Robots and responsibility

[Another excerpt from Reality (a primer)]

What worries many people about being told that the mind isn’t distinct from the body is what that might mean for human freedom and responsibility. If I create a robot that comes over and stomps through your garden, no one holds the robot responsible. It is just doing what it was programmed to do, and could not have done otherwise. But if the mind isn’t distinct from the body, and if our bodies are “programmed” by genetics, laws of nature, and biology to do what they do, then we are the same as robots. Out the window goes any freedom to do otherwise, and with it any tolerable notion of moral responsibility.

That would be terrible. But it’s being terrible doesn’t mean it isn’t so. Maybe we are totally determined, and what we do is determined by physical laws – just like everything else in the universe. Maybe our notions of freedom and moral responsibility are mere illusions, holdovers from times when we didn’t know as much about the world and ourselves as we do now. Maybe even one might say we need to hold on to these illusions, since so much of our lives are based upon them. But that being so would not make them any less illusory. This is a hard-line stance to take, and so it’s been called “hard determinism.”

Alternatively, one might wonder if “freedom” is really something other than being able to do otherwise than we what we actually do. The concept of freedom, like any important concept, is complicated. Part of it has to do with “wiggle room,” or a capacity to do this or that. But another part of it has to do with being in control of one’s actions. To see this, imagine driving a car that has a built-in capacity to drive itself. Suppose I decide to drive to the store to buy groceries….

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Nibroc-Rock’s Project 17 unknown Death Egg Robot (from deviantart.com)

You know what? That’s boring. Let’s ramp it up a bit. Suppose you and I create a giant death robot. I’m planning to get in the driver’s seat and take it over to crush a nearby city. You’re worried that I might chicken out at the last minute and take pity on the helpless, screaming citizens, so you program the robot to take control of itself and do the job if I start showing any signs of mercy. As it happens, you were wrong about me, and I gleefully drive the robot over to the city and smash it to smithereens, laughing like a maniac all the while. All of us would hold me responsible for such an incredibly evil (though admittedly spectacular) course of action. I wanted to do it, and I did it. But at the same time: I could not have done otherwise. Had I faltered, the robot would have taken control of its actions, and the same thing would have happened. Again: I am responsible for what I did, even though I could not have done otherwise. My actions were in this sense free.

It is an outrageous example, but it highlights a different aspect of freedom. Freedom is not just being able to do otherwise, but the capacity to act on our own desires. If I want to do something, and I have the power to do it and nothing stops me, and I do it – then I do it freely. Note that nothing need be said about being able to do otherwise.

This component of freedom is compatible with determinism (and so this view of freedom is called “compatibilism,” or sometimes “soft determinism”). If we go back to the garden-stomping robot, one change would make us consider the robot responsible for what it does: the addition of the robot’s own desires. If the robot desires to go around stomping through gardens, and does so, then we would hold it responsible for what it does. I suppose we might have to stipulate that the robots desires are its own desires, and not ones that have merely been programmed into it. Otherwise, it would once again be the programmer who is to blame.

Now this raises another set of questions. Are we responsible for the desires we end up with? Do we choose them? Do we choose them freely? Or are our desires programmed into us through society, genetics, and psychology? When do we say, “That desire is yours; you own it; you are responsible for it” instead of saying, “You were brainwashed”? My desire to help my neighbor, or to stomp through her garden, seems different from a drug-addict’s desire for more drugs, or a kleptomaniac’s desire to shoplift. The desires are mine, as opposed to ones I am somehow stuck with. Is there some way to make sense of this difference?

Some philosophers have argued that the difference depends on how sensitive these desires are to the circumstances. My desire to help my neighbor is very sensitive to who my neighbor is, our history, what she likes or would like, what my other plans are, and so on. Altering these circumstances would change whether I act on my desire, or even whether I have the desire at all. But an addict’s desires aren’t that sensitive to changes in the environment. It doesn’t matter who owns the drugs, or what I have to do to get them, or what my other plans are; I am still compelled to act on that desire. I am at the mercy of it. But does this simply take us back to – I can’t do otherwise than act on it? If so, then we are left wondering once again whether anyone can do otherwise in a deterministic universe.

