Friday, 18 November 2011

Robot in the rye

A magical thing happened last week. I walked into a roomful of strangers and gibbered on about kids and robots. Actually, that's not the magical bit - it's just something I do every day.

Ye olde office robot. 
The magical bit is that instead of hissing or throwing vegitables, these strangers responded with warmth, and with wonderful stories of their own - tales about how the internet is a place of kindness and human connection.

TaleTorrent was the inspired brainchild of James Mitchell at BBH Labs, as part of Internet Week Europe. I had the pleasure of meeting a handful of gifted storytellers, like ye olde weblogger Katy Lindemann and the serendipitous Claire Burge.

The evening was simply about sharing for sharing's sake, and it may have been the least cynical thing ever to happen in London.

This week I have been looking after plague-ridden children and hating on deadlines (generally). Additionally, I have been shouting at my ISP for being ye olde rubbish and breaking my internet connection for a week. So instead of writing up a fresh batch of nonsense from scratch, I will share my TaleTorrent robot story here.

Regular readers (hello Mom!) may recognise this episode. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. No actual robots were harmed in the writing up of this incident.


I want to talk about where robots come from.

My Ana is four. She lives in a world of her own in a galaxy far, far away. It is a place far more magical and bonkers than all of Camden and the interwebs mashed together.

Ana only stops by my world when she is hungry, sleepy, or lonely for human conversation. Which is not every day.

Ana is one part chaos. One part destruction. One part rocket fuel.

She is too young to question where babies come from in any detail. As per guidance from Ofsted, that sadly non-virtual government body, it will be at least three months before we need to talk about birds, bees, and the soul-crushing quantities of paperwork that signify adulthood in human terms.

However, Ana is definitely old enough to know where robots come from. They come from the internet.


It was a premature exposure to the The Iron Man that planted the idea in Ana’s head. By The Iron Man, I
mean a 1968 book by Ted Hughes. This is not to be confused with the comic book hero in red and yellow tights – with whom Ana is also well-acquainted.

But if you’ve read The Iron Man, you may recall that there is some ambiguity as to the Iron Man’s origins. He just lands one day – sploosh – in the middle of the sea.

Is he from space? Is he from Russia?

Of course not. Any four year old worth her salt can tell you he’s from the internet.

"That you Tilda?"
Ana’s hypothesis was confirmed by watching The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. ‘Wardrobe’ is to Ana, an antiquated word for ‘Mama’s computer’. If you push through all the woolly cruft at the front, there's a whole magical, sometimes snow-covered world at the back that just goes on and on forever.

That’s the internet. Where robots come from. Makes sense, right? Say what you will about the book, but Tilda Swinton is definitely from the internet.

Now not long ago, a strange man landed on our real world doorstep out of the blue one day.

Was he from space? Was he from Russia?

Ana could see a mile off that he was from the internet.

The man said he needed to install fireproof stripping around the door, at the behest of our sadly non-virtual neighbourhood association.

Ana wasn’t fooled for a second. She looked the internet man square in the eye and shouted bravely “it’s for GIANT ROBOTS!”

The man was flummoxed. He searched for the correct answer in his documentation, but returned a 404 error. He waffled, crumbled into a sort of youthful facebook syntax, then admitted all.

He was from the internet. The door-stripping was for giant robots.


Ana has been on overdrive since this event. Proof that robots are capable of walking right through the wardrobe and into the real world has kicked her robotic fixation into a three-dimensional frenzy.

Angel in the fields. 
Now we go on robot hunting missions every day.

And they are absolutely everywhere – the virtual made flesh – if you just look.

There is a robot at the barriers at Angel Station. There is a giant robot crouching on the doorstep of the British Library. There are robots floating in the Thames. And at least one robot in parliament, when it can be bothered to leave it’s second home in the morning.

Last weekend’s robot mission was full of win. The mission took Ana and her Papa right through the wardrobe to the other side – like Tron.

They built a bright pink robot on a wonderful site called My Robot Nation. A 3D copy has been ordered – any day now the 3-inch tall pink Iron Giant will arrive in the post. Perhaps the man from the internet will deliver the parcel.

So now you know. It’s not the stork. It's not a clever Swiss man in a lab coat with a screwdriver. It's not when a wrench and a bolt love each other very, very much.

Robots come from the internet. From the magical ether out beyond the wardrobe, which exists in full rainbow splendour in the mind of tomorrow's child.

At the end of Ted Hughes's book, a brave little boy called Hogarth helps the Iron Man defeat an awful space monster who has been trolling earth. In the glory of his win, the Iron Man compels the space monster to hover over earth in perpetuity, singing a lullaby to humanity.

I love the closing lines of The Iron Man - here they are:
The strange soft eerie space-music began to alter all the people of the world. They stopped
making weapons. The countries began to think how they could live pleasantly alongside
each other, rather than how to get rid of each other. All they wanted to do was to have
peace to enjoy this strange, wild, blissful music from the giant singer in space. 


  1. What a nice read for a rainy friday afternoon.

    PS. You are on my versatile blogger list. I know you have already had it, but I couldn't not have you on my list. x

  2. Thanks lady - feeling very unversatile this week, so that really lifts my spirits :)

  3. I think the theory that robots come from the interweb is quite plausible actually... she could well be right :) I loved the book the Iron Man as a child, along with Stig of the Dump and all of the Roald Dahl collection, the others I have revisited, but not the Iron Man - yet! Thanks for the reminder! Lovely post by the way, hope you are well! Catching up finally! Emma :)

  4. Thanks Emma, for your lovely words and for reminding me to catch up on my Roald Dahl! Hope all is well in your new homeland :)