The Unwelcome Thrust of Progress (Part 1)

In Three Parts

Part One: The Corner Office

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Alta Vista did not, as is commonly thought, simply fold or become absorbed into a larger tech company. It morphed, with offices in New York, into an independent research company, mostly for hire by firms looking for a competitive edge against a rival firm. Alta Vista became AltVista. First Vice-President for Account Analysis Robert Hughes turned the knob on his office door at 8:55 am, as he did every morning, whether the train was early or late, entering, throwing his laptop case on the couch, pressing the brew button on his Keurig machine, and staring out his window down into the city, where he could just see the corner of Madison Square Park until his cup of coffee was brewed.

“French Roast,” he said. “So this is what the pavement in France tastes like.”

He took the cup from the machine and sipped, lifting his eyes to gaze out the window, thinking how many people were scurrying to be at work on time, as if it mattered, but they should have made allowance for time, like he did, so that at least appearances were kept up. Look at them, he mused to himself. The wealth of the nations, scurrying to push history forward, one cog at a time, until the cog comes around again, and then…” He couldn’t bear to finish the thought. He began another thought. They’re only me, just five minutes behind. I’m only five minutes ahead, so I’ll see it close down upon me just before they see it close down upon them. He lifted his cup to take another sip. At least I have a nice house…

At that moment, whether by the stimulating power of coffee, or by a change in the light reflecting from inside the window, VP Hughes became aware of another person in his office, someone behind him, sitting on the couch. Startled, he spun. “Oh, hello!” he started, then, “Oh, good lord…” A robot was sitting on his couch. Even though it was not on, it was lifelike enough to frighten him. He became aware now of his pulse, a sign of life pounding in his ears. After a moment, he felt the pressure leave his head, but he had flushed warm, so he took off his jacket, running his finger along the inside of his shirt collar. In so doing, he lifted up his chin, which brought his eyes up to lay upon the black dome camera housing.

The housing of the robot was of meticulous design, made in the form of a female, Anglo-Saxon with a rich, creamy skin tone. He squinted at her. But her skin seemed all the more pallid, like she was sitting in a damp, sunless parlor of an antiquated, unventilated plantation home. He was compelled to turn her on, to see if her powered servos would somehow warm her up and give her a more lifelike appearance. He looked up. The red light of the camera glowed faintly through the black dome housing, the light a result of a Supreme Court ruling regarding cameras, security, and privacy. “Dividing the Baby-Making” the British headline quipped, with all due 21st Century snark. The American media had ignored the decision, as usual. He did not saunter over to turn on the robot.

“A brunette,” he snorted. “That’s what my profile tells them. I’m a brunette man.” He gazed at her. She had been turned off by remote, it seemed, according to a kind of panic switch, so that she had frozen only just sitting down, her head and limbs in the middle of adjusting into a comfortable seated position on the couch. “At least her eyes are closed,” he said. He put his jacket back on.

Sitting down, he saw a memo on his desk. AltVista in a broad font floated above bright blue mountains which introduced the company slogan: The Alternate View.

To all executives

Re: Geishacon, Inc. Assisting Androids

Memo:

Conference room meeting for in-person introduction to your Android Assistant 2100. 9:25 am.

Harold, President, AltVista

The executives knew that, even though no priority had been assigned to the memo, because it was printed and hand-placed, the meeting was mandatory and classified, and it also fulfilled a corporate desire for close interpersonal interaction. Nevertheless, Robert smiled, “He scheduled it for after my morning visit to the john.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Harold spoke to his eleven executives, “Let me introduce you to a consultant I recently hired, for the benefit of every one of you, Mr. Han van der Kleij.” Mr. van der Kleij rose, a man who had every appearance of being either of Chinese descent or some middle-European descent.

Robert thought, Another everyman, trying to make a sale. I’m sure there’s a fascinating familial story to make that face go with that name.

“Recent studies conducted independently by the University of California-Los Angeles, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Heidelberg University…”

Robert judged, Definitely a Dutch accent. Is that a Chinese accent overlaying the Dutch accent?

“…have found that overall executive production and job-satisfaction are greatly increased by the presence of a passive companion, someone who listens without judging, carries on light conversation without the requirement of commitment, and…” Mr. van der Kleij paused, mustering up the banality required to express the climax. “…comfort,” he chose. “Yes, ready comfort.” He looked around the room. The executives were perched as benign gargoyles around the executive table, watching Mr. van der Kleij. He yielded the floor to Harold.

