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 initiative.

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 roomba, dumb.