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Robots, Arise!

It is a commonplace of our technological age that the more readily available information becomes, the less likely we are ever to remember it. Oh, how many times have I Googled the Presidential line of succession, yet ask me about the Secretary of Agriculture and behold my darting eyes. The average American height of white males? The annual GDP of Mauritania? Did I ever really crave these scraps of data, or was it only your gasps and exclamations upon my summoning them up?

Probably there are a million better places to answer this question, and a thousand studies cited, and anyway please raise your hand if you’re here for the Social Informatics Symposium. No one? I didn’t think so. All together then: Libraries good! Wikipedia bad!

And yet who can deny the romance of discovering something like Mauritania, for heaven’s sake, even in its barest Saharan outlines, even if it was its alphabetical neighbors you were looking for – Malta, Marshall Islands, Martinique – or even just a country with five syllables? It does roll off the tongue – doesn’t it? – notwithstanding the odd coup d’état, a standard of living which hovers in the area of $1.25 a day, and a slavery, just abolished in 1981. The capital of Mauritania is Nouakchott. Things to see include the Port de Peche which looks, allegedly, like it sounds: full of brightly painted fishing boats for the quaintly inclined.

Most of this I will forget about before I even remember it, still the chance of even a megapixel lingering anywhere it should alter my worldview seems very worth a couple of disposable minutes on a Wednesday afternoon. Something like such happenstance becomes the guiding motivation for a young Uri Shulevitz in his partly autobiographical How I Learned Geography, when his father impulsively purchases a world map at the market instead of bread for his always hungry family. “Pennsylvania Transylvania Minsk,” recites the boy, picturing snowy mountains and temples and papaya groves he is determined to someday visit. Maybe the internet is like that map. Just maybe times a trillion.

And so it is probably with the dreamiest of best intentions that a little boy’s parents would leave him plugged into a computer every morning on their way out to work because they want him to be the smartest robot ever. I’m sorry, did I say robot? It would be easier to dismiss Doug Unplugged as just another remonstration against over-demanding parents if Dan Yaccarino hadn’t gone and planted antennae on their heads. Rob Bot and Betty Bot both exhibit splashy diplomas on the wall and furthermore appear to work high-powered jobs in the city, but there’s nothing overtly cold-hearted about their respective farewells:

“Today you will be learning all about the city,” says Doug’s mom, with seeming enthusiasm.

“Happy downloading,” adds Doug’s dad, and indeed the facts which end up traveling from one set of circuits to another would probably bring a smile to any five-year-old’s face.

They do to mine. Did you know there are 500 million pigeons living in New York City? 14 thousand tons of trash thrown out every day? That the first fire hydrant was installed in 1808?

Of course, in all of his learning, Doug will eventually become distracted by a very real pigeon on his windowsill, and of course it helps to have a jet pack already installed to give chase. You could quibble with this leap. And while the sentimental ending may not be for everyone – Doug learns how to show his family affection by watching humans in the park – I found this nevertheless one of the more thoughtful meditations on our knowledge-acquiring future, which tend toward the condescending for this age. Yaccarino may appear the most straightforward of writers and illustrators, but look closely among these cityscapes and you will find robots that go unmentioned in the text, as though their assimilation – and maybe that of technology in general – were nothing to get very wound up about.

Meanwhile, Doug experiences firsthand the scattering of pigeons, the teeming of sidewalks, the rocking and screeching of a subway, the heights of a skyscraper he has only heard about, still you have to know what you are looking for to ever be surprised.


Filed Under:  Technology    Travel  

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