“Now listen,” said the old man with a kind smile. Working for Harold was a dream, much coveted, and when acquired, protected. “This isn’t junior high school stuff. We’re adults here, coming into the middle of the 21st Century, acutely aware, especially here at AltVista, that we are constantly progressing, constantly improving, going forward. The world needs sales, as you all know, and as you all also know, the balance between working for those sales and enjoying your life while you’re gainfully employed, is an act of acute delicacy. We want you to be happy and content. I want you to be happy and content. I consider you as much my family, a grown family, as much a part of my life as my biological family is, and I expect you to take advantage of your desires so that your every need is met.” He looked around the room, exuding warmth and a zeal for love of his people.

“Your profiles determined what kind of companion you were assigned. The lawsuit was settled out of court so that our men and our women are equally satisfied, according to these independent studies and the sensibilities of our time.”

Sensibilities of indistinguishableness, Robert thought. He tried a furtive glance or two to read the three women. They were stone-faced. The men, likewise. Harold dismissed them. They rose and departed from the conference room wordlessly until someone mentioned last night’s Knicks game.

“Good morning, Mr. Hughes,” his secretary greeted him as he returned to his office.

“Good morning, Mrs. Jackson,” he said. “How was your commute?”

“Hectic until I got the grandkids off to school, then fine,” she said.

“Any calls?” he inquired.

“Wholesalers,” she said.

“Thank you,” he said, then re-entered his office. He found another K-cup, put it into the machine, and pushed the brew button.

“Mr. Hughes, are you having another cup of coffee?” asked Mrs. Jackson.

“I am,” said Robert. “I feel like I need another one.”

“That must have been some meeting.”

“It was,” he said, closing the door. “It was.”

Three days later, upon entering his office according to routine, he found another memo on his desk. The Alternate View.

To Vice-President for Account Analysis Robert Hughes

Re: Geishacon, Inc. Assisting Androids

Memo:

Conference room meeting for in-person consult. 9:25 am.

Harold, President, AltVista

Harold was alone, waiting for Robert. “You haven’t turned it on,” he said.

“No, I haven’t,” said Robert, unsure whether to be defensive or vulnerable.

“Robert, we want you to be comfortable and happy. Is there something wrong?”

“Wrong?”

“Not wrong…that’s the wrong choice of words. I’m sorry,” said Harold. “Are you uncomfortable?”

“With the robot?”

“The Android Assistant 2100, yes, Robert,” Harold said. “The company spent $15,000 to match your needs.” He reached over and put his hand on Robert’s. It was warm to the touch, like a father’s hand would be, or a friend who was comforting him in loss. “I care about you, Robert. What can I do?”

“What about the other guys?” asked Robert, dropping all pretense.

“Yes, well, they seem to be getting along just fine. In fact, we’ve been able to reduce office staff by three employees.”

Robert’s heartbeat deafened him for a moment, and he began to shake.

“No, Robert. We won’t dismiss Kimberly. Your dossier is clear on that: you’re most productive as long as you have a retirement-aged secretary. In fact, the data shows without a doubt that your performance with her outpaces the expense of having her on staff. You have nothing to worry about. You can have both.”

Robert breathed easier. He sighed. “Oh, that’s good to know.”

“No, we don’t normally reveal such data, but your dossier also shows that we benefit from your knowing these things.”

“It’s her skin,” said Robert.

“Her skin?”

“It looks real enough,” Robert explained, “but it’s not quite right. Frankly, it’s creepy.” He suppressed speaking the real reason.

“Hm,” Harold said, withdrawing his hand from Robert’s. “Well, then. Never you mind. We’ll address that.” He edged his head over slightly, in a look of abject compassion.

“Meeting over?”

“You may return to your office, yes,” said Harold.

The following Monday Robert entered his office according to ritual, surprised to find a new robot on the couch. “Wow,” he said. “Real.” She was off, but she had been allowed to take off her shoes, which were set neatly at the far foot of the couch, where she had nestled into its corner, pulling her feet up onto the leather. She had propped her right arm on the armrest and laid her left arm over her hip. “Still a brunette, though.” he said. “But with those subtle dark red highlights, and not so glossy.” Her head was resting on her right shoulder, and her eyes were closed, as if in a light, pleasant nap from which she would awaken presently, refreshed.

After his cup of coffee, he sat down at his desk, looking at her. Its not adultery, he thought. It’s self-gratification. And not only that, but only an aid. She’s an it. Not a she. A production assistant. For the good of the company. For the sake of progress. He felt a cogged wheel turn. He ran his finger along the inside of his shirt collar. He saw the black dome camera housing.

The Unwelcome Thrust of Progress (Part 1)

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