Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Dung Heap of History

The past is shit. 

This is what I learned on a recent trip to the UK. I happened to be in York during the filming of the pilot of "Knifeman," a new AMC drama about a controversial 18th-century medical figure. The production team used the Shambles (the oldest street in York) and the area around the Minster to stand in for Georgian London. Although the book on which the tv show is based claims it is about the birth of "modern surgery,"* far from looking "modern," the extras all looked as pre-modern and disgusting as possible: muddy clothes, bad teeth, and dirty faces and fingernails. 

(*Someone better tell the people making "The Knick" that "modern surgery" started two centuries earlier.)

Later, I went to the Jorvik Viking Center, and learned all about the Vikings. I learned about their incredible long-distance trade and kinship networks; their love of finery, such as imported silk, amber, carnelian, and gold; and their scientific expertise. I also learned that they were giant poopers; viz. this massive human turd (this is apparently a sponsored object, and is officially known as the "Lloyds Bank Coprolite"), unearthed by archaeologists several decades ago

But that's not all: The ride through the recreated streets of Viking York (complete with fabulous and creepy life-size automata) concludes by passing a man straining in the privy, complete with vocal and intestinal sound effects.

Later, on a trip to the Roman fort, Housesteads, along Hadrian's Wall, the first thing our guide showed us was the well-preserved latrine. Her prop was a sponge on a stick, similar to the ones the Roman soldiers (and civilians? unclear) used to clean their bums after doing their business in the brown tent. A few days later, a fellow hotel guest, after learning what I do for a living, asked, "Why study the Middle Ages? Wasn't everyone just wading around in their own shit?"

Why is there such a fixation on the dirtiness of the past? Certainly, human waste can reveal a lot of important information about diet and disease in a population. And everyone poops, after all. Latrines are no less interesting or important than bathhouses or aqueducts or temples. The focus on the privy in Viking York, the chamberpots of the 15th century (at Barley Hall) and the close stools of the 16th century (Edinburgh Castle), and Roman latrines can, at first glance, be a way to close the temporal gap between then and now, between them and us.

But the focus on plumbing, hygiene, and bathing is also a way to widen that gap, to say that people in the past were more primitive and less intelligent than we are; that their tolerance for filth and dirt was higher than ours because they didn't know any better, not because they didn't have the same options that some of us have now. This false sense of superiority is what Monty Python brilliantly sends up in this clip from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
Here's what else I learned on my trip. Yes, our guide in Barley Hall, Master Paul, showed us the chamber pot. But he made sure to discuss the stringent regulations in 15th-century York that governed the disposal of waste (human, animal, and manufacturing). Contrary to popular belief, people did not fling the contents of their chamberpots out of the window and onto the street (especially after the 14th-century plague pandemic). The Neolithic (ca. 3200-2500 BCE) settlement at Skara Brae, in Orkney, contains an elaborate system of drains to wash away household and human waste, and each of the small houses contains a small "necessary room." Over 5000 years ago, Stone Age people, using stone tools, built an entire village with indoor plumbing. 

In many ways, people who lived long ago were the same as we are. They had less sophisticated tools, but not less sophisticated minds. We'd do well to remind ourselves of that, and to extend that same compassion to the millions of people in the world now who live amidst sewage, effluvium, and garbage. Contempt for those on the dung heap of history can so easily be transposed to contempt for those on the dung heap of global poverty. But most people don't want to live in their own filth. If they do, it's not because they're ignorant or irrational or subhuman, it's because they don't have another option.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Railing against Inequality

Rail travel is making a comeback. Not actual rail travel (at least in the United States), but fictional rail travel. Dystopic rail travel.
Katniss on her way to the Capitol.
 A very special train, Snowpiercer (Le Transperceniege in the original bédé) is the vehicle for the continuation of humanity in the film (and bédé), and also for the continuation of economic stratification under global capitalism. In the Mockingjay trilogy, Katniss, Peeta, Haymitch, and Effie travel throughout Panem via luxury rail. Both dystopian sci-fi narratives examine economic and political oppression and injustice, income inequality (a bloodless phrase for a life-or-death fact of life for so many people), and the immoral decadence of the wealthy few at the expense of the impoverished many. And in both, the extravagant railway cars, gourmet food, sumptuous furnishings, and spectacular amenities clearly convey the gulf between the starving, dirty, huddled masses and the privileged few who get to to enjoy them. 

Locomotives, or trains, first appeared in the middle of the 19th century, but they didn't really begin to incorporate high-end luxe amenities for first-class passengers until railway travel became more widespread in general, at the end of the 19th century. The opulence of long-distance trains, such as The Orient Express, is legendary: servants, fine china and crystal, sterling silver, elaborate meals, and plush carriages for those wealthy, often upper-class, passengers who could afford a first-class ticket. And for the rest? Trains, like ocean liners, are large enough to make the gulf between first-class and third-class passengers impossible to cross. Although it's not easy to use an airplane bathroom in first-class if you're traveling in economy class, one still shuffles through the first- and business-class (and economy "plus") seats on the way to those awful seats in the last row that don't recline, and the crafty economy air traveler can swipe a pillow or a blanket from an unused seat. 

As a mass transportation technology, trains are better able to convey vast differences in passenger status than airplanes (or any flying transport). Their length makes it possible to have different entrances, different amenities, and different experiences for passengers, according to the cost of the ticket. And they hark back to the Gilded Age of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, when the gulf between the haves and the have-nots was similar to what it is now. No wonder that the creators of genre books and films have turned to them to realize a vision of a dystopic society that looks a lot like later-capitalist modernity. And no wonder that they're thriving today.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Mystery Makers

I recently saw "The Mysteries"--back for an extended run--at The Flea Theater in New York. The play is actually 52 short plays, by 48 playwrights, that comprise an updated version of the York Mystery Play Cycle--a Middle English group of 48 plays depicting the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis through Revelations.* 

Like late medieval mystery cycles, which could unfold over many hours or even days, "The Mysteries" takes about six hours, and includes two longish intervals (with food served). Although the production includes a lot of things that the Middle English versions leave out (nudity, swearing, sex, blasphemy) and lacks the "mysteries" (theatrical machinery) that made the plays so stunning in the late Middle Ages, "The Mysteries" feels medieval. The plays and most of the performances are colloquial but not naturalistic; and just as in the medieval period, the stories of the Bible are transformed and translated for a general audience whose familiarity with the lessons of the Bible might be patchy, at best. The meal breaks and general conviviality at The Flea seems medieval (or do I mean "medieval"?), as well. Pageants were often performed during festivals and fairs, and with plenty of food stalls around. Eating dinner and dessert with my fellow theater-goers and chatting to the actors provided a shared sense of fellowship and community that is also central to certain kinds of medieval drama. 

"The Mysteries" runs through July 14, and there are usually rush tickets available for $35. It's transporting.

* These plays, or pageants, often included complicated theatrical machinery to produce stunning effects. For example, shipwrights' guilds would produce a mechanical whale for the story of Jonah and the whale, or an artificial storm and an ark for the story of Noah and the Flood. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Do People Even Like Robots?

It's nice to be able to invite a guest to your wedding and know that he or she isn't going to make a terrible speech or throw up on the wedding cake. On the other hand, it's also nice to be able to invite a guest to your wedding and know that he or she isn't going to make the other guests feel awkward and uncomfortable, merely by showing up. 

This is the dilemma posed by robot wedding guests, and I learned about this thanks to the recent article in the "Vows" section of the New York Times. Ideally, the robots act as telepresence proxies for guests who can't attend, but still want to be a part of the festivities (although at least one enterprising couple had a robot officiate the ceremony). Of course, the downside is that people still aren't that comfortable interacting with robots, so once the novelty wears off they are largely ignored. 

As men pulled their dates to the dance floor in Australia, Mr. O’Neill watched from Canada sitting at his computer dressed in a suit with a beer in hand, and was able to see what was happening only right in front of the seat where his brothers had propped up the robot.
“I was unconsciously turning my head to talk to people and realizing I’m in a cold, dark basement and it’s 1 in the morning,” he said.

This reminded me of the first episode of season 5 of The Good Wife. I think the callous behavior that the LG employees show toward "Monica" (a co-worker who interfaces with the firm via telepresence robot) emphasizes both the way that certain technologies destabilize social norms and disrupt communication (even--or perhaps especially--if that technology is supposed to enhance communication) and the generally toxic environment at LG.

Compare these examples, in which the human-robot interactions never become truly functional or integrated, with "Robot & Frank," in which the robot and protagonist forge a bond that is as emotionally complex as the one that Frank has with his children. It may be that "The Good Wife" is simply a more accurate reflection of how people feel about robots right now, and "Robot & Frank" is speculative fiction about a near-future in which robots are a little more responsive, a little more common.

More interesting still is that the telepresence robot in "The Good Wife" and some of the examples in the NYT article strongly resemble the descriptions of the wheeled tripodal servants that Haphaestus forged to serve the gods on Mt. Olympus. Indeed, perhaps our longstanding association between "robots" and "servants/slaves" is what makes us react to robotic avatars with discomfort, since they violate that association.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Humanities in Crisis, Medieval Style

The humanities are in crisis! The crisis seems to be that the number of students who choose to study humanities subjects in college is in steep decline, as more students pursue majors in professional fields, like business, or STEM subjects, because these subjects are widely seen by students to be better job training. Some argue that this is because our society has devalued creative and culturally generative work. To some, the narrow focus on employment and earnings is cause for lament and alarm. Others suggest that the decline is overstated, and that the humanities had a brief, anomalous post-war period of popularity. 

There are, I imagine, as many suggestions for how to reverse this crisis as there are proposed reasons for its cause. I merely want to point out that this brief "golden age" of interest in the humanities, followed by a period of greater interest in professional training has happened the outset of the first universities in Europe. In the twelfth century, the great cathedral schools at Chatres and Orléans placed particular emphasis on ancient literature and neoplatonist philosophy. In these places, "the spirit of a real humanism showed itself in an enthusiastic study of ancient authors and in the production of Latin verse of a really remarkable quality."* But this humanistic renaissance was ultimately short lived, as interest in the science of logic and the professional fields of law and medicine prevailed over interest in literature and philosophy. John of Salisbury, in the late twelfth century, complained that the logic masters knew almost nothing of literature. Fifty years later, Henri d'Andeli, a French poet, wrote that "Logic has the students, whereas Grammar [literature] is reduced in numbers, Civil Law rode gorgeously and Canon Law rode haughtily ahead of all the other arts."* Medieval is the new modern, people!

* Taken from C. H. Haskins, The Rise of Universities, ch. 2.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Year in Robots

I've been doing some sifting through the year's news stories about robotics and robots to do a round-up post. But then I came across Lewis Black's segment on last night's Daily Show and thought, why bother?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Chess & Mind

I recently started learning something new: 
The Lewis Chessmen. 

I never played it, I didn't know anyone who played it, and my total exposure to chess came from books and films in which people played chess (see: Searching for Bobby Fischer, Fresh, The Lymond Chronicles (especially Pawn in Frankincense), The Americans, Cairo Time, WarGames, The West Wing, etc.). In the cultural artifacts that introduced me to the game, it was always heralded as something really hard. When a character plays chess in a story, it tells the audience that the person (Fresh, Jed Bartlet, or Francis Crawford) playing is always several steps ahead of the people around them. Chess players think ahead, they can strategize, they can "see the whole board." And the mathematical nature of chess, especially (so I'm told) at its highest levels, lends itself to computational technology. (I vividly remember the Kasparov-Deep Blue matchup.) 

But I confess that I'm confused about how and why chess became a yardstick for intelligence and, in some cases, for humanity, insofar as "human intelligence" is a proxy for what makes us uniquely human. Humans have been building calculating machines for millennia--even before chess was invented. Why is it that the element of human intelligence that is the *easiest* to reproduce with machinery became associated with chess, and used as a marker for intelligence itself? When did this start to happen? And what does this reveal about historical theories of mind and cognition--have they changed sufficiently over the past centuries to reveal any changes in terms of the importance chess as a measure of intellectual capability?