My argument with the robot

I got into a fight with my Google Home assistant. The one I purchased to streamline my life, save hassle, definitely not the one I expected to be screaming at until I lost the will to turn off any of the lights ever again. I collapsed, dejected, onto the sofa, wondering if I would ever regain control of my built environment from the machines. I wanted to pull the cord out, hurl it against the wall, and stamp on the pieces of bullshit off-white plastic, imagining that as I did so it would make Chappie-esque pleas for its dumb robot life. Who needs [checks notes] electric lighting anyway.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. If I could save a minute turning on the lamps in the sitting room every morning, and a minute turning them off every evening, I figured I’d save two minutes a day. That’s a dozen hours a year. That’s five whole days every decade. Think of the productivity gains. Those parkour fail youtube compilations and obscure Jeff Goldblum documentaries don’t watch themselves. Wonder at how much more time I’d have every morning to negotiate with myself over how many cups of coffee I should drink before I force myself to go running (currently three, but I’ve run out of ground coffee now – the cold park looms like a diagnosis). I’d be buying time, actual tangible time, but as with any rub on the lamp, what I got was a novel slice of misery.

So I bought the kit, then I improved the kit, and now in theory I can turn the dining room lights purple with my command, like a goddamn wizard. I picked Google. This was so my phone wouldn’t think I was talking to *it* when I was commanding my surroundings, like an annoying intervener in a cocktail party conversation (“I am the walrus”). Genius. One system for the phone, another for the home. Of course now all that happens, every goddamn day almost, is that I forget their names in my morning tech senility.

“Hey siri, turn on the lights. OK google, call Dad.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t do that Rupert.”

They all refuse to do my bidding – it’s not their job, it’s the other guy’s – like surly, arrogant advisors in the court of a stupid drunk king, smirking to themselves.

Most of the time, it’s great. I can’t go back to *shudders* touching switches again. Switches are vectors for disease. Switches are so last century. Switches would require me to move up off the chair I’m sitting in. Any excuse not to put my trainers on and go out.

The conflict with the domestic machines came to a head, like a crap remake of 2001 a Space Odyssey (“open the pod bay doors please, HAL”) when I wanted to watch the Sopranos. I wanted ambience, the sort of voice-activated mood lighting that I’d been sold by the ads.

Whatever form of words I tried, the light system ignored my begging requests for it to turn down. Like a shit Gandalf perplexed by “speak friend, and enter,” I screamed at the little illuminated blob in every form of incantation I could imagine. Please turn off the lights. Turn the lights off. Turn off the lights now. Lights off. Until I wanted to destroy it, and all happiness had been drained from me. Eventually I lay down on the sofa, pulled a blanket over myself, and sulked.

I’m not insane. I’m usually calm and level-headed. I hope it won’t shock you to read that I don’t often scream at inanimate objects.

I woke up realising that my anger at Google’s refusal to listen to my requests was a convenient proxy for my frustration with the state of the world. We can’t travel, I haven’t seen my parents in over a year. As with every single person who reads this, the last year feels like a nothing, or worse than a nothing, like a void of fear, frustration, and the pain of loss. I’m fortunate, of course, not to have lost loved ones in this pandemic, but like everyone, I’ve lost freedoms, opportunities, moments in time that will never be recovered.

Every day, the void is there. I wake at 2am to do back of the envelope maths about the pace of vaccinations, I track the variants, I read up on the impact of vaccines on transmissions, I try to find enough information to keep the void at bay. Screaming at Google was the first time I really cracked. I blame the days being so short.

Today I found myself wanting to write for the first time in years. I used to do it a lot, I used to love it. For a long time I couldn’t string two words together. Typing this was cathartic, and – as when I used to tap out 800 words in half an hour – extremely easy. This felt like sanding wood with the grain.

Googs is listening to me again now. He didn’t explain the blip. We all have off days, I guess. So I can turn off the lights, click “publish” on this – my final act of procrastination today – and go out for my allotted exercise. I will try to count my blessings. Lockdown remains, but the block seems to be lifting, and the lights work.

For now.

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