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Tales from quarantine: the robot vacuum and our shared reality of filth

Life sucks. Wear a helmet.

robot vacuum
Image: Curtis Silver / KnowTechie

At the edge of lock-down, the beginning of a self-imposed quarantine, I received and reviewed a robot vacuum. It’s a fine piece of machinery with a singular purpose but has brought a certain organizational and maintenance-related purpose to finding myself waking every morning.

It needs help. We all need help. We all need our filters cleaned out after a certain amount of activity, no matter the purpose. While our filters are psychological, it’s the physical mundane tasks — such as cleaning the filter and dust bin of a robot vacuum — that remind us that we are in fact alive, that there are things to do. That there is life to live.

Our shared anxiety is either destroying us or saving us, depending on the chemicals in our brain. So I turn to my robot vacuum and ask it to clean by pressing a button. I delight in the movement, in the noise and the singular functionality of it. It does not feel the stress of the world. It feels only dirt.

We are only dirt. Easily being vacuumed up by a power larger than us. Sure, our science will eventually defeat this threat, but for the moment we can do nothing but protect ourselves and those close to us. We sit at home, many unemployed now, many struggling to embrace a new normal knowing that the way things were are in fact, the way things were. My robovac beeps. It needs to be emptied.

How am I creating the amount of filth needed to justify running this thing almost daily? Is the filth a side effect of striving to find connection with the only thing in the house that understands nothing? While there is another human here, a teenager, she doesn’t offer the simple silence and unresponsive judgment of the robot vacuum. She offers dirty dishes and a constant need to make sure Netflix is connecting. The robot vacuum does not consume entertainment, only the micro-particles of my life.

In that, a scowl may appear. The vacuum is removing parts of me, but also parts of me that no longer needed to be part of me. Dead skin, hair, and fingernails. Like all of us, pieces are being shed and removed by something we cannot see. The lasting damage will be felt, unlike the particles falling off the self that are quickly removed by the robot vacuum. We shall heal and quickly forget, as does the vacuum when emptied and returned to its charging base (which is has a hard time finding on its own).

A robot vacuum is a symbol of where we’ve arrived in our expansion as humans and on this planet

Where once we lived in our own dirt and feces, where once we picked it up with our hands, where once we pushed around a tool to clean the floors — we now watch it happen without our interaction. Too much of our lives has become this, something we are watching. From Instagram influencers to same-day shipping, life is passing us by. But the robot vacuum — it cherishes every moment of its unknown existence.

The robot vacuum is not sentient, but it is purposeful. Can we say that we live with such purpose? Can we say that now is the time to discover that purpose? Or can we say that it’s enough just to continue to live, to wake in the morning and muddle through the day, fighting to see tomorrow? The glory is that unlike the robot vacuum, we don’t have to make that decision. We have free will, it does not.

The robot vacuum contemplates its reality by bouncing off barriers then altering direction. We can do the same if we so choose. The barriers are being tossed up with regular frequency. While we don’t have detection tools built into our motherboard and a sensor that tells us if we are at the precipice of a cliff, we have the sense to make sense and change our path without running into a wall first.

So I sit here, waiting out the worst of a pandemic, staring at the robot vacuum doing the only thing it knows how to do and I wonder if humanity has the fortitude to do what it has to do. We’ve embraced the technology and are continuously fighting to build the future that we imagined. We have computers in our pockets, we have medical science beyond our wildest dreams, we have apps that control every aspect of our lives. We have TikTok. But there is so much dirt.

Be like the robot vacuum. Just fucking clean it up while making beep-boop sounds, whatever it is. In a few weeks, we’ll start a new normal. Let’s try leaving a little less filth in our wake as we build the future.

What do you think? How are you holding up while staying at home? Any existential thoughts? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

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