Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Pressed: Don't Spook the Robots





“The robot is going to lose. Not by much. But when the final score is tallied, flesh and blood is going to beat the damn monster.”

-Adam Smith





Ten thousand years ago twenty humans sat around a fire. As far as they knew, they represented all of humanity. If there was food, they all ate. When there was no food, they all starved. No one stood above another; such utter animals.

Morgan walked down the street with gloved hands deep in coat pockets to keep out the chill. The sidewalks were empty. Nobody walked anywhere anymore, nobody except him; he liked to walk. In his pocket was another note from the teacher that a parent had to sign. Sigh….

Mr. Ferris was an overly strict history teacher that worshipped the text and never seemed to blink. Morgan accidentally infuriated him with a question or comment every other day. It wasn’t something he contrived to do, it usually just slipped out. And it usually ended up in a note.

Today they had been talking about the US Supreme Court deciding that private corporations are like people in that they are entitled to the legal rights and protections the Constitution affords to any person. He remembered someone once saying that corporations had been given all of the rights but none of the responsibilities. It had happened in 1886.

Most of the students had the good sense to be completely uninterested in something that had occurred two hundred years ago and were quietly playing video games or surfing porn on their desk consoles. As usual, it just slipped out.

“But only people should have those rights…”

“What did you say, Robertson?”

“Isn’t that why they’re sometimes called human rights? How could you give them to a stack of papers? When will they be granted to insects, or machines?”

“I will not have you disrupting my class with your narrow minded observations…” and then the torrent. The rest of the lesson was a diatribe on how the text was to be learned and not debated. This was history and respect will be shown. And then the bell, and then the note.

But the note was the least of his worries as he made his way home. The class had gotten him thinking. He had been troubled by some of the things that he knew about what corporations had done, but he hadn’t seen any mention of it in the newspaper or on TV. It was certain that the corporations were firmly in charge and that things weren’t really going that well for everyone.

Morgan looked around. This wasn’t exactly a bad part of town, but where were the good parts these days? The ones who had the choice had chosen to live in high security high rises like Morgan’s family or in those gated communities that were springing up everywhere outside the city like mold, expensive mold with walls like Jericho and armed guards. The wind picked up and he shivered as newspapers and plastic bags danced circles through the air behind him.

As he trundled on, some of the graffiti began to catch his eye,

Adam Smith knew nothing
Asimov knew less…

Which made no sense to him and,

Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company was the original Us v. Them. Them won. Us lost.

Which stirred a memory soon forgotten. Five feet from the corner, the Don’t Proceed sign flashed twice and the light changed abruptly to red. On the street corner was a pile of garbage and rags. It looked like the wind was threatening to blow them apart, but then the pile began to cough. At first it was a gentle cough, and then it crested into a full on rage of phlegm and clogged bronchial tubes. An old man sat up in the center of the pile. It was difficult to tell where his clothing stopped and his bedding began. When his fit had subsided he rubbed his eyes and stared first at Morgan then to the red light and then back at Morgan. Sensing that he had a captive audience he began to shout,

“Don’t you understand? We aren’t born anymore; we’re designed, manufactured, and then discontinued! These buildings aren’t filled with people. These cars aren’t filled with people!”

The light turned green and the walk sign flashed, Morgan continued on his way. Behind him, a black SUV silently pulled up, the back door opened, and the old man was sucked in, as if by some huge futuristic vacuum cleaner attachment. His screams were mingled and lost with a sudden howling gust of wind. The SUV turned right and was gone. The street corner was empty.

As Morgan approached the building where he lived with his parents, he noticed Mr. Bascombe manning his post outside the front door. Never smiling, never frowning, never away sick and never aging; Bascombe the Doorman was always at the front door and had always been ancient. He wore the same long, black coat and white gloves no matter which season. Today was no exception. He mechanically opened the door with his usual, “Good day, Master Morgan,” and Morgan crossed the threshold and made his way to the elevators.

He noticed the lobby floor for the thousandth time. The marble tiles were expansive and spotless. Not a spot, a smear, a smudge or a smattering of anything was ever visible on them. It was like in a movie where an army of little cleaning robots fly out from their hidden niches the moment something is spilled and pounce upon the offending stain with precision, without mercy or reserve. That was the theory he had worked on over the years. Morgan was sixteen, had lived there all his life and he had never seen the lobby look anything other than pristine, as if it had just come out of the box.

There were hundreds of other apartments in the building and he always saw people coming and going but none of them seemed to make a mess. Sometimes he wanted to spill something on purpose just to see if he could make them appear, but was afraid that they might see through his pretensions and take him away in their apparently unlimited zeal.

Morgan got into the elevator. A candy wrapper dropped out of his pocket as he pressed the button and it landed on the lobby floor. Nothing happened until the doors closed and then a ray in the ceiling blasted the plastic into invisible molecules. There wasn’t even any smoke. A moment later and twenty floors up, Morgan’s thoughts were interrupted by the gentle bell of the elevator telling him that his stop had quietly arrived.

From this height you couldn’t see the graffiti, or the litter or the homeless. From this height, the boarded up windows looked natural. Stripped of sound and smell and scale, the streets and avenues looked more like a circuit board than places where people lived. Black sedans, yellow taxis and blue buses like pieces on an assembly line, not the conveyances of creatures made of flesh and blood. Up here, the old man was easy to understand.

From the twentieth floor; behind triple glazed bullet-proof panes of tinted glass the city looked so enchanting. The snow didn’t float like snow, rather it plummeted like sleet and then the wind changed and the dirty white pellets started to bounce of the windows sounding like an army of woodpeckers. Must be hail, he thought. But if he had looked a little harder he would’ve seen millions of dice pouring down on the city and noticed the tiny numbers hitting the glass.

His mom was in the parlor sitting on the arm of an antique easy chair in her white dress, cutting away loose threads from the hem. She smiled when Morgan came in. He came right to the point. “Mom, why do my teachers make less sense than the homeless?” and he told her about the class and the note and what the old man had been shouting.

“I mean, I could see what the guy was saying” said Morgan, walking into the kitchen to make some tea. “When those black cars with tinted windows fly past there’s something sinister about them, something inhuman, and they go into these big, new apartment buildings. Buildings like this building, mom, if we didn’t live here it would be easy to stare up at it and wonder if there were any humans up here at all.”

There was a thud from the parlor. It sounded like a ladies’ bowling ball hitting the floor. “Mom, are you okay?” he said as he put the kettle down and rushed back into the living room. It had been such a weird day that he half expected to see her still sitting on the arm of the chair with her head spinning like a lost hubcap at her feet. He was quite relieved to see all of her in one piece, slowing getting up from off the floor.

“Of course I am. I wasn’t paying attention and fell off the arm of the chair.”

Morgan looked at his mother as if he didn’t recognize her. After a second or two he exclaimed, “Mom, your nose!”

“Whoops, is it bleeding?” she asked, her hand coming up to her face.

“No,” said Morgan and he paused, “but you seem to have dented it.”

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