Bradbury and Clarke did not imagine new worlds. Connoisseurs of the zeitgeist, intelligent, intuitive, they took the measure of the old world, our world, and projected it into the future.
Some of their predictions have fallen short. They had grand plans for transport, yet here we are, in the same cars, busses, trains, that our grandparents rode, and our air travel, for which they held the highest hopes, is more like something out of Bertolt Brecht than Buck Rogers. And time travel? If at all possible, it’s eons away.
But one important vision of theirs – the takeover of the world by robots – seems to be right on target.
If you think that’s hyperbole:
Have you ever automatically checked out at a box store like Home Depot or at your local supermarket?
Hello. If you have a Stop and Shop card, please scan it now.
Of course, if you choose not to obey the robot, the consequences are pretty mild: either you leave the store without your groceries or wait in line for a human being to check you out. Yet, despite the fact that, without anything bad happening, you could say, “Fuck this, I’m not going to let some robot tell me what to do,” you still obediently follow ould say, "s or you wait in line for a human being (who will ifollow the robot’s orders.
Not only that. You are so well trained that the robot’s ivocabulary, words such as “bar code,” “key in” and “scan” do not have to be explained to you.
Place your item on the scale. Search for item or key in the item number. (The number is printed on a sticker gluedumber (on a sticker affixed to eachSearch for item or key in the item number “item”, a plum in this case – and for whose convenience is that plum-afflicting adhesion that adds an extra and often frustrating chore to the eating of a piece of fruit? The robot’s, of course.)
Move your plums to the belt.
If you conscientiously have brought your own shopping bag and toss the bag onto the belt so that it will be there with your groceries, ready to pack up when you finish, the robot will drop its pretense of calm and amicability and angrily, repeatedly, order you to remove all items from the belt and begin again. After a few times facing the robot’s wrath over your evidently inappropriate, thoughtless behavior, you learn to keep the bag tucked uncomfortably under your arm as you check out.
So – please do not tell me that we do not live in a world in which our lives are increasingly directed by robots.
We have reached the point where we even personify some robots. I know Julie, at Amtrak, um, intimately. I know exactly what she is going to say next – not difficult, since her vocabulary (outside of an extensive familiarity with place names) comprises, perhaps, fifty words. Because of her limited vocabulary, I can tease Julie, ridicule her, call her foul names. It get a gleeful sense of power from being able to revile Julie with impunity. What better proof that it’s Julie who’s really in charge?
Computer pop-ups? They are robots, so familiar with you and your daily habits, your interests, your fears, your desires, that their importuning becomes a violation of your very psyche.
There is even a population of tramp robots. In the town I live in there are no beggars on the streets and door-to-door sales solicitation is forbidden, yet half a dozen times a day – more, as elections heat up – a robot will dial my telephone number and a stranger (or sometimes the robot itself) will beg for money or pressure me to buy something or try to impose some ideology on me. Sometimes, thanks to caller ID (another robot), I can guess that a robot is phoning and not answer (the equivalent of looking out the window when the doorbell rings, seeing a stranger on your doorstep, and pretending that no one is at home), and I can always hang up on the robot (the equivalent of slamming the door in a stranger’s face). Nothing deters these intrusive tramps, though.
As far as I know, Bradbury, Clarke and other projectors of robotic futures, did not foresee this infestation of robot pests – cheap, inept, obstructive gizmos which can be pointedly ignored, damned, swatted at, but without any effect on their incessant swarming into our homes.
But there is another level of robotic activity which can not be brushed off as no more than an annoyance and, looked at the right way, as kind of amusing. On this level we do find robots which think and have the kind of robotic social control predicted by the science fiction writers of fifty years ago.
Meet Congressman Backslapper. Legislation is coming to the floor of the House – let’s say, having to do with NSA surveillance –and he must work out what his position on it will be. He calls in his aides. “Jack, check the polls. Jill, Google – um, my name, ‘NSA,’ ‘Snowden,’ ‘traitor,’ ‘hero’ – and see what comes up. Hilda, check out Twitter and Facebook and see what our big contributors are saying. Then, Fletcher, you can put it all into DataCruncher and do an analysis.”
Well, you might say, at least it’s scientific. No, it’s not. The tilt of polls, we know, depends on the questions asked. Google’s placement of references depends on factors – primarily maximizing Google’s profits – which have nothing to do with their factualness or importance. The depth of thought that goes into an average tweet or Facebook posting is similar to what goes into looking over a restaurant menu.
The "brains" of the robots which provide Backslapper with what is euphemistically called information were created (through the writing of algorithms) by anonymous individuals or committees. Not only Congressman Backslapper’s vote on legislation, but your stockbroker’s choice of investments, your doctor’s determination of your prescriptions, your own decisions on such things as where to go for your vacation or what car you should buy, are based on algorithms written by anonymous persons, written according to their own agendas or the agendas of whoever employs them, or – and I’m willing to bet this is the case more often than generally imagined – with no particular agenda in mind other than satisfying a sense of humor, a sense of irony, a sense of the absurd, nonchalantly written under the influence of cannabis.
This is where Bradbury, Clarke, et. al., did get it very wrong. With robots in charge, we are not overly controlled. We are insanely out of control.