This past semester in my Environmental Literature class, we've been talking extensively about human nature and the way humans function in a society and as a community. Science has the ability and the genius to create a brand new age of sustainable technology. Science, however, isn't very good at changing people's minds, changing public perception, changing our deeply-implanted ideologies. The Arts, written, visual, visceral, audible, have that ability. The class has drawn ideas and themes from Freud's Civilization and it's Discontents, Don Delillo's White Noise, Jack Turner's Abstract Wild, Albert Camus' The Plague. Each of these books was chosen not just for its environmental rhetoric (or purposeful lack thereof) but for its commentary on the human condition, the human as a social animal, and the nature of the collective.
It's hard to read the material and participate in the class discussions and still feel hopeful. Most of it leans toward the inherent-flaw-in-our-hard-wiring sentiment, and most of the class can't help but agree. But amazingly, in the face of all these great philosophers and thinkers, I think Kacie Kinzer, a student at NYU, presents the perfect counter-argument. And it's a little robot with a cardboard body and a smiley face drawn on the front with a marker.
Kacie Kinzer created the tweenbot, a miniature cardboard-plated robot who can only move in one direction. Forward. He's dropped in New York City with only his destination and "Help Me!" written on a flag that sticks up from his .5 foot tall body. People have to stop and re-arrange him, help him over curbs and past barriers, and keep him from heading into traffic. Thus far, he's made it to every destination just fine (they've only posted one mission on their website, but an article on Gizmodo makes it sound like they've done this numerous times).
My first reaction to hearing about this was actually one of disgust. Why are people so willing to help this robot and so unwilling to help each other? But maybe that's exactly what's so beautiful about the tweenbot. In a world with so much evidence pointing toward humans being primarily cutthroat and greed-driven, this robot shows that maybe those traits are perhaps learned, and not inborn. We have been taught as humans to treat other humans terribly, without trust and without empathy. This has become our unspoken Ideology. But when faced with a non-human entity in need, we act. We are compassionate. We laugh, and we help. And if that is still there, inside of us, down underneath somewhere, then it is not lost, and we as artists can keep trying to shine our light on it, and we as people can keep trying help it find its way back into our subconscious.