Posted in Machines / gadgets / technology / games, Metaphysical musings | Leave a comment

Knowledge, that human practice

Ordinarily, we think knowledge is having in one’s head some kind of story or an explanation that matches how Things Really Are. This ordinary conception has at least two problems. First, it assumes that there is a way Things Really Are – that some particular story or explanation is successful at capturing that way, and there can’t be multiple stories or accounts which are all successful, in their own ways and for different reasons. Second, it presumes that knowledge is simply a kind of match-up between what’s in one’s head and what’s in the world, and so it ignores all of the signals and indicators we use in determining whether someone has knowledge. Arguably, it is these signals and indicators that really are what knowledge is, rather than some sort of spiritual sympathy between mind and world.

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Frank Bacon, 1561-1626

Francis Bacon was being much more realistic when he insisted that knowledge is power. Some sorts of knowledge allow us to get things done, and it really doesn’t matter what chattering noises we produce in the doing. If a sailor can cross an ocean and end up where he wants to go, then he has knowledge, regardless of whether he’s been using a GPS or Sacro Bosco’s Spheres. This is practical knowledge. Other sorts of knowledge aren’t so immediately practical, and here it gets tricky. Sometimes what needs to get done is something social, political, or cultural, and it’s not so much a matter of “getting it done” so much as providing a useful overall perspective. What makes the perspective useful is that it assembles together all or most of what some particular audience deems as important. If four of us are talking at a party, and three of us have points we’re insisting on, and the fourth manages to put together an account that does tolerable justice to those three points, then that fourth person is regarded as having knowledge. This sort of “talking at a party” knowledge is academic or theoretical knowledge.

Both practical and theoretical knowledge are instances of power: the practical is power over things, and the theoretical is power over conversations. In domains of knowledge that purport to be scientific, the theoretical parts are tethered to the practical parts, in varying degrees of snugness (natural science) or looseness (social science). But smeared over both the practical and theoretical domains is a mixed variety of social pressures. For it is a society that needs to get things done, and recognizes only some achievements as worth doing. It is a society that prizes some conversations over others, and sets values on what needs to be integrated and what does not. The upshot of all this is that knowledge is what gets you ahead, gives you an advantage, wins you accolades, or otherwise (that’s right, Frank) gives you power. And it is easy to see how this upshot is soaked through and through with social, political, and cultural circumstances.

One might object that no amount of brute power can make an untruth true, even if it can manage to force many people to act as if they believe it. But this objection suffers from an understanding of “power” that is too limited. Power can be overt, physical, and brutal, involving “truth” commissions and the gulag and the whole nightmare. But that’s just stupid power – the power of school bullies. Power is also exerted over social circles and institutions and scientific academies. These more sophisticated exertions of power reach in and affect who we want to be, how we want to think, and words we would like to use. We voluntarily put ourselves forward for memberships in these societies, asking to be trained and coached into the right sorts of things to say (“graduate school”). And, yes, in the best cases evidence and experiments and archival research all play significant roles: but the questions that are asked, the ways in which data is recorded and interpreted, the judgments about whether the line of research is worthwhile – all these important factors are determined through exertions of social power, whether explicitly or implicitly. And note well: in the end, anyone who doesn’t meet the group’s expectations is typically regarded as not having knowledge.

This might sound like a sour complaint, but it isn’t meant to be: I don’t think there is another way for knowledge to exist. Knowledge, as much as pottery or sneakers or trial by jury, is a human phenomenon, governed ultimately by social processes taking place in a natural world that contributes its own set of constraints. Pretending it is otherwise is itself a familiar power play, an attempt to legitimate one’s power by appeal to the natural order: knowledge by divine right.

Posted in Historical episodes, Items of the academy / learning, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff | 13 Comments

On teaching mediocre books

It’s been a few years now since I realized an obvious truth. The great majority of my students, and even the majority of the philosophy majors I teach, are not going to graduate school in philosophy. This is as it should be. There are already far too many PhDs than there are teaching jobs, and it is certainly true that it’s not the sort of life for everyone, and so on. Furthermore, the world needs philosophically reflective managers, accountants, professionals, parents, and neighbors more desperately than it needs more philosophy grad students.

