Commentary: Don't You Dare Blame Philadelphia for HitchBOT's Death

A fatal shooting in Point Breeze. A dead woman found inside a car in Kensington. A 5-year-old girl injured in a North Philly hit-and-run.

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Those are the weekend stories — well, briefs — I read about on page 12 of Monday's Philadelphia Daily News.

The details were cruel. The details were inhumane. Yet, the "CRUEL AND INHUMAN!" headline on the tabloid's front page did not refer to those tragedies.

Rather, the Big Story of the Day focused on some hitchhiking social-experiment robot that got destroyed after last being seen on Elfreth's Alley, not long after the Old City bars let out early Saturday morning.

Don't read this as an essay condemning the DN's news judgment. That, it is not. Heck, at NewsWorks' morning news meeting, the hitchBOT story was broached by not one, not two, but three of my colleagues.

Rather, it's a condemnation of an Outrage Nation mentality that drives such coverage, and — full disclosure — a dynamic to which I lost much of my Sunday tweeting about the "hitchBOT" reaction.

Here's the back story in a nutshell:

  • Researchers at Ryerson University (in Toronto) concocted a "social experiment" in which a 25-pound robot would "depend on the kindness of strangers" by "hitchhiking" across Canada, parts of Europe and the United States.
  • It was fine in Canada, Europe, Boston and New York City. It even built up quite a fan base of folks prone to admiring inanimate objects with the mental capacity of a Milton Bradley game.
  • Then, it came to Philly and, after "posing" for a couple pictures near the Museum of Art, vloggers of some sort deemed it wise to drop it off in Old City in Saturday's wee hours and hope it got to Washington, D.C., from there.

What hitchBOT got was beheaded.

And what Outrage Nation got was yet another chance to dust off its snowballs-at-Santa repertoire of Philly hate and put it to retreaded use. (LOL, the "stay classy" line from Anchorman's still got that zing, don't it, people?)

That latter half of the equation decimated any semblance of pity for the end of a somewhat worthy experiment. (As a matter of fact, when I first heard about it, I, too, cast aspersions on my hometown prior to any depth of cogent thought.)

Instead, it riled up my civically protective brain cells to the point where I not only agreed with a Twitter associate's "walking Speak N Spell drifter" assessment of hitchBOT, but concurred with the fact that its death should serve as fair warning that hitchhiking is dangerous for man, woman and robot.

We are a fiercely protective sort, we older-school Philadelphians.

We can talk smack on ourselves, but it'll be a cold day in robot hell before we should sit back and get labeled horrible things because outsiders left a stinkin' hunk of Canadian metal, rubber and plastic smack dab in the middle of vandalism's crosshairs.

I see a lot of calls for justice today as the let's-catch-the-vandals rallying cries echo across a continent, even though hitchBOT's creators haven't filed a police report about the "crime."

Well, good for those heroes. Hopefully, they'll end up getting some drunken bros from South Jersey written up for a public-nuisance citation or something. And to those offering to rebuild the robot locally, good on yas, each and everyone. I cast aspersions not at your kindness.

But, Philadelphia is NOT to blame for hitchBOT's death any more than Brooklyn should be held accountable for native son Adam Sandler's dumbing-down vandalism of the motion-picture industry.

If you hold our city — my city — collectively culpable for ending a bit of gimmickry, you're no better than the people who beheaded hitchBOT, or those who didn't just drive it to Washington, D.C., themselves instead of leaving it for dead in Old City.

Oh yeah, one last thing:

Do you have information about the hit-and-run driver who left a little girl "nonresponsive with blood pouring out of her mouth" near Lambert and Dauphin on the Sunday of hitchBOT-outrage weekend? If so, please call the police Accident Investigation District at 215-685-3180.

You'll feel better about yourself when you help a young human being in her time of need.

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