forster (best known for his novel A Passage to India) imagined an intermediated hypercivilization in which people connect to one another through electronic screens—a videoconferencing dystopia unnervingly reminiscent of some of today’s social media. While WALL-E’s human population has escaped into space, in Forster’s tale they have created a vast subterranean civilization. In both stories, however, humanity has grown fat and sessile thanks to automated systems that serve their every need. Whisked from screen to screen in automated chairs, they’re unable to interact with the world without electronic mediation. And in both stories, the systems break down.

Of course, there is a difference in the *nature* of the breakdown in each story. For instance, in Wall-E the machines try to stage a coup following the discovery of life back on earth, and are ultimately unsuccessful. The humans, thanks ironically to the aid of the “good” machines Wall-E and EVE, *choose* to return to earth and to fight the technological determinism that threatened to keep them in space indefinitely. On the other hand, people in Forster’s story remain wed to the machine even until the horrifying end. To what can we attribute this striking difference? Surely we can’t cop out and say that because Wall-E is a “kid’s movie” it *had* to end the way it did.

Here’s what I think:

In Wall-E, there was no conditioning as to the unsuitability of earth as a habitable zone. There was plenty of other conditioning (such that related to the awesomeness of Buy ‘n’ Large and to the idea that life on the ship was plesant), but none which made the *idea* of earth revolting. Indeed, when the captain learns about the plant, he stays up through the night asking his computer to teach him about different aspects of earth, and seems increasingly fascinated as he sees and hears more about the dynamic life that was on the planet his race left behind 700 years ago.

Related to the concept of conditioning is that of religion. In Wall-E there is no religion. Or rather, there is no explicit religion which demands subservience to automation or the ship or the robots who basically run it. As the Forster story progresses, on the other hand, people become increasingly tied to “The Book of the Machine” as dogma, and the semi-harmless mantras which began in the first chapter (“We have indeed advanced, thanks to the machine”) become insanely twisted into a complacency and subservience to the machince which physically and mentally incapacitated humanity to the point of annhiliation.

These differences between the movie and the short story could perhaps account for the stark difference in the endings of the stories. Since people had not been bred to worship the robots in Wall-E, there was absolutely no move on the part of the people to stop Wall-E, EVE, and their cadre from turning the ship back to earth. Moreover, since people had not been conditioned to have an “instinctual” distaste for earth, they again had no real impetus to protest a return to their ancestral home. But, you may say, does conditioning really matter *that* much?

The potency of Pavloving (or even Skinnerian operant) conditioning is highlighted in Brave New World. There, children are literally awash in various forms of conditioning from the moment they are alive. From training behavioral responses such as distaste for flowers and books among the lower classes, to encouraging a snobbish system of interpersonal caste relations, to the acceptability of promiscuity and a fear of solitude, Huxley’s dystopia clearly shows the striking ease with which–given time–people can be conditioned to think, feel, and act in predetermined ways.

Now, what of the importance of religion in BNW? There, as in “The Machine Stops” religion is used to force people into submission to a certain ideology with behavioral consequences. In BNW, the religion is closely tied to the economy, given the pun on “Ford” with “Lord”, and with its homynym related to cars and commerce at large.  That world turns because it encourages peope to keep consuming. In contrast, “TMS” turns because people *don’t* consume. They say, “In the Machine we have our being.” This, I thought, meant that nothing exists outside of the machine. And if nothing exists outside the machine since the machine provides all things, then there is no reason or need for people to exert any energy or influence to keep the system running. And, actually, this atropy ends up being humanity’s undoing.


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