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?

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