|A Message from Roomba
Written on Naoshima, in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan, in a spotless,
perfect room at Benesse House
Not too long ago I catalogued a couple of items relating to
the famous essay by Elbert Hubbard, A Message to Garcia, one a bibliography
of the essay, and the other a pamphlet published by the subject of the piece,
the man who had carried the message to Garcia. Never mind that Hubbard somewhat
misconstrued the history of this once-famous incident, as the first-hand
account by the actual carrier of the message related. The essay caused a
sensation when it first appeared, and the title became – although its
fame has faded - a byword for a daring act of courage.
I decided to read A Message to Garcia itself, the
text of which is easily available on the Internet. It was not what I thought it
was. I was surprised and even disappointed by the contents. Some background is
necessary. The loose basis of it was the "offer" by an American officer to
carry a message to one Garcia, a Cuban guerilla fighting the Spanish for Cuban
independence at the time of the Spanish-American War. We will pass over that
Garcia would have been better off, in the light of subsequent history, telling
the American officer to get lost. Hubbard, the author, was a champion of the
American Arts and Crafts movement and ran an establishment which produced, to
be fair, some very good work alongside a lot of trash. Most commonly seen are
the innumerable, rather stiltedly designed pamphlets that he wrote under the
title Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Men and produced for a mass
market. William Morris he was not.
He was what passed at the turn of the twentieth century in the USA for a
bohemian. A bohemian who wanted workers to work harder.
For my surprise was based on the fact that A Message to
Garcia was not really about seizing the moment, or heroic virtue, or
anything like that, but was rather an unasked for lecture on skulking employees
who did not do their jobs. It was an exercise in Chamber of Commerce ethics. If
only, wrote Hubbard, if only these workers better served their employers not by
combining with their fellow laborers but by stepping forward and showing some
It was around this same time that we acquired our first
roomba. A roomba is a robot vacuum cleaner. It will, with only an electric
charge, careen around your house sweeping up dirt, fine and not so fine, hair,
animal and otherwise, and the occasional coin or pin. It is, in a way, the
ideal employee. A mere press of its start button and it gets to work. No
complaints, no difficulties. A roomba rolls up its nonexistent sleeves each and
every time. It is truly that embodiment of willing servitude that Hubbard
thought the American worker was not.
Roombas are somewhat between pets and machine, and one gets
fond of a roomba, in keeping with its quasi-pet nature. As a matter of fact, we
have two roombas, one in the city and one in the country. But we don't make
comparisons between the two, certainly not in front of each roomba. We like to
think they don't know about each other, although they met briefly.
This petlike feeling is enhanced by the various calls their
designers cleverly provided them with, which humanize (or animalize) them: the
heigh-ho, it's off to work we go that it gives out when it gets rolling, and
the plaintive noises it makes when in trouble or running down. Consequently, we
are nice to our roombas. We don't like to work them too hard. We sweep up the
dirt in a pile to make their job easier and clear paths so that they don't get
stuck, as they have a tendency to do. We feel guilty that the country roomba
has an easier life than the city roomba. Altogether we are pretty good owners,
as owners go.
Roombas do not complain. They are content to help you clean
up your floors and that's it. That is, one would think so. But sometimes I
wonder. Sometimes I get the feeling that the roomba is not as eager to do its
job as we imagine. Perhaps it is taking us for a ride. Is it faking that low
charge signal? Is it overdoing its requests for cleaning? Is it thinking, other
roombas don't have to work so hard? Is it thinking, it's just my bad luck to
wind up in New York City, the particulate capital of the world? Is it thinking,
what a dump I have to live in?
Is it thinking,
after all, I was born in Asia. In Japan there are many other robots like me. If
only I could spend my days on a full charge out on a veranda in a place like
Naoshima, doing nothing at all. Oh, I might sweep up the occasional speck of
dirt, but only if I felt like it.
The roomba is dreaming. Its progeny will be solar-powered.
They could cut the umbilical power cord. They could make a break for it.
The other day, I took out the Vacuum Cleaner, an old model
which was once my mother's. The Vacuum Cleaner is thus an heirloom and is used
only a little more frequently than The Good Dishes, which is to say hardly
ever. I was working VC, as I will henceforth refer to it, around the area of
our dining table, not far from where our roomba sits nestled in its recharger.
As I pushed VC around the room, the roomba detached itself and began after
making the appropriate rolling-up-its-sleeves vocalizations to sweep in the
wake of VC. It seemed as if the roomba was following VC around, as a small dog
will follow a larger one. Or was the roomba feeling threatened and decided, for
once, to show what it could do?
I'm definitely going to have to separate them. I fear that
eventually the roomba will attack the VC, which is big and, compared to the