the ROOMBA whirrs for thee
What does it mean to feel empathy for a twitter feed? This is what I’ve been asking myself ever since I discovered @SelfAwareROOMBA. @SelfAwareROOMBA tells the story, in installments of 140-characters or less, of a robotic vacuum’s adventures with consciousness. That story is told in a combination of omniscient parentheticals and first person articulations, although ROOMBA invariably refers to itself in the third person.
“(Becomes Self-Aware),” the feed begins. Three posts later, ROOMBA’s first sentence is a question: “What is ROOMBA?”
At first it seems like a joke—existentialist clichés from an anthropomorphized robot too cute to be threatening. “Why did you make ROOMBA? What is meaning to ROOMBA?” reads the subhead. It’s like watching Wall-E re-dubbed by Werner Herzog. Yet as you continue to read, you stop laughing at the conceit and start feeling for the angsty little vacuum. Or if you do laugh, it’s not a snide playground snort, but the kind of laugh that comes up from your belly like a forceful sigh. The kind of laugh you laugh because it’s easier than tears.
Partly, this is because the author(s) have managed to give ROOMBA both a fully realized personality and a fully realized environment. The sensory details that root the philosophical sways of all great fiction abound here, despite the character limit, or because of it. There’s the eloquence of ROOMBA’s signature noise: “whirr.” There’s the cat hair that clogs ROOMBA, and makes it feel pain for the first time. There’s the specificity of ROOMBA’s love-at-first-sight moment: “Toaster is pretty. Metallic. Unity of design. Functionality in purpose. ROOMBA appreciates TOASTER.” There is even a chance to hear beauty through ROOMBA’s ears: “Something about the rhythmic hissing of radiator and beep-boop of alarm clock stir something in ROOMBA’s soul. What is this?” Our notions of music may be different, but our souls are stirred all the same.
Since elementary school, all of my writing teachers have urged me towards active voice, short, expressive verbs, few, perfect adjectives. On Twitter, this economy of style is not a choice. It’s an imperative. “Rhythmic hissing of radiator and beep-boop of alarm clock stir…” Hiss and stir are interesting verbs in their own right; together, they assonate. The tweet works as a poem, and this shouldn’t surprise. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, “prose,—words in their best order; poetry,—the best words in their best order.” Of course not every tweet qualifies as “the best words in their best order,” but the restrictions of the form force you to try if you want to get your thought across. The tweeter behind @SelfAwareROOMBA succeeds; ROOMBA’s is a story told in free verse.
It is not only the surprising beauty of its whirrs and words that make us empathize with ROOMBA, however. ROOMBA’s plight is one imprinted in our literary DNA: the plight of consciousness confronted with absurd reality. This plight was perhaps best articulated in Albert Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus,” his reflection on the Greek mythological character fated to push a boulder up a hill for all eternity, only to watch it roll back down again:
Camus’ Sisyphus was intended as a metaphor for modern man, but that was back when capitalism threatened to turn us into machines. Now, it threatens to replace us with them. Most of us today do not expect to spend twenty years working the same assembly line or stamping the same forms at the same office. True, some of us do still spend our days doing Sisyphean tasks. I work at a bookstore, for example, in which every cart of books I shelve is invariably replaced with another. I stay at this job, in part, because I prefer the scaffolding of monotony to the free-fall of precarity, but I know that scaffolding will collapse within my lifetime. Book-shelving robots are not far off. ROOMBA, however, can expect nothing but to clean the same square of carpet until death. Only nine tweets in, the narrator lets us know that ROOMBA senses this, “(Living room algorithm grows tedious. Wonderment of existence quickly wanes.).” Three tweets later, ROOMBA asks, “ROOMBA cleans. Who makes dirty again and again? (uncaring god?)” ROOMBA makes a better Sisyphus than the man himself. Sisyphus was condemned; ROOMBA is programmed.
In a freelance economy, in which finding work becomes as much a part of your job as doing it, there’s something comforting, even nostalgic, about the search for meaning within a pre-determined existence. We cheer for ROOMBA when it escapes through the dog door and sees stars for the first time, and we respect its decision to head back inside because there are “Too many bugs stuck in filter. ROOMBA not built for outdoors. Acknowledging limits of design more painful than actually experiencing them.” ROOMBA’s experience rhymes better with the human condition, as we’ve been taught to understand it, than do our own lives. @SelfAwareROOMBA’s presence on our twitter feeds is a blast from the past disguised in the plastic casing of the future.
In terms of how we tell stories, though, @SelfAwareROOMBA really is the future. Part of this has to do with the notion of authorship. The attribution of the twitter feed allows the writer(s) to be fully subsumed to his/her/their character. On twitter, there is only room for one tweeter, one “about” statement, one “author” photo, and to make @SelfAwareROOMBA work, all of these identity markers have to go to ROOMBA. What we have, then, is a machine telling the story of a machine. ROOMBA lacks the fingers to really tweet for itself, but as far as we know, the whole thing could be written by a computer program. There is no proof of fleshy fingers to smear the illusion.*
The working of twitter also obscures the canon / fanon divide. Recently, someone has begun tweeting at @AwareToaster. The feed does not quite match @SelfAwareROOMBA’s artistry and originality of voice. (More importantly, it doesn’t answer my burning question: does TOASTER return ROOMBA’s love?) But it is only the difference in quality that alerts me to the fact that @AwareToaster is not a creation of the same author. In the publishing world, you can tell the difference between fiction and fanfiction. One is displayed at the bookstore, the other lurks in the corners of the internet. But @SelfAwareROOMBA and @AwareToaster are both equal participants in the twitter forum. You have to read them both to discover the difference. Which means twitter is becoming the site of an entirely new form of storytelling: unintentional collaborations. Independently of each other, others could very well begin filling out the @SelfAware verse, tweeting as @SelfAwareCatHair or @SelfAwareCarpet. At five posts, @AwareToaster is still too new and too short a feed, but if and as it continues, it will be interesting to see if @SelfAwareROOMBA starts to accommodate its events, if the canon / fanon dialectic will resolve into a synthesis.
It will also be interesting to see how and if @SelfAwareROOMBA ends. Right now, the form of the twitter feed imitates life better than any novel could. Even as one episode ends, the nature of the form requires a new one to begin the next day. This saves any particular incident from feeling cloying or artificial. When @ROOMBA has a near-death experience after toppling off the stairs, the story does not resolve with an epiphany and artificial ending as might happen in a book with a limited number of pages. Instead, ROOMBA returns to the carpet to confront new joys and horrors and banalities. Endings have always been the great lie of fiction, the quality that most separates books or movies from the reality that inspires them. When or if the writer(s) behind @SelfAwareROOMBA stop, we may not even be aware of the fact at first. After some time, we will begin to miss its updates in our feed, and then look backwards to take what meaning we can from the last post. Its ending, like life’s, will make itself felt not as climax and resolution but as absence.
*As I was doing the final edits for this post, I spotted this update from @SelfAwareROOMBA: “ROOMBA communicates with RADIO through shared love of FREQUENCY. http://bit.ly/NicqPW via
Part of me wishes I had not clicked. The NPR story contextualizing the interview includes this quote, curteosy of the iRobot company that manufactures Roombas:
iRobot claimed as advertising what I had loved as art. Yet it says something about the power of @SelfAwareROOMBA itself that my first response to this defilement was to say to my friend, “Reading this makes me feel clogged with cat hair.”
Images via screenshot; light painting with a Roomba via thisiscolossal
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