So, it would seem, our classes should reflect this fact, and they should prepare our students to be philosophically-reflective citizens and professionals. By this I mean people who will go on to non-philosophical careers, but will carry with them a flexibility of mind, a capacity to see larger scales and deeper questions, and an abiding epistemic humility (knowing that, when it comes to absolutes, they really know nothing). There are multiple ways of bringing this about, of course, but one thing is clear: students probably shouldn’t be restricted to a diet of works by contemporary, professional philosophers. Perhaps they need to be engaging with some of this, as well as with some philosophical classics; but they also should be reading in their philosophy classes works of both nonfiction and fiction that are not themselves typically regarded as works of philosophy. For it is through this that they can learn how to apply their philosophical abilities to the stuff they will be encountering with and working on after graduating.

So, for example, I’m teaching “Epistemology” this term. I think a typical class in the subject would base itself on an anthology of selections and articles from Moore, Gettier, Harmon, Chisholm, Goldman, Alston, and so on. (If these names ring no bells, don’t worry; it’s not obvious that anyone apart from philosophy grad students and professors really should know these names.) A better class might include some of these items, along with works by authors whose names really should be known: Plato, Aristotle, Sextus Empiricus, Descartes, Locke, Hume, etc. In my class, we will be reading some fundamental works by Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, as I think these works are effective in raising the biggest questions about knowledge. But then we’ll be turning to works by a couple of contemporary non-philosophers: the skeptic Michael Shermer (The Believing Brain) and the biologist Edward Wilson (Consilience).

It’s not that I think these books are all that great. They’re not. They’re both too reductionistic and dismissive. But they are the sorts of books you can expect to be coming up on best-sellers lists and talked about in newspapers and magazines, and this is precisely why students should be reading them. If students are trained only to work with the sorts of problems and distinctions that bedevil professional philosophers, they will have very little to read and talk about in the nonacademic world. But if they have learned some classic stuff, and have also spent time learning how to connect that stuff in insightful ways to popular but mediocre books, they will be prepared for a lifetime of reading, thinking, and responding; for we are always surrounded by mediocre books. They will be the sort of people who perhaps inspire others to think a bit more deeply about what they are reading and thinking, and are able to turn a mediocre book into an interesting discussion. They will be set to live the examined life outside of the academy.

That’s my goal, anyway, and I’m surely only partly successful at best. I’m clumsy at leading discussion, and I need to be more creative in including more fictional works. But I think that the basic observation that begins this post – an awareness of what lives our students will be living – is an extremely fruitful observation for reorienting one’s teaching and one’s course materials.

Posted in Books, Items of the academy / learning | 2 Comments

Demons and Descartes

(Reading The Possession at Loudun, by Michel de Certeau, translated by Michael B. Smith)

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Urbain Grandier (1590-1634)

Over the years 1632-38, in the French town of Loudun, 17 nuns and 10 secular women were examined and treated for being under the sway of demons in one way or another. Some were possessed, meaning that one or more demons had taken up residence in specific parts of their bodies and controlled the women from within, while others were obsessed, meaning that demons were acting externally upon them (a lesser problem). In the end, the women were exorcised, and a troublesome but well-connected priest, Urbain Grandier, was convicted of having made a pact with the Devil, and was burned at the stake.

A modern-day image for this episode would be the breakout of some virulent disease in some city. A platoon of medical technicians and doctors would be sent out to gather samples and evidence and to try to treat the symptoms and stop the spread of the disease. Over time (one hopes), the nature of the disease would be understood, and a cure or treatment would be found and implemented. Similarly, in 17th-century Loudun, various kinds of priests and medical practitioners (doctors, surgeons, apothecaries) were sent in to try to determine whether the women were suffering from a natural form of madness or supernatural, demonic possession. It was, in other words, a big operation, organized and sustained over several years. Official witnesses kept notes of the examinations, interrogations, and (eventually) the exorcisms, and sent their notes to revered authorities at the University of Paris for their judgments. The final compendium of notes was nearly 5,000 pages.

By all accounts, the women underwent the examinations and treatments willingly (not that they had any choice), as they believed they were under demonic influence, and wanted to be free of it. (Or, at least, they saw that going along with the game was the smartest course.) In the cases of the possessed, they were tied to benches and subjected to what would seem to be torture in order to identify the demons within them and get more information from the demons.

