Zip When It Moves, Bop When It Stops, Whir Forever and Ever

A version of this complaint later appeared as a KQED Radio “Perspective”. Several people reported hearing my voice coming from their listening devices. To all those I have hurt, I apologize. – jbw

We live in the future. I have a “phone” that is not a phone but in fact a tiny pants computer. It gives me directions from anywhere to anywhere. It takes decent photos — decent enough at least for indecent giggles about self-love. I can use it (or my computer, or tablet) to make video calls to people on the other side of the world. For free.

I try not to take all this for granted. I grew up in a house with a rotary telephone on the wall. Calling people even one county over incurred long distance charges, say nothing of whole countries or continents away. Our only “wireless device” was our console television‘s clunky four-button remote, which was functionally and aesthetically (and proudly) a relic from the space age.

In 30 years, we’ve covered the distance between that brick of a channel-changer (and the giant, heavy TV it talked to) and hand-held video chat technology — which really works and I use it at least weekly and it’s just part of life now! My sister-in-law once accidentally Skyped me from Australia. That’s crazy-town banana-pants.

So I try to stop and smell the high-speed, high-definition digital flowers. I don’t need a food replicator. I don’t need a flying jet car. (In fact, the idea of a flying jet car just conjures visions of horrible screaming death. I don’t trust most people with non-flying, non-jet cars.)

I live in the future, I remind myself, and it’s nice here.

But there are limits. My mindful appreciation for my day-to-day interactions with all this technology from the future only extends so far.

I learned this because of our robot vacuum.

Every weekday afternoon at 5:00, the robot vacuum beep-boops to life from its lair under our bed, as we have programmed it to do. It scurries through the house, automatically navigating around walls and under furniture, swallowing crumbs and dust and (especially) cat hair. When it feels that its job is done, it returns to its charging base under the bed, issues a triumphant little beep-boop fanfare, and rests until its next scheduled excursion.

At least, that’s how it’s meant to work. That’s certainly how it was portrayed in the sales video. The reality is not so gleamingly, effortlessly futuristic.

For one thing, the robot vacuum is just plain terrible at maneuvering around the house. It can’t seem to navigate the modest height difference between the living room’s floor and rug. Occasionally it will entangle itself in the curtains that hang from our front windows and enter an error state, which requires a human rescue and restart. Sometimes it lodges itself under the front edge of a bookshelf. And if someone has left a shoe out — like in the entryway, where we leave our shoes — there’s about a 50% chance it’ll mount the shoe and hang there, its pitiful wheels unable to gain sufficient purchase to escape.

It doesn’t get stuck on every obstacle, of course. For example, it’ll swallow a charging cable and keep right on trucking, unplugging it from the wall and moving on to its next destination, perhaps to find itself making endless left turns under a dining room chair, like a fly that has entered the house but can’t leave because it doesn’t grasp the concept of windows.

While it’s doing all this — bumping around the house like a drunkard, scuffing the doors and molding, piling up the edges of rugs — it’s not actually doing that great of a job at vacuuming, which seems sort of definitional. It rolls and rolls and rolls, and still there are little crumbs or particles or small tumbleweeds of cat hair left in areas that are easily within reach of a three inch tall robot. I’ve watched it pass right over a little mote of debris and succeed only in pushing it a few inches away. You had one job, robot vacuum!

I’m not convinced it qualifies as a labor-saving device. I think we spend as much time cleaning its rollers and collection bin, attempting (and clearly failing) to robot-proof the house, rescuing it from the dreaded error state, and then vacuuming by hand to clean up after it, as we did with our regular old non-robot vacuum before we bought this one. My wife disagrees, but she’s not the one who deals with the thing every day.

And then there’s the noise it makes.

Imagine the gentle whooshing sound that might emanate from a machine that is barely over a foot across, is capable of moving no faster than a harried tortoise, and has almost no suction power.

That is not the noise it makes.

The robot vacuum instead produces a grinding, whirring sound loud enough to interfere with phone calls, render music unintelligible, and drive a man — say, a man who is at home nearly every weekday at 5:00 p.m., attempting to engage in professional-type work remotely, which he can do because he lives in the future — to drive that man into another room, behind a closed door. It also produces these awful clumsy rumblings, as it traverses boundaries between floor levels or tracks along walls to find corners, sounding sometimes like it is tearing our house or itself, or both, apart.

I try not to get mad at the thing. That would be crazy. To apply a tried-and-true parental formulation: I’m not angry, just disappointed.

This device is taken almost directly from science fiction visions of our future, as imagined by people in our past. What more mundane and unending chore could there be than removing dirt from the one surface on which we daily stomp with our dumb, dirty feet? It’s a prime candidate for automation. And look! Someone built a robot to do it! Just like the futurists and sci-fi visionaries and imagineers said they would!

What a disappointment is our robot vacuum, though. It’s the saddest piece of the future to which I presently have access. Its incessant, troubled whirring is the wailing dirge of unrealized potential. It captures a dream of the space age and then dashes that dream to tiny bits — which it then fails to clean up.

We tend to anthropomorphize technology, and that’s certainly what my wife and I have done with the robot vacuum. She even named it (after a robot character little living boy from the TV). I had hoped to avoid doing so, for similar reasons that young people raising farm animals are sometimes enjoined, “Don’t name food.”

Maybe the robot vacuum so resents its treatment — after all, we make it live under the bed, probably don’t clean it quite as often as we should, and leave out all these cruelly insurmountable shoes — that its poor performance is intentional. Perhaps it’s staging a job action in protest.

Of course, I don’t really believe it’s being spitefully disobedient, even if it does have strong pro-labor tendencies. I think maybe I’ve expected too much of it.

I look around and see all these marvels that are saving lives, saving time, and making it so much easier for me to watch mediocre thrillers from the late 1980s when my wife is out of town. I succeeded in remaining aware and appreciating that we’re living this fantastic dream, but I failed to put the right boundaries around it.

Because we’re not living in the future. We’re living in the present — a present that is nonetheless lit by brilliant flashes of the future. It’s still pretty nice! Intercontinental video calls, life-saving medical advancements, depositing checks from home by scanning them with the tiny computer in my pants.

I live like a king — way better than that, actually. I live like a magical space emperor. If one of our robotic minions is less than perfect, we should probably exercise our imperial magnanimity and let it slide. He’ll get there one day, in the future.


5 thoughts on “Zip When It Moves, Bop When It Stops, Whir Forever and Ever

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