Posts Tagged ‘George Bernard Shaw’

W H Davies: The Autobiography of a Super Tramp

May 15, 2021

     Here’s a book written well over a century ago; it’s been in my library since 1985, apparently unread (though I actually have a vague recollection of having read it at some point). It’s an autobiography – well, a partial one – an interesting slice of life which sustains the reader’s interest because it’s so far from the norm, the story of younger years spent on the road, by a man of humble enough beginnings, but with a clear literary bent. Davies is basically fortunate, having been bequeathed a legacy of ten shillings a week, which was actually plenty enough to live on at the end of the nineteenth century…

He ends up in the USA, where he learns the skills and science of being a man on the road, hustling and begging successfully; he recounts several years of adventures bumming around the country, working for a while and then blowing the wages on a spree with his mates, spending time with a whole crowd of varied and interesting characters. Davies is clear, from his experiences, about the friendliness and camaraderie between the down-and-outs, the way they share and look out for each other, and provide companionship for weeks at a time before moving on. It struck me that in a sense these men were the gig economy of their day.

His observations on, and experiences of the racial divide in the Deep South are scary: he witnesses at least one lynching.

Home – England – calls eventually, and although he has not touched it for five years, he acknowledges that the pension he has serves to make him lazy and fritter time away pointlessly, not that he ever comes across as feeling too guilty about this. Home again, he is unable to settle, and heads back over the Atlantic, and the Klondyke goldfields. Suddenly an accident – he falls from a moving train he has attempted to board, and loses a foot – changes everything. He writes of many kindnesses from total strangers in Canada, and then heads back to England to try and make a life as a writer, but cannot manage this, and reverts to a hand-to-mouth existence, which is evidently harder to sustain on this side of the Atlantic. His accounts of all the different ways it’s possible to scrape a living are fascinating, and I am sure that some of the inspiration for George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London must have come from reading this book, which was helped to eventual success by impressing George Bernard Shaw, who contributed the preface. A good, easy and eye-opening read.

Karel Čapek: R.U.R.

February 6, 2021

     I think it’s pretty well-known that the word robot comes from the Czech word for work, and was coined by Karel Čapek in his 1922 play R.U.R. (which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots). I’ve just gone back to the play, which I first sought out in the 1980s.

Rossum originally set out to make artificial humans, but his son realised that a simplified, and more functional version would be cheaper and more profitable; soon these creations flood the world and take over almost all human tasks. The unbelieving heroine is shown as unable to tell the difference between human and robot, and then we are in the territory of, is there any real difference? Aren’t these creatures de-humanising humans by taking over their tasks? Our heroine belongs to an organisation that would give robots ‘human rights’; their creator thinks that everything will be produced so cheaply and plentifully that humans will be able to just help themselves to whatever they need…

It’s a play, and the dialogue is rather wooden. It reminds me of some of Shaw’s plays, though a kinder comparison would be with the kind of theatre Brecht was developing around the same time.

Things do not turn out as planned. Five years elapse between the first act and the remainder of the play, during which time humans have used robots as soldiers, wars are being fought everywhere, it’s clear that sometimes robots go berserk, and that they increasingly despise inefficient and useless human beings, who are gradually dying out because they have no real purpose any more. The robots set about eliminating the last of our species. Unfortunately, the papers detailing how the robots are made, are destroyed.

Only one human survives, and the robots expect him to be able to reconstruct the recipe for making more of them, as they only have a 20-year lifespan. He cannot, and strangely, the robots become more despairing as they foresee their eventual disappearance; there is some essence of humanity in the final robot prototype and the last human finds himself in the position of God in Genesis; the ending is at once blindingly obvious, very clever and also highly satirical.

The play R.U.R. is now a curiosity more than anything, I think, and yet extremely prophetic in the issues it raises and foregrounds, and it deserves revisiting in these days of AI, if only for the purpose of making us think a little more deeply and clearly about what is going on, and what we may be preparing for our futures. Military use of robotics is already, frighteningly, well under-way. Human redundancy in many areas of the workplace has already begun. Can we be sure that robots will always act in our best interests, benevolently obeying Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics? We should not be so complacent…

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