Technology is a very important part of our lives as almost every person with a cell phone would probably say. We live in a world where we rely on technology so much that in a way it controls us. Authors like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov could portray this concept in the 1940s and 50s before much of the technology that we have now even existed. “The Veldt” and “Robbie” are good examples of how technology can take over our lives and control our actions. Our cell phones tell us when to do things, what the newest trends are, and when someone wants to contact us. This relationship between technology and man is one in which one group is a slave to the other as in how humans are slaves to their electronic devices. In this case, postcolonial theory can be used to analyze the relationship between humans and the technology that they have created. Postcolonial theory as Tyson puts it “seeks to understand the operations – politically, socially, culturally, and psychologically – of colonialist and anticolonialist ideologies” (Tyson 399). In this paper, I will argue that humans are the colonized group and technology is the colonizing group. Typically, a colonized group in this situation is a known oppressed group in society, and I am in no way trying to minimize their oppression by using a collective group such as humans as the colonized group. This analysis will show that the colonizing group is controlling the life of the colonized group. On the subject of postcolonial criticism, Tyson also says that “a work doesn’t have to be categorized as postcolonial for us to be able to use postcolonial criticism to analyze it” (Tyson 399). Both of these stories are not clearly postcolonial in nature, but this criticism is still extremely relevant to the themes of these stories. “The Veldt” and “Robbie” both exemplify how technology, which we have created but do not completely trust or understand, has taken on such a significant role in our lives that it controls us and takes away what it means for us to be human.
First, there is a sense of uncertainty regarding the technology in both of these short stories. This can be seen a few times throughout “The Veldt” when George and Lydia are arguing and speaking about the nursery or even the house as a whole. This is evident in the very first conversation of the story in which Lydia is trying to get him to take a look at the nursery or call a psychologist to help. She is confused about how the nursery is currently functioning and when prompted by George to tell him what is wrong, she replies: “‘I don’t know’” (Bradbury 1). Another example of the uncertainty surrounding the nursery is later in the story when George and Lydia are discussing the situation of Wendy changing the room from a veldt to a forest. His wife asks him how he thinks his wallet may have gotten into the nursery and he says: “‘I don’t know anything…except that I’m beginning to be sorry we bought that room for the children” (Bradbury 5-6). Not only does this conversation between George and Lydia exhibit uncertainty but it also expresses regret. According to Loren Logsdon, author of Ray Bradbury’s Tale of Two Cities: An Essential Message for a Technologically Dominated Society, Ray Bradbury is “[n]otorious for being skeptical about machines” (Logsdon 93). Many of Ray Bradbury’s works, including Fahrenheit 451, display his distrust in technology; in fact, in his lifetime, he never even learned how to drive a car (Logsdon 93). Characters, such as Grace, in Isaac Asimov’s “Robbie” also share Bradbury’s skepticism of technology. When she is trying to convince her husband, George, that they must get rid of Robbie she refers to the robot as “‘a terrible machine’” (Asimov 8). Within the same conversation, Grace further explains her distrust and dislike for Robbie when she says: “‘[i]t has no soul, and no one knows what it may be thinking” (Asimov 9). Both of these stories include characters that do not trust technology. They are unsure as to whether or not these technologies can be trusted with their children even though they are works created by humans themselves. Svilpis, author of The Science-Fiction Prehistory of the Turing Test, says that “to know about a mechanical intelligence’s consciousness entails actually being that intelligence” (Svilpis 442). This alludes to the fact that humans are the creators of the very technology that is taking control of their lives. Many people do not understand the inner workings of much of our technology and this can lead to a distrustful relationship. This uncertainty is what separates humans from technology and further creates an “us vs. them” situation that is associated with postcolonial theory.
In these stories, technology appears to have human-like qualities such as emotions and feelings which can be used to exert power. These technologies portrayed as having these qualities make my point to analyze these stories with postcolonial theory that much more compelling. These machines are shown to have almost as much, if not an equal, capacity for feeling emotions as humans do. However, technology does not actually have emotions or feelings as humans do; humans just perceive some technology to have these characteristics. Robbie is a prime example of a technological machine depicted with feelings. This robot is often portrayed as being male in gender which elevates it from being a thing to being considered a person. Asimov says: “Gloria pouted, ‘I bet he went inside the house, and I’ve told him a million times that that’s not fair’” (Asimov 5). There are two instances in this sentence in which Robbie is referred to with masculine pronouns. Robbie is not only represented to have gender in the story, but also to express feelings as well. In the opening scene of the story, Robbie and Gloria are playing outside and Robbie is accused of cheating at hide-and-seek. Robbie is described as “hurt at the unjust accusation” (Asimov 6). This emotion, though, is interpreted by Gloria who is a child and children tend to have a naïve outlook on life. Gloria’s naïve view of the world leads her to believe that Robbie is a person just like her mother and father are. Svilpis, in her article says: “[n]arratorial attributions of hurt, stubbornness, hard-heartedness, and giving in illustrate in slow motion the process whereby the robot is constructed as a character” (Svilpis 444). Another example of Gloria interpreting Robbie to have feelings is when she says: “‘I’ll bet he’s just staying in his room because he’s mad at me for not taking him to the visivox” (Asimov 11). This elicits the idea that Robbie can feel the emotion of anger and act similar to how a human might in this situation. Another technology seen to have human emotions is the nursery in Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt.” The Hadley family is considering turning off the nursery and the house altogether to get a vacation from it. In this conversation, George says: “‘I don’t imagine the room will like being turned off’” (Bradbury 8). This statement reveals that this inanimate object, a room, is viewed as having human feelings such as likes and dislikes. Carme Torras, author of Robbie, the Pioneer Robot Nanny: Science Fiction Helps Develop Ethical Social Opinion states: “machines are entering the intimate circle of human feelings” (Torras 269). Emotions are what allow one group of people to think that they are better than another group and feel that they deserve control or power over them as in the colonizer and colonized in postcolonial theory.
With the knowledge capacity that these machines have, they are also capable of doing many things for and instead of humans. In “The Veldt” this smart home does things for the family such as rock them in a chair, cook their food, clean their clothes, etc. (Bradbury 3). Later, the mother of the household comes to a realization that the house may be taking over her motherly and wifely duties. In the conversation about turning off the nursery and house for a few days, Lydia says: “‘[t]hat’s just it. I feel like I don’t belong here. The house is wife and mother now, and nursemaid. Can I compete with an African veldt?” (Bradbury 3). She feels as if this room and house have replaced her as a mother and wife to her husband and children. In her mind, it is a competition between her and the nursery and there is no way she can win over her family. Grace in “Robbie” feels the same way as Lydia does in that she feels as if she cannot compete with Robbie. Near the beginning of the story, Asimov describes Robbie as Gloria’s “huge ‘nursemaid’” before her mother is even introduced into the story (Asimov 7). Later, when Grace is arguing with George about getting rid of Robbie, she says: “‘[a] child just isn’t made to be guarded by a thing of metal’” (Asimov 9). This statement suggests that Grace believes that since she is Gloria’s mother that she should be the one to take care of and nurture her. Torras on the subject of robots says “[t]o some extent, they will bring up future generations” (Torras 269). Taking over the responsibilities of someone else is like saying that they do not do that job well. While many people today may complain about not having enough free time, once they have someone or something doing everything for them it can make them feel worthless. That is how the mothers in these short stories feel; they feel like they are being replaced by a house or a robot. Lydia in “The Veldt” says: “‘[m]aybe I don’t have enough to do. Maybe I have time to think too much” (Bradbury 3). Just as giving technology feelings and emotions makes it seem that much more like man, giving it the ability to do things that man can do only furthers it on the spectrum of inanimate to animate.
Not only are these technologies replacing the humans in their duties but they also control how they act and what they do. “The Veldt” displays this in two different ways; one, the nursery controls bodily functions such as sweating and two, the nursery controls how the children act and behave towards their parents. While George and Lydia are inside the nursery, the ceiling is described to display “a deep sky with a hot yellow sun” (Bradbury 1). This is only a physical description though, because this room only has two dimensional walls that display three dimensional images. Even though this room has no heating or cooling capabilities regarding setting, it is stated: “George Hadley felt the perspiration start on his brow” (Bradbury 1). This technology seems to be so real to the characters that it can activate their sweat glands just by showing them an image; George even says: “‘[t]his is a little too real’” (Bradbury 1). Secondly, throughout the story the children, Wendy and Peter, behave very rudely towards their parents regarding the nursery. In regard to the parents’ desire to shut down the nursery, George says this of the children: “‘You know how difficult Peter is about that. When I punished him a month ago by locking the nursery for even a few hours – the tantrum he threw! And Wendy too. They live for the nursery’” (Bradbury 2). This suggests that the nursery is controlling these children even when they are not using it at all. Once again children are naïve in that they do not see things through the eyes of a mature adult, and Wendy and Peter do not realize the effect the nursery is having on them. In reference to technology Logsdon also says it “has taken over in the sense that Thoreau remarked in Walden, ‘Men have become tools of their tools’” (Logsdon 96). This quote from Thoreau so accurately depicts man’s relationship with technology, and the children in “The Veldt” may not be able to see this connection. Ray Bradbury does a very good job of playfully demonstrating how humans create technology that then exerts power over them unknowingly. Humans have created technology as a tool to help them in their own endeavors. However, technology now seems to use them, controlling their actions and making them the subordinate group being colonized by the very technology they have created.
Technology dominates a lot of our society today; we spend a lot of our time looking at screens which tell us what other people think of us. This, in turn, controls what we wear, what we do, how we act towards others, etc. A lot of us may think that technology is the best thing to happen to this world, making our world a lot more efficient. It has made life easier in many different ways, but is that necessarily a good thing? “The Veldt” and “Robbie” express how our technological advancement may hinder us more than it helps us. Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov employed these themes decades ago and in a way, they predicted what effect this technology would have on us today. Could contemporary science fiction and fantasy be a prediction of how the world will be in the decades to come? Technology controls our lives on so many levels, and we are so blinded that we don’t even realize it or we do and we don’t care. Utilizing postcolonial theory, you can see in these short stories that technology exerts some level of power over us that we cannot seem to overcome.
Taylor Nettles is a Senior at the University of Missouri majoring in English with an emphasis in English Language and Linguistics
Asimov, Isaac. “Robbie.” I, Robot. Gnome Press, 2 December 1950, pp. 5-19.
Bradbury, Ray. “The Veldt.” The Saturday Evening Post, 23 September 1950.
Logsdon, Loren. “Ray Bradbury’s Tale of Two Cities: An Essential Message for a Technologically Dominated Society.” Midamerica: The Yearbook of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, vol. 36, 2009, pp. 93-106.
Svilpis, Janis. “The Science-Fiction Prehistory of the Turing Test.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 35, no. 3 , Nov. 2008, pp. 430-449.
Torras, Carme. “Robbie, the Pioneer Robot Nanny: Science Fiction Helps Develop Ethical Social Opinion.” Interaction Studies: Social Behavior and Communication in Biological and Artificial Systems, vol. 11, no. 2, 2010, pp. 269-273.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. Routledge, 2015.