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Grandier’s alleged pact with the Devil (Wikipedia)

The women snarled and barked and laughed and convulsed in just the ways we would imagine. They answered priest’s questions in demonic voices, with contempt and malice. But all this, as we know, could be symptomatic of insanity. The Loudun experts knew this as well. What tipped the judicial scales toward the supernatural was that women were seen to do the most extraordinary things: some levitated, some were raised from lying down to standing on their feet without bending or flexing, and one did a sort of back flex so that just her feet and the top of her head were touching the ground (which doesn’t sound too magical); but then went up some steps in this posture (well: wow). And, finally, the smoking gun: an actual written pact between Grandier and the Devil was found. (Well, actually it was found after a “demon” retrieved it and placed it under the chair of one of the investigators. It has been identified more recently as being in the handwriting of one of the nuns.)

The more lurid parts of the whole process were done before the population of Loudun. Thousands of residents were said to have witnessed some of the exorcisms. At the execution of Grandier midway through the episode in 1634, the taunting of the crowd enticed the executioner to light the fire without taking the relatively humane step of killing the victim first by hanging.

One has to ask: what really went on here? And a number of possibilities come to mind:

  1. It was a case of actual deviltry. Yes, thank you; you may sit down now.
  1. It was all a sham trial, aimed at killing Grandier. There is some plausibility to this. Grandier was well-educated and had friends in mid-range offices, and wrote passionately against the celibacy of priests (and in this regard seems to have practiced what he preached). The bishop of Poitiers, a powerful man, saw him as trouble and wasn’t sorry to see him go. The whole episode may have been constructed to get rid of Grandier. But, overall, offering this as the sole explanation strikes me as implausible, as surely there were easier and more straightforward ways to get rid of a troublesome priest.
  1. It was a weird psychological episode. It seems to me it must have been at least this. There was “demonic possession” in the air, as there had been recent previous cases in the area; Loudun itself was fought over, taken and lost in turn, by Protestant and Catholic forces, with standard violence; and a nun’s life was full of various encouragements toward weird psychological episodes. Still – as I don’t understand the dynamics of such episodes – it does seem to me too much to claim that this is all it was. There was the forgery of the pact with the Devil; and the “miraculous” behaviors of the possessed nuns, which (presuming they didn’t really happen) were most likely fabricated or at least embellished by the investigators. The interesting question, to me, is how much was out-and-out fabrication, and how much was the result of exaggerated perceptions and interpretations of normal events. Among a group of people primed to see demons, they might “see” all kinds of supernatural events happening around them.
  1. It was a weird psychological episode, which was appropriated to accomplish two ends: (1) get rid of Grandier, and (2) reassert the authority of the Church. This seems to me the most likely explanation of all. At the end of the whole process, the people of Loudun must have been thoroughly reassured that the Church has dominion over the spiritual realm: the demons were discovered and dispelled, and a wayward priest was burned alive. The scale of the operation, with all of the attending priests and medical practitioners, must have impressed upon the population that the Church really knew what it was doing, and the appeal of Protestantism would have dimmed in corresponding fashion.

Some philosophers (notably, Richard Popkin) have drawn connections between the events at Loudun and Descartes’s scenario of a deceiving demon in his Meditations. Loudun was described in various published chronicles, and it was enough of an episode to make it near certain that Descartes would have known of it. Beyond this, though, and beyond any contemporary’s general familiarity with cases of demonic possession, it’s hard to see that Loudun was particularly influential on what he wrote in the Meditations. He actually doesn’t name the thing that may be deceiving him as a demon, but as an “evil genius.” This genius does not cause him to bark and writhe and stick out his tongue at priests, but only deceives him as to what ideas are clear and distinct in his mind. It seems to be a case of obsession, rather than possession, since the genius is not able, apparently, to corrupt the light of nature that is in Descartes – Descartes, in other words, stays in possession of his inner most self, the self that is named in the cogito, ergo sum.

