J u l y   2 0 0 2

Guest Writer

On any given day
Working for the wrong robot
by Ryan Douglas

came in to work late again yesterday. The phone on my desk was ringing and the robot was on the other end. When I picked up the phone, the line was dead. It was the unmistakable, inaudible mark of the robot.

From the second that I answered the phone, the gigantic robot brain began running metrics on my computer's keystroke and processor idle time. Then, as he always does whenever one of his workers comes in late, the robot sent out a company-wide e-mail, reminding all constituents of the importance of being at their work terminals on time.

On any given day, if thru-put at my terminal drops below acceptable levels, the robot will call me at my desk to see what the matter is. Although the robot is unable to speak, the silent whisper of the robot phone call has the psychological impact of an obscene telephone message from a peeping Tom.

After the robot rings your desk then abruptly hangs up a couple of times, you find yourself looking about the office suspiciously, eyes filled with caution, wondering which electronic eye is fixed on your cubicle.

There has always been a fine line between right and wrong, truth and fiction, man and beast. These days, the line between human and robot too is always thinning, disintegrating like tiny and forgotten soap slivers on a built-in shower tray.

The robot that runs our company has an office in the center of the building. His door is locked with a security code that is known only by his most loyal subservient. The code changes weekly and, unless he is malfunctioning, no one is allowed inside his quarters.

He has the only climate-controlled office in the building and dull fluorescent lights illuminate his cool, painted-steel perfection. His breath is the rippling whine of a computer fan; his sustenance is an electric IV that plugs into the wall. His reach is the sprawling, coiling mass of network cable that courses through every nook and cranny of the building. In short, my boss is a robot running on Windows NT.

He reads our e-mails and tracks their recipients. He filters Web sites, blocks network access, determines break times and authorizes overtime. He denies and prohibits access to the building with extreme prejudice.

The robot prints out stacks of offer letters and paid-time-off rejection slips. He makes mounds out of work schedules and profit projections. He generates heaps of paychecks and notices of disciplinary actions. He administers competency tests and monitors employee whereabouts with sophisticated surveillance equipment. He conducts interviews with job candidates and writes and distributes offer letters. He even carries the godlike power to terminate employees whom he has deemed "irrelevant."

What a busy robot!

Although the site manager is literally and in every sense of the word an actual and physical, real-life, living, breathing robot – to the casual observer, it may not appear so.

The robot has carefully buried his mechanical tracks of dominance and destruction by leaving the semblance of actual human management intact. To achieve this "curtain of humanity," the robot has hand-selected a small group of middle-management bourgeoisie and assigned them the task of preserving, serving, maintaining and strengthening the robot.

This complex web of subservient humans (class: "managers") is the tool of the gigantic robot brain. They assist robot objectives by implementing the will of the robot. In return for loyal service and honorable allegiance to the Gordian designs of the robot brain, the managers receive the illusion of status, stability, prosperity and credit as organizational perpetuators.

The goal of the organization is to foster the health and prosperity of our robot.

Does all of this sound impractical or inefficient? The robot has determined that you are wrong to think so. Through his massive processing abilities and his capacity for aggregate data management, the robot can print out easy-to-read charts and graphs in four colors that even managers can understand.

All day long, the robot generates watered reports that are mere declarations of his speed and efficiency. They are designed to foster both reliance and trust in the robot. In its own way, each report restates how well things run now that the robot is in charge. Managers read the reports and praise the robot for his worthiness. But the robot prints out more than just reports; he also prints pink slips, and lately, he has been printing a lot of those.

Termination paperwork rolls off the printer spools directly into piles. Each manager has his own pile, and the robot makes sure that the manager checks in with his pile at least twice each day. When the manager finds termination slips in his mound, he must then not only find out who the terminated employee is, but also which cubicle the luckless fellow occupies. Locating a terminated employee can take hours, if not days.

With so many recent layoffs, the robot now just cuts the power on all terminated employees' cubicles the moment of termination. Bewildered, each powerless – and soon to be jobless – employee must then seek the assistance of a manager to get power back to his cube.

Then all that the manager need do is ask the confused soul for his name, sort through a pile and emerge, smiling and triumphant, with the appropriate walking papers for that employee. The robot just wants to make layoffs easy.

Once terminated by the robot, you can go to work for the friendlier unemployment robot.

The unemployment robot just prints out paychecks and mails them to your house. He doesn't monitor your productivity levels, he doesn't call your house and hang up and he doesn't watch you with surveillance cameras. He just prints out paychecks and sends them to your door. I think I am working for the wrong robot.

Today, a man came by my cubicle with a giant basket full of silver packages. They were hamburgers, wrapped in aluminum foil. During an errant and momentary glitch, the robot accidentally made too many burgers before abruptly closing the cafeteria and sending the entire cafeteria staff home early due to slow sales.

Now, the free little silver packages of joy are illuminating and nourishing the office. A monkey couldn't resist the beckoning of the free burgers, but the gigantic robot brain can. Now the shiny silver package just sits, cooling on my desk.

I'll not eat it.

I'll let that shiny package sit there, smiling back at the restless eye of the giant robot until he sends someone to take it away.

See more from Ryan in our archives.

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