A Fascinating Experiment

>> Wednesday, June 17, 2009

You know, the past few days I've been talking about the health care issue, what I'd like to do, some of the impediments to having it all work out well. There are a lot of strong emotions on this issue, misconceptions, angst, resentment, ire. Different opinions and discussions are all over the net - these three are from NYT just today.

But I want to change gears a bit and tell you about something else, a different experiment: Tweenbots. Kacie Kinzer made up some little simple robots, simple mechanisms with no clever navigating mechanisms or sophisticated mobility units, just tiny wheels and a cardboard chassis. Also, a sharpie smile and a flag that told a passerby where the robot was intended to go with an appeal for help.

The intent was to see what would happen if these were set free on the mean streets of New York. They were set out far from their destinations, often deliberately pointing the wrong directions or headed for obstacles. Would most be destroyed? Stranded? Ignored? What would people do with an anonymous request for help? Without even a reason for the destination given?

Perhaps you'll be surprised at the results:

The results were unexpected. Over the course of the following months, throughout numerous missions, the Tweenbots were successful in rolling from their start point to their far-away destination assisted only by strangers. Every time the robot got caught under a park bench, ground futilely against a curb, or became trapped in a pothole, some passerby would always rescue it and send it toward its goal. Never once was a Tweenbot lost or damaged. Often, people would ignore the instructions to aim the Tweenbot in the “right” direction, if that direction meant sending the robot into a perilous situation. One man turned the robot back in the direction from which it had just come, saying out loud to the Tweenbot, "You can’t go that way, it’s toward the road.”
But I'm not.

There's a lot of ugly in the world. There is. We see it on the news. We hear about the dissension and the arguing and the hatred and the fear. The violence confronts us on our televisions and even in our lives.

But I believe that most people are good, quietly good in an unnewsworthy way. Not that they can't be manipulated or tricked into doing bad things, but it's not what they want to do. If given a chance to do a little something nice, most people will. And be glad to do it. Doing a little something nice makes your own day a little brighter.

So, although I don't know that we'll solve our problems as soon as we'd like, I believe we can and will solve them. Every problem we have, someone has had before. People are good and I think, if we can focus on that instead of what separates us, we'll find out path out.


  • flit

    that is very cool

  • Roy

    More proof that St. Augustine was wrong - we're not born bad.

  • Roy

    Oops, let me put it a little better...

    More proof that St. Augustine was wrong - we're not evil by nature.

  • The Mother

    I am not startled by this, either. Shades of Lenore Skenazy, and her free range kids.

    I cannot count the number of times I had to waylay a man on his way out of a public restroom and ask him to check on one of my sons. Invariably, I got a smile, a reminder that they were dads, too, and a full report that the kid was okay, but having a difficult time with a bowel movement. More information than I asked for, and more kindness than the shock-and-awe media would have expected me to find.

    As for St. Augustine, he lived in a very different era. But he was VERY right about one thing, Roy:

    “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”

    Something I think the religious right should revisit, before they destroy science education.

  • Stephanie B

    I'm always skeptical of assertions which serve no apparent purpose other than to put people under the control of another. The assertion that people are born evil is one of them.

    It seems to me to be of little worth other than to convince someone that the only path through goodness is from someone on the outside, to, in fact, convince them that they are already a debtor who needs to make restitution.

    I think it no surprise that these assertions can so frequently be traced to those who could be looked at for "guidance" (outside help) and who would be recipients of guilty or generousity-spawned largess.

    You might want to check out Roy's Website, the Mother. He's an expert at keepin' 'em honest.

  • Shakespeare

    For my senior project in college, oh so many years ago, we had to examine what it meant to be human... and while most people discussed things like "language," "selfishness," "technology," etc., I said "compassion" made people human. Although I have seen the big events that show what evil humankind is capable of (war, 9-11, etc.), I have seen on a daily basis the kindness and compassion we are capable of. We put quarters in each other's meters, let each other go first, help out kids, protect each other, listen when others are stressed or upset, serve food at food banks, and do all sorts of anonymous little things to make the world better. But those little things rarely make the news the way the big tragedies do, so even as we act with compassion, we perceive ourselves alone in the world.

    We should make it a point to DO these things every day and NOTICE when they occur around us. And turn off the news... and go out and play with our kids.

  • Stephanie B

    I said before and I'll say again. One thing that really struck me about the OKC bombing, a horrible act that cost many lives including many children, was, while only a handful of people caused all the horror, all the pain, all the destruction, thousands came to help, without fanfare or complaint, to provide blood or wander through the rubble to pull broken bodies from the wreckage.

    One or two people now have the weapons to do terrible destruction, but it seems there are always more people there to clean it up than there were people to make the mess.

    That is an important thing to remember.

  • The Mother

    Sorry, I couldn't resist the Augustine quote. He's the darling that always gets trotted out in philosophy of science when it meets up with philosophy of religion. He was saying way back in the 4th century CE what it took a luminary like the Dali Lama to say in the modern era: when science and religion collide, religion has to step aside, or it just looks silly.

    If he was wrong on altruism, I think I might cut him a little slack. Of course, on the whole sex thing, he was way off, too.

    I have just become a Roy fan. Religion, architecture and chickens? How can I resist?

  • Stephanie B

    It's very difficult to be exposed to Roy and not become a fan.

  • Jude

    I think most people are basically good and occasionally I have watched those shows on television that set up different scenarios to see how people will react under certain circumstances and who will help and I'm usually amazed by the people that usually get shunned and are offered no assistance what so ever and they are usually the homeless, people act like they have leprosy what a pity. I think because of the novelty of those tweenbots people found it amusing, they simply don't find smelly street people amusing and go out of their way to ignore them. Sorry didn't mean to go on so long.

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