But one does wonder what Descartes would have said about it all. As a good son of the Church, he probably did believe in the phenomenon, but viewed it as outside his domain of expertise (which was natural philosophy, not theology). The genius he uses as a device is not supposed to be a natural entity that would be treated through some sort of medicine (he gives short shrift to the doubt that he might be insane, with his brain clouded by black vapors), but neither is it supposed to be a supernatural entity that can be dispelled only through sacraments and sorcery. It is just an imaginative device – something that gets him into a position to present the subsequent arguments of the Meditations. It is doubtful that he would have thought that his own rationalist epistemology would have been of any use in Loudun. But, with a bit of drama, one might point out that his epistemological program did eventually succeed in exorcizing all Loudunesque demons from the early modern imagination.

Posted in Books, Historical episodes | 2 Comments

Meet the idealists

[excerpt from World as Idea]

We have already met one idealist – Kant, who claimed that by the point at which we are conscious of experience, it has been shaped into a certain order in just the way a lecturer prepares his notes. Indeed, Kant believed that the human mind is very ambitious in its formatting of experience: it dresses up experiences as objects in space and time, in thoroughgoing causal relation with one another, with features that prepare each item to be described in the terms of Aristotle’s logic.  Kant believed that each human mind performs the same packaging in exactly the same way – or maybe he believed that in fact there is just One Human Mind which does all the packaging, and only later do we arrive at the belief that there are many separate human minds, each one linked up in a special way to some particular body in space and time. (He was not especially clear on this matter – and perhaps he thought no one could be.) Needless to say, he could not have believed that all this packaging was the work of some lobe in our brains; for brains themselves are causal, spatiotemporal objects, and so they belong in the “post-packaging” results rather than on the “packaging” team. The mind or minds that Kant has in mind are preconditions for what we experience, not anything we can experience directly.

Kant’s self-styled “Copernican revolution” – for it radically shifted once again our place in the universe – inspired a platoon of idealists who wished to go further. Karl Leonhard Reinhold (1757-1823), coming to Kant’s philosophy after having exhausted just about every religious vocation available to him, zealously advocated for the consequences of Kant’s ideas: that we can be confident of our ability to know the cosmos, and can be assured at the same time that human freedom, the soul, and divine justice are secure in the world of things in themselves, safely set off from science’s prying eyes. Reinhold also sought a fundamental principle from which all of Kant’s philosophy would issue. This was to be the “Principle of Consciousness,” or the fundamental truth that every act of consciousness is a subject forming a representation of an object; from this basic fact all else follows. Later idealists seized upon this search for a unifying principle that would bring all domains of knowledge under a single roof. Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) argued that the human mind cannot be seen as subject to any structure external to itself and still be entirely free. His fundamental principle was that the “I” freely posits its own existence, and sets about gaining a representation of itself by then positing a “not-I” – an Other – for the purpose of instructive contrast. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854) – a mercurial thinker if there ever was one! – seized upon the dynamic interaction between the Fichtean I and not-I as fundamental. He was, in a sense, playing Heraclitus to Fichte’s Parmenides, prizing the flux and tensions of thought above any fixed stability.

220px-deutscher_idealismusAnd down the rabbit hole we go, with each idealist finding his own tea party in the heart of consciousness itself. Reading their massive works, at turns both wildly inventive and torturously difficult, it is all too easy to come to the conclusion that someone must have slipped a madness potion into the drinking water. And perhaps this is so – if we think of “madness” a bit more generously, and if we think of Romanticism as that potion. For the Romantic artists of the time drew inspiration from the broad unity of mind and world, and the power of the human spirit to create forms and emblems that somehow contain within themselves, in their secret natures, all the animating forces of love, strife, and freedom. These artists and the idealists were engaged in a single project, that of finding the right expression for the unlimited powers and tragedies of the human spirit.

The great literary artist Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805), writing of the “sublime,” or the thrill we find in what is both awe-inspiring and terrifying, found that the overwhelming strength and complexity of nature was in fact only the mirror image of the human soul:

So long as man was merely a slave of physical necessity, had not yet found an egress from the narrow sphere of his wants, and still did not suspect the lofty daemonic freedom in his breast, he was reminded by inscrutable nature only of the inadequacy of his conceptual faculties and by destructive nature only of his physical incapacity. The first he was obliged humbly to acknowledge and from the second he turned in revulsion. But no sooner has free contemplation set him at a distance from the blind assault of natural forces – no sooner does he discover in the flood of appearances something abiding in his own being – then the savage bulk of nature about him begins to speak quite another language to his heart; and the relative grandeur outside him is the mirror in which he perceives the absolute grandeur within himself.

So it was for the idealists. With the broad advances of knowledge, nature became less “inscrutable” and human confidence grew. And as philosophers like Kant encouraged us to see the order in nature as a reflection of the mind, the imposing grandeur of nature became a reflection of monumental human grandeur. As difficult as it may be for us to share this wonder, we can at least appreciate the thrilling scene in which the Romantics and philosophers looked out upon the world and found themselves.

Posted in Kant and/or Hume, Stacks of Books | Leave a comment

Maybe the universe doesn’t exist

It is not clear to me that the universe exists. I’m not saying, of course, that there aren’t a lot of things in existence – my dog, this laptop, Saturn’s rings, and so on. And with any actual list of existent things, we can talk about the collection of those things, and give that collection any name we please. But when we try to talk about the collection of all things, it’s not obvious that we know what we are talking about, or even that such a collection exists. It certainly seems like the words make sense – “the collection of all things that have ever existed, or will ever exist” – but there is at least the possibility that these words, when strung together, don’t really refer to anything. Maybe such a collection is impossible.

We can talk about the collection of all shoes that have ever existed or will ever exist, or the collection of uncles, or the collection of neckties. We can also talk about collections of collections, being the clever creatures we are: the collection of collections that have four or less items, or the collection of collections which each contain at least one thing touched by Abraham Lincoln. But (employing here Bertie Russell’s old trick) what about the collection of all collections? Does that make sense? If it does, then it also seems we should be able to distinguish two smaller collections within it: the collection of collections which include themselves (the great list of all lists, which should include itself), and the collection of collections which do not include themselves (the great list of all things that are not lists, for example). But this second collection of collections turns out to be impossible: for if it were to exist, it would have to list itself if it didn’t list itself. So maybe this idea of a collection of all collections is only a string of words that initially seems to make sense, but on further reflection really doesn’t.

I might have lost you there with the collection of collections business, but the point is that the trick of grouping stuff together in our minds can lead us astray on occasion. And the universe may be just such an occasion. As Immanuel Kant would remind us, have we ever actually seen the universe? Or have we only seen parts of it? Can we even imagine experiencing the entire universe? If we can’t, then Kant is pretty sure it is not the sort of thing we can have any knowledge about. It is a hollow idea we form, and once we form it, we can prove anything we like about it – that it is finite, that it is infinite, that it had a beginning in time, that it didn’t, and so on.

If there isn’t a universe, I guess there would only be a pluraverse: a many-ness of many things. This accords with experience, as there sure seem to be many things. Notice how adopting such a natural view takes the drama out of the whole “multiverse” idea, or the claim that there are other possible universes. Well; if the universe doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t make much sense to wonder about the existence of other “universes,” does it?

What should we then say about the collection of things or events that haven’t been experienced, or (for all we know) will never be experienced? But again, are we sure that this collection makes sense? I can make great big lists of things that have been experienced, and of things that (so far as I know) have not been experienced, thus:

Experienced things Not-experienced things
John Lee Hooker performances

water freezing

walking on the moon

birthday parties

long meetings

(etc.)

mountains transforming into mice

levitation

talking giraffes

coins flipping “heads” 700 times in a row

hammers turning into strawberry jam

(etc.)

But I am not sure that these partial lists can be summed up into two fully-inclusive groups, the collection of all experienced things and the collection of all not-experienced things. Again, it may be that while surely there are experienced and not-experienced things, there don’t exist full collections of such things. Not because there is there is some problem in the “summing up” process, but because the words we throw out into the world, like a lasso, trying to catch a wild variety of beasts – those words unravel, like strands in a rope that just won’t cohere. The “(etc.)” at the end of my lists may be hiding an impossibility.

Because my mind (like most, I suspect) is so prone to make large groups and say things about them, I find it hard to describe what it’s like to think metaphysically in a pluraverse. It almost seems to me that in order to do it, one has to stop thinking metaphysically. (Once again, Kant said it first.) We can talk about what we experience, or specific things we don’t experience, and group them together only when we can formulate a simple and coherent procedure for determining whether a given things belongs in the group or does not. When the procedure includes checking uncountably-many things you can never experience, or could never possibly list, then that the procedure is no longer simple and coherent, and there’s a decent chance you are talking nonsense.

Posted in Metaphysical musings, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Robots, faux urbanity, and public spaces

My son had a robotics competition in Layton, which is a sprawling mass of houses and big box stores perched at the south end of Hill Air Force base. Nearby is a new shopping and living community which I’d always wanted to check out, so I took some time to do it.

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(charming shop)

“Station Park” – as at least the shopping segment of the community is called – marks a big improvement over the standard-issue outdoor shopping mall. It was deliberately fashioned to resemble a shopping district in a city – so there are short streets, with corners and traffic, and nonuniform, multi-storey buildings that look like they had had some purpose before becoming shops and restaurants. It was, in short, a faux urban space. You can walk around and pretty much pretend you are exploring some city neighborhood, without the feeling of foretold doom that haunts every strip mall. Only the ubiquitous piped-in music spoils the illusion. The shortened lines of sight helped provide a cozy sort of urban vibe.

 

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(charming faux town square)

In addition to the expected outposts of Gap, Forever 21, and Victoria’s Secret, there are some local shops, an Italian cafe, a cineplex, and a martini bar. In the middle is a public fountain and a playground structure – all frozen over now, though probably most cheery in the summer, for those who like that sort of thing.

 

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Cozy outdoor fireplace

I know the whole thing is contrived, but I have to say, it works. For those of us who like cities, this is a nice fake: a sort of a Disneyland Main Street with a contemporary twist. There is some variety in the shops, from Apple to Build-A-Bear. In an archipelago of shops breaking off from the village, one can find more restaurants, shops, and Starbucks (of course) – but also a medical center and a grocery store. Not too far off from that are apartment complexes, houses, and condos. There’s also a train station for the “Frontrunner,” which provides commuter service to Ogden and Salt Lake City.  So, it’s basically meant to be a place where people are meant to live – a shockingly revolutionary idea in urban design.

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Camo crocs

There also is a Cabela’s. If you ever have guests from another country, you really should take them to Cabela’s, for it will blow the minds of even those who harbor the most cartoon-like images of America. They can shop for shotguns, crossbows, ice-fishing houses, canoes, dehydrators for jerky, and camo everything, with a huge display in the center of majestic dead animals of the fictional wild. There must be equivalents in other countries, but I have not heard of them. One imagines a huge store in Devonshire celebrating the glory days of the empire, where you can buy jodhpurs and riding crops, or one outside of Berlin offering spiky helmets and potato masher grenades. It is outrageous, and fun, if your sensibilities permit.

Surrounding the little community is a typical barren space of the west: a huge flat plan running toward dramatic mountains, a vast open space ruled by antelope and F-16s from Hill Air Force base.

I traveled thence to the public library in Salt Lake City, which is one of the coolest public libraries in the U.S., with loads of glass, angles, open space, and light. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that it seemed to have been taken over by homeless people with very bad coughs. I have great sympathy for the plight of the homeless – and I am happy that at least some nice public spaces are available for them – and, were I homeless, that’s where I would be – but I couldn’t help thinking, quite uncharitably, “Wow! These bums have lucked out in SLC to have such a grand building at their disposal, with comfy chairs and extensive holdings of literature.” Take your foreign guests here, too, so they can get the full view of America’s sweep: from artificial villages on the barren frontiers selling martinis and three-pound handguns, to palatial libraries unintentionally giving shelter to homeless sick people. “Land of contradictions” does not even begin to cover it.

After all this I managed to catch some of the robotics competition, too, though my skimpy WordPress plan won’t allow me to upload my video of it. (You can see the general sort of thing in the video below.) Basically, the objective (as in war) is to throw more shit at your opponent than they can throw at you. To my mind, it is a very fun sort of event, with appropriately balanced elements of cleverness and competitiveness. The first, shorter part of each round is the robots following their programs; the second part, a bit more exciting, is when the robots are controlled remotely by humans.

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