I am surrounded by robots.
Last fall, after years of threatening to do so, Kim finally bought one of those little vacuum cleaner robots. It was on sale during the post-Thanksgiving retail festivities for a nominal fee, probably less than it cost to ship it from a sweatshop in some nameless Chinese province or Alabama county, and it arrived in a big cardboard box like everything else does these days. It’s not a Roomba, but it’s something that looks like one and since I can never remember the brand name I’m just going to call it the roomba, without the capital letter, in much the same way that xerox, kleenex, zipper, and hoover are all now just words instead of brands. It’s a chirping spinning disc about as big around as a barstool and maybe a hamster’s-breadth high. It has stubby nylon whiskers, an array of R2D2-like whistles and tweets that probably would mean something to me if I actually bothered to read the instruction manual, and a little home base in the dining room that I can never figure out how to reattach it to so it always just dies overnight when I try. It’s not intentional. Honest.
I never wanted one of these things, for the simple reason that the hard part of vacuuming isn’t the vacuuming but the preparation for the vacuuming, which still has to be done with the roomba just as it had to be done with the regular vacuum cleaner.
It’s not the things you have to do. It’s the things you have to do in order to do the things you have to do that do you in.
But there it is. Kim adores this thing and is happy to send it off on its little mission whenever possible, much to the dismay of Midgie. Mithra is okay with it – she regards it as less of a nuisance than Midgie, certainly, and will sometimes just track it around the room as if it were a particularly noisy mouse – but Midgie will puff up her tail and hiss at it before running off to the upstairs to sulk. So far the roomba has not figured out how to climb stairs, which would just destroy Midgie’s world. She is not thrilled, in other words. But the floors are pretty clean. You have to hand it to the little robot – it does clean the floors.
It was just about the time that I was getting used to having a vacuum robot that Christmas rolled around and it turned out that Amazon was selling their Echo Dot for an even less than nominal fee – sufficiently cheaply that Tabitha and Lauren got one for Kim.
Yes, Kim is the gizmo person in the house. As a historian, I tend toward technology that has stood the test of time, such as books and shoes, on the grounds that I understand it. I think at some point your ability to absorb new technology kind of runs out and you’re left to the rest of your life with what you’ve got. I ran out of new tech sometime around 2002, I think. Kim isn’t scheduled to run out for several decades after her actual lifespan. We work well together that way, I suppose.
Kim already had an Echo in her office at school, and she’s been happily ordering it around for a while now, but I wasn’t all that thrilled at having a corporate spy in my house. But when your kids are willing to spend their own money for a gift that you know in your heart that your wife would like, you really can’t say no. So there it was.
We finally set it up last night. Well, Kim did. I mostly just watched. It’s in the dining room – my one request was that it not be set up in my office, at least – and all three of the teenaged girls in the house had a grand time ordering it around. “Alexa! Play ‘Rhapsody in Blue!’” “Alexa! Play Top 40 music!” “Alexa! What is the airspeed of an unladen swallow?” “Alexa! How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie-Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?”
To give these random questions some context, this all happened moments after Lauren had spent much of dinner asking Siri to name the world-record holders for oldest farm animals and announcing the results to the rest of us. Did you know there was a cow named Big Bertha that lived to be 49? That the longest-living chicken on record died at 16 after a career as a magician’s assistant and has her own Wikipedia page and burial site?
There. Now those are things you know.
At one point, someone – possibly Lauren – asked the robot to play “Hey Jude,” by the Beatles, which it dutifully began to do. And then Kim asked, “Alexa! Open the magic door!” which is apparently the trigger phrase for some kind of oral version of a text-based role-playing game. The game-players were given a choice between heading off to the beach, off to the city, or deep into some spooky scary forest, so naturally the unanimous choice was the forest, which did not please Alexa very much – especially as “Hey Jude!” continued to play in the background. She kept trying to get us to turn around and go some other direction. Eventually I am sure that she would have had us meet up with a psychotic woodcarver just to restart the game, but in any event she didn’t have to. At what seemed like a random moment, she logged herself out for some kind of software update, which probably never happens in the middle of a D&D campaign.
So we have robots. At some point I worry that Alexa will learn to talk to the roomba and begin ordering it to run errands for her, at which point we may have to burn the house down. I’ll let you know.