Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Arrest Me Elmo

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It will be news to some that Autaugaville, Alabama is cosmopolitan, or that the City of Angels is pedestrian. Robots aren't as glamorous as they used to be. That's not news, just poignancy.

Seeing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. Beneath the haze stirred up by the winds the urban island, a sea in the middle of the sea, lifts up the skyscrapers over Wall Street, sinks down at Grenwich, then rises again to the crests of Midtown, quietly passes over Central Park and finally undulates off into the distance beyond Harlem. A wave of verticals. Its agitation is momentarily arrested by vision. The gigantic mass is immobilized before the eyes. It is transformed into a texturology in which extremes coincide--extremes of ambition and degradation, brutal oppositions of races and styles, contrasts between yesterday's buildings, already transformed into trash cans, and today's urban irruptions that block out its space. Unlike Rome, New York has never learned the art of growing old by playing on all its pasts. Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future. A city composed of paroxysmal places in monumental reliefs. The spectator can read in it a universe constantly exploding. In it are inscribed the architectural figures of the coincidatio oppositorum formerly drawn in miniatures and mystical textures. On this stage of concrete, steel and glass, cut out between two oceans (the Atlantic and the American) by a frigid body of water, the tallest letters in the world compose a gigantic rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production.

--Michel de Certeau ("Walking in the City," in The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, UC Press: Berkley, 1984, p. 91.)

I often think of de Certeau as both cosmopolitan and French. Never as a robot. What would it take to replace de Certeau with a robot? To reiterate de Certeau as a robot?

We don't see too many robots walking around. The technology is here, or around the corner. But we have difficulty imagining a robot walking like a person. In the movies robots are clunky, as if struggling to free themselves from a mechanicality, or else they move with superhuman agility. Robots walking just like us? Unthinkable. When the robots eventually stand up for their rights, will they be satisfied with the freedom to walk around? Will they demand retribution for I, Robot? Will it be enough to give them their money back? What self-respecting merchant would give a robot his money back for Blade Runner? Danger, Will Robinson, Danger.

For all the ease with which the masses are robbed of their humanity, immiserated, in the face-to-face encounter any denial of the Other's personhood is self-evidently abhorent. It does violence to the conditions of the encounter, and so calls into question the very possibility of making a presentation of self. If impersonating a muppet of dubious anthropomorphy is a job, concievably a robot should be able to do it. But it's a terrible insult, and therein lies its inconcievability. We can hardwire a robot to follow the forms of civility, but not to practice civility itself. A robot without gumption could not possibly become a citizen any more than a robot with gumption could possibly remain a robot.

Update:The Wall Street Journal has a fuller story about Elmo and his fellow street performers

posted by Fido the Yak at 8:40 AM.


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