The Department of Mental Duress and the robots

Forrest Johnson

The Department of Mental Duress was holding its monthly meeting at Camp Shack, and it was hard for those of us not in the rank and file to overhear their dire warnings. For those of us not predisposed to a little leisurely pessimism now and then, we still welcome their group for its candor and kind donations to our infrastructure fund, which has been a bit inconsistent of late.
Certain elements have questioned the need for the fund, which doesn’t actually pay for labor and materials as much as it pays for spirits that keep the crew happy as they toil in a harsh northern climate and a forest that is unforgiving toward the efforts to keep our meticulous network of trails free of obstacles.
The crack Shack Inspection Team is out at this moment monitoring our vast transportation system to see if they can find a little good news, any kind of good news, but preferably the light sweet good news that helps fuel our ambitions and keeps us light on our feet and nimble in these frenetic times.
No matter that we exist miles from the nearest road and do not accept any form of technology that has come into existence post 1971, we still keep track of this crazy mixed up world but refuse to be swallowed up like the rest of the culture by mindless pursuits.
Don’t you worry, we get plenty of news from the folks who use our utilitarian shack as a haven for their meetings. The Department of Mental Duress, the Hand-to-Mouth Society, the Harassment and Harangue Association, the Neurotic Rifle Association (the other NRA), the Aimless Men of America, these and many other organizations come and use our facilities and provide a perspective that few others have access to or should have access to.
For its part, the members of the Department of Mental Duress were worrying about the role that robots will play in the not-too-distant future, roles that will likely diminish the need for people to even get up in the morning and put in another day at the salt mine.
There will be millions of them. Everywhere.
During a break in the lounge we tried to cheer them up by saying things like “Let them be smarter than us, maybe they’ll do our taxes for us,” and “We’ll make it look like work is fun, and because we’re pals we’ll let them join right in and take over for us.”
I told them that we’d work on the fearful side of the robot mind.
“Booze is bad for your programmable matter.”
“Cigar smoke and fried venison steaks will inhibit your nanoparticles.”
No matter what, we couldn’t dampen their despair.
And they had a point. One of them asked if we’d like it that a computer and a robot are distilling our bourbon and the old fellows in the bib overalls who used to run the distillery are wandering the streets looking for something to do. How does a robot roll a cigar like a Honduran? What about the rum makers in Puerto Rico and the mechanics down at the boat shop? Are we all just going to wander around looking for something to do?
What happens when the robots start looking for more fun than a stupid job and they notice that we’re out wandering in the woods and sitting in our boats just taking in the sun? They’ll figure it out. They’ll put two and two together. Pretty soon they’ll want to come along. You don’t think we’ll have to spend half our time trying to show them that all the things we do aren’t really fun but are chores that have no end? Do you actually think we drink and smoke and stay up all night singing and playing cards because we like to?
We could see the point. The whiskey and ginger ales were suddenly without fizz.
Robots were going to be everywhere and even if they were doing us the favor of performing “dangerous and tedious” tasks, as their inventors crowed, we’d still find them poking around in those places we kind of saw as our own.
That nice little spot down the creek where we skinny-dip and take our wives and girlfriends? No doubt it would be overcrowded with robots and their wives and girlfriends, robots that likely don’t have any sense of the need for solitude. They won’t understand what a pine forest smells like or what the raven says. They won’t understand the howl of the wolf or a late night visit to the neighbors’ shack where we commiserate and laugh when we push a button and a clenched rubber fist on the table opens up and flips you the bird.
Oh, they say robots will be polite and friendly and helpful to a fault.
We understand the robotic mind as well as anyone. We have Hal, our robotic portable butchering unit, complete with wide-track tires and steering wheel, headlights and protective shield. He was supposed to make the job of butchering deer so much easier, and what we got was another petulant child that had to be raised like one of our own.
Believe it when we say robots don’t save on work, they make work. Lots of work. With no paycheck in sight. The irony of it all transcends reason.