Ah, the soundtrack of my morning: the 10 a.m. Roomba call. Five musical notes that sound like they’re being played on a ballpark organ announce its impending rounds. The Roomba is the unmanned drone of house-cleaning tools.
It is inexorable in its dedication to vacuuming the house, never subject to a lazy mood or a wake-up on the wrong side of the bed. Neither grumpy nor joyful, it just gets down to business at the appointed hour, as though every day really is exactly the same. The Roomba zooms here and there, seemingly without a pattern, although I know that some algorithm I can’t understand is surely at work along with its steady brushing and suctioning.
As it travels, the Roomba emits a steady low hum, whistling while it works, although the occasional bump indicates that some solid thing is impeding its mission. When the humming stops, a pause precedes the dreaded bossy robot-voice message: “ERROR. MOVE ROOMBA TO A NEW LOCATION. THEN PRESS CLEAN TO RESTART.” Which means my train of thought has also stopped dead. I have to interrupt what I am working on and go track down the Roomba and extricate it from whatever harebrained predicament it has gotten itself into. Look, Roomba, I want to say. We can’t always just move to a new location to work out our problems.
There are other things I’d like to tell the Roomba, which might indicate that I spend too much time alone. I have a love-hate relationship with the Roomba, my ever-present inanimate companion as I work from home at a solitary task. The Roomba saves me time from mindless cleaning, but manages to fill me with guilt for not cleaning my own house like a respectable human. The Roomba also gives me an understanding of the issues surrounding automation in the workplace: The Roomba doesn’t actually do as thorough a job as I would, but it’s doing it, so why bother criticizing it? It’s producing a good-enough outcome, even though it often misses the most obvious bits of stuff and is unable to get at the dust behind open doors. All I have to do on a daily basis is empty it of the collected detritus of a house full of pets, and I believe the newer models can even do that for you.
Those pets, my other daily colleagues, have a variety of reactions to the morning Roomba intrusion on their routine of mostly sleeping. The two old dogs just want to get away from the insistent pest: They’ll go have a little snooze on the back patio, thank you. The young cat treats it like a malevolent invader, a noisy foe, to be hissed at before retreating to higher ground and eyeing it balefully: The Roomba has been known to eat cat toys.
When my husband bought the Roomba, I wondered about his motives. Was it to give his hardworking wife a break with the housework, or was it because he thought his wife was neither hardworking nor adept at housework? Was it a gift or a critique? I am the first to admit that I am not a fanatical housekeeper. Home ec was not my best subject back in the last century. I am no Martha Stewart. But our home is reasonably presentable and hygienic.
Since I admit to subscribing to the "good enough" school of housecleaning, I suppose I should embrace the Roomba without comment. My husband has been diplomatic regarding his purchase of this handy device, declining to answer the "gift vs. critique" question. I pretend that his love of technological gadgets drives his Roomba enthusiasm. But I am still suspicious of the actual presence of the Roomba in its charging station by the front door. I still don’t know if it has been brought here to help me or to cover for my shortcomings.
Either way, I am an uneasy fan.
The Roomba is surely a forecast of the future of manual labor, as well as a taste of the Jetsons in my living room. The Roomba performs whether I tell it to or not. It is joined by other autonomous workers: there are thermostats that know the temperature that is best for us and refrigerators that tell us when we are out of butter. Technology is our friend. We think.
The Roomba finishes its hourlong chore with a triumphant rendition of the ballpark six-note ditty that usually precedes the shout “Charge!” It is done for the day! Or maybe it is making a robot pun, that it actually needs to charge. I’ll have to tell it tomorrow: Good one, Roomba.