Have you heard about Tweenbots? Created by Kacie Kinzer, Tweenbots are
human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.
Here is a video of a Tweenbot in Washington Square Park:
When I first came across this story, I was completely enchanted. That people, in this day and age, will engage in a unique and different kind of play makes me feel all sorts of good about the human race, and I was all set to link to the story and the video. Then I had a thought: how many of these people who helped a cardboard robot achieve its mission pass by, day in and day out, other human beings who need help? Why might it be easier to give assistance to inanimate objects than to other people who could use a kind word, a small amount of money, some hope, a smile, or even just an acknowledgment of their very humanity. Are these separate issues or can we learn something from the fact that innocuous, happy looking robots might garner more attention than the homeless and destitute?
Ultimately I think it boils down to fear. When we see a homeless man or woman, we strive to avoid their eyes in part because we do not want to see the possibility of our own reflection. If we really and truly think about how tenuous our lives are or how fragile our actual control over our own safety and security and stability actually is, we are forced to recognize that it would take very little for us to lose everything. So we turn away, ignore the outstretched hand, and avoid the eyes full of pain that are a little too close to the eyes that look back from the mirror.
Tweenbots have no eyes and only one fixed expression. To help an inanimate object requires no self-reflection and, in fact, reinforces our belief that we do indeed have a certain amount of control over the world. The largess we offer these cardboard mechanicals requires no psychic cost to ourselves, whereas helping other people necessarily requires us to face our own fears and prejudices, thereby exacting a greater emotional and psychic cost in the act.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the idea and the action of Tweenbots is fascinating and offers insight into modern urban psychology. The sense of play and engagement that the Tweenbots provoke is genuine and worthwhile. I’m sure that I would set one of these bots on its way if I saw one. However, I can’t help wonder about my own propensity to turn away from people in need when I would probably go out of my way to help a cardboard robot.