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r.u.r.: rossum's universal robots

DOMIN: What sort of worker do you think is the best from a practical point of view?

HELENA: Perhaps the one who is most honest and hardworking.

DOMIN: No; the one that is the cheapest. The one whose requirements are the smallest. Young Rossum invented a worker with the minimum amount of requirements. He had to simplify him. He rejected everything that did not contribute directly to the progress of work - everything that makes man more expensive. In fact, he rejected man and made the Robot. My dear Miss Glory, the Robots are not people. Mechanically they are more perfect than we are, they have an enormously developed intelligence, but they have no soul.

HELENA: How do you know they've no soul?

DOMIN: Have you ever seen what a Robot looks like inside?


DOMIN: Very neat, very simple. Really, a beautiful piece of work. Not much in it, but everything in flawless order. The product of an engineer is technically at a higher pitch of perfection than a product of nature.

HELENA: But man is supposed to be the product of God.

DOMIN: All the worse. God hasn't the least notion of modern engineering.

Karel Čapek's 1920 play 'R.U.R.', or 'Rossum's Universal Robots', famously introduced the word 'robot' in English (from Czech 'robota', drudgery, forced labour). Its dark satire also explored a range of themes that today are staples of science fiction, and some that may soon become reality.

Čapek's robots are actually artifical people, androids rather than what we today view as robots, and they are created in an alchemistic process reminiscent of Frankenstein or the Golem. Soulless and efficient, they are perfect artificial workers who are rapidly rendering humans superfluous.

Set on an island production facility, the play describes a robot revolution that threatens to make mankind extinct. But before that happens, the factory engineers and managers explain - with very familiar-sounding hubris - the advantages of their robots to a visitor, Helena, who wants to bestow human rights on the robots.

Consider the grand vision of Domin, the plant's director, whose rhetoric echoes almost verbatim in contemporary rhapsodies on the advent of, say, self-driving cars or delivery drones.

DOMIN: ...in ten years Rossum's Universal Robots will produce so much corn, so much cloth, so much everything, that things will be practically without price. There will be no poverty. All work will be done by living machines. Everybody will be free from worry and liberated from the degradation of labor. Everybody will live only to perfect himself.

HELENA: Will he?

DOMIN: Of course. It's bound to happen. But then the servitude of man to man and the enslavement of man to matter will cease. Of course, terrible things may happen at first, but that simply can't be avoided. Nobody will get bread at the price of life and hatred. The Robots will wash the feet of the beggar and prepare a bed for him in his house.

ALQUIST: Domin, Domin. What you say sounds too much like Paradise. There was something good in service and something great in humility. There was some kind of virtue in toil and weariness.

DOMIN: Perhaps. But we cannot reckon with what is lost when we start out to transform the world. Man shall be free and supreme; he shall have no other aim, no other labor, no other care than to perfect himself. He shall serve neither matter nor man. He will not be a machine and a device for production. He will be Lord of creation.

We just have to wait for the beggar's-feet-washing robots to arrive...

(Quoted from the translation (pdf) by Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair.)

dutch skies

The summer exhibition 'Sky! - in Dutch Art since 1850' in De Hallen, Haarlem, brings together paintings along with photography, sculpture and video work, all dealing with the sky above the lowlands, and its artists below trying to capture it.

It's a very eclectic selection, ranging from classic polder views to Carel Willink's magical-realist landscapes to Guido van der Werve's 'The Day I Didn't Turn with the World', and there's even a cornered Mondrian. With its thematical rather than chronological presentation, the exhibition seems to overstretch itself at times, but it still includes quite a few rewarding works.

Here are three favorites, spanning almost the entire timeframe of the exhibition.

J.H. Weissenbruch - Windmills in a Polder Landscape - Molens in een polderlandschap

A great patch of far-off light, which is as close as a flat landscape comes to mystery, in 'Windmills in a Polder Landscape' ('Molens in een polderlandschap') by J.H. Weissenbruch, who observed, "The sky and the light are the great magicians. The sky determines a painting. Painters can never observe the sky enough."

Leo Gestel - Autumn - Herfst

An almost perfect balance of mosaic and landscape, flat and vast, sunburst and overclouded land, in Leo Gestel's post-impressionist, luminist 'Autumn' ('Herfst', 1909).

Wout Berger - When I Open My Eyes

The only horizonless image from Wout Berger's photo series of the IJsselmeer, 'When I Open My Eyes' (2010-12), so technically it's only from the rest of the series of 60, which all have the horizon about centered in the image, that the sky can be inferred here.

klever reichswald

Klever Reichswald - 1

Klever Reichswald - 2

Klever Reichswald - 3

Klever Reichswald - 4

The Klever Reichswald, a great stretch of dark beechwood between Nijmegen and Kleef, where the Dutch LAW 6 ends and the path continues as the European E8.