Inside the box

Inside the box

“It’s no worse than an office or a cubicle, Elisa. Will you stop making a fuzz? People were upset, when the first open space workplaces appeared, you know? Saw a documentary about this. One day the workers had each their own office. The next they were assigned cubicles, in a large common room. They suddenly were confronted to each other. Some made a fuzz.”.

Noticing the lack of affirmative response, Sharifa raises her voice: “Why am I telling you this, Elisa? Why talk about offices and cubicles? To remind you that you’ve got a perfectly nice job, of course. Now you go do it. The working conditions are fine. You said so yourself. You told me about the health & safety inspection. You mentioned the certificate confirming everything is in good order. What more do you want? Don’t try telling me you’d prefer to live on basic universal…”.

Elisa, still standing in front of the building, does hate it. Them. Everything. The building, for being her workplace. The raindrops on her glasses, for impeding her vision. The augmented reality feed is all blurred, too. She also hates the rain as such, for making a bad morning even worse. This should be a special day. And the plug inside her left ear, she hates that one, too. For delivering unwelcome encouragement. And Sharifa… No, not Sharifa. She’s not a problem, she’s a solution. Even if she currently sounds like one more mistake. Sharifa is an improvement, compared to her former flat mate. Polymeros, he was a disaