Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Romney-Bot Meme

Mitt Romney is rich, well-groomed, politically experienced, happily married, and, it would seem, probably a robot. The accusation that the preppy family man is actually a soulless automaton has been around for several years, but now that he's that much closer to becoming the GOP nominee for president, it has become more commonplace and more mainstream. 

A recent piece in the NYT posited that Romney's one-dimensional, undeviating focus on the economy is his entire campaign strategy. Like a Roomba in a small apartment, this makes him great at doing one thing, but can also lead to embarrassing or infuriating glitches when he gets caught by the tight corners and rucked-up carpets of political campaigning. From what little I've seen of Romney's campaign appearances, he does display an awkwardness and emotional vacancy--the strange, repeated phrases; the completely false laugh ("ha-ha, ha-ha"); the detachment behind the eyes. He definitely seems a little weird. 

Obviously, his staffers and family recognize this, which is probably why his wife, Ann Romney, tried to "humanize" him by calling him her "most disobedient child." (That is disturbing for a different set of reasons, none of them having to do with his lack of humanity.)

But it's worth considering exactly why this comparison to a robot is so negative. A new book on the history of automata, Sublime Dreams of Living Machines, deals with this from the other direction. Machines that are so lifelike that they can fool us into thinking they are people are psychologically disturbing, evoking horror and sometimes provoking insanity (in fiction, at any rate), because they completely up-end our established and cherished worldview that there are things that are human and alive, and things that are mechanical and outside of the entire category of life/death. 

Comparing humans to machines isn't always an insult. Calling someone a machine can emphasize their drive, discipline, and efficiency. But comparing someone to a robot or an automaton is almost always negative, as it points to a single-mindedness that leaves no room for improvisation, a capacity for rote performance, lack of creativity or spontaneity, and an absence of emotion. People like that lack the messiness and unpredictability that we associate with humanity; paradoxically, that kind of total, unvarying stability makes people feel uncertain of what they're facing. 

In a presidential candidate that undeviating focus on *being* a presidential candidate, on winning the election, seems too nakedly ambitious, too desperate. And there's less chance for the kind of embarrassing gaffe or revelation that the electorate finds so thrilling and entertaining. And that's what it's all about, amirite?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Ethan Gilsdorf, a friend of Medieval Robots (and also of medieval robots), has the lowdown  on the promised upcoming 5th edition of D&D. The new edition, still in the works, will take players' ideas into account and will be an antidote to the much-despised 4th edition, released in 2008.

"The game “is a unique entertainment experience because it’s crafted by the players at the table, and every gaming session is different,” said Liz Schuh, who directs publishing and licensing for Dungeons & Dragons. “We want to take that idea of the players crafting that experience to the next level and say: ‘Help us craft the rules. Help us craft how this game is played.’" 

Indeed, long a byword for the hopelessly dorky, wedgied, underweight underclass of junior high and high school, D&D is the offspring of Tolkein and Lewis and the ancestor of World of Warcraft. Although fewer people seem to be playing D&D these days, either turning to MMORPGs like WoW or D&D-inspired low-tech games like Magic, it's still popular.* Last year's D&D episode of "Community" was hilarious, and the success of tv shows like "Game of Thrones" and "Knights of Mayhem" indicate that the medievalism that used to be seen as the refuge of nerds and weirdos has huge mainstream appeal.

*Not sure if it's good or bad that Jon Favreau credits D&D with developing his abilities as a story teller.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Number 1 Year

Dear Reader, 

One year ago, I launched this blog. My idea was to publish short pieces on my research and various aspects of medievalism in popular culture, and my goal was to write something once a week. I've ventured farther afield than I thought I would, into robotics and AI, and I didn't manage to publish once a week (although I averaged one post per week). 

I've been delighted with how well-received my blog has been, and I never imagined that I'd get over 10,000 page views. My hope for 2012 is to develop a more vocal community of commenters (and for that, I need your help). My goal is to continue to blog regularly, and to finish my book on medieval robots. 

And now, for the sake of the archive, here's a look back at the year here. Westeros and Winterfell garnered less interest than a sixteenth-century Spanish automaton, and the Banana, Jr. showed up fairly frequently in Google searches. 

Thanks for reading!