Of robots and Pilgrims and smart caves

Posted on January 31, 2007
Filed Under Essays | Comments Off on Of robots and Pilgrims and smart caves

My five-year-old nephew tromped through the french doors and into the living room, bringing his liberally muddied shoes with him. As leaves and debris made themselves comfortable on my floor boards, I arrested him in his tracks. He simply looked at me, mildly puzzled, and said, “Don’t you have a robot vacuum to clean it up?”

And yes, I do indeed have a robot vacuum: my second Roomba in almost as many years (the first suffered an untimely battery death). I’m not entirely sure where my moral outrage is seated: the insouciance of youth or the fact that I still have oh-so-many tasks around my house that cannot be attended to by said device.

Along with my jetpack and land speeder, I guess I anticipated having cleaning devices that would save me from the loathesome tasks of housecleaning. I derive no pleasure from cleaning the toilets, though I do get some satisfaction that I’m keeping down the microbe count (which, let’s face it, is a delusion). Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t find some joy in household drudgery or at least feel a bit of moral superiority. I imagine myself to be an earnest Quaker or novice Buddhist monk, living in the moment and quieting myself to merely experience the task at hand. When that passes with the next thought rushing into my consciousness (I could be drinking a latte and reading email instead of this!), I resort to stirring up some kind of stoic, Pilgrim superiority; I’m an inheritor of the Puritan work ethic. Idle hands are the devil’s playground, right?

That, too, quickly passes as I reach an altered state from the bleach and ammonia fumes. I may not be “above” cleaning, but I’m not entirely convinced that any human being should spend precious hours performing repetitive, unpleasant tasks. Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but leisure is divine.

Witness the housewife of the Fifties, the golden era of the labor-saving device. The neat, suburban, nuclear family lived in a tract home filled to the brim with gadgets that promised to free them from the bonds of household chores and afford them leisure time unheard of in previous generations. Fifty years later, we have still better and more efficient vacuums, toasters, washers, dryers and waffle irons, but we must still operate these devices within homes that haven’t materially changed since we moved out of caves.

Ok, maybe we’re a bit beyond cave-dwellers, but not so much. I look around the rooms of my house and wonder just how far we’ve come. Temperature control? Much better. Floor coverings? Basically unchanged for hundreds of years. Ditto with walls, paint and lighting (at least since the turn of the century). To wit: If I want to change the color of my walls, I must roll, brush or spray paint on the entire surface with at least one coat. God forbid I choose the wrong color. I might imagine, in this day and age, a wall surface that is instead covered in a material that can be made to change color digitally from a central control device. I browse my “paint” samples and choose a color. The room obliges. If I don’t like it, I chose another. Perhaps each surface changes depending on a preset color scheme or on other criteria (my emotions, a rotating schedule, the lastest subscription to a designer service). I don’t ever have to apply paint again.

Same thing with the lighting. I look at an incandescent bulb in a socket and wonder how different this is from Edison’s first. Yes, we’ve made gains in efficiency. But why do I have to run around my house with a suction cup attached to a stick to change out bulbs in my recessed light cans? Come on. I’m imagining instead that my ceilings work like LEDs and can create the illusion of sunlight (or soft moonlight) indoors. Task lighting? Sure, keep a lamp or two around. But rewiring my living room because three floor lamps are insufficient? It’s sooooo twentieth century.

Essentially, I’m still hoping for a smart cave, and I’m willing to give up some feelings of familiarity to do it. If I knew, for example, that when I left, my house hosed itself down like the inside of one of those pay toilets, purging all dirt, grime and parasitic visitors in the process, I might be willing to live with tank walls and micro-mesh flooring. I jest, but it does seem crazy that we’re still waiting for Rosie to bustle in and tidy up after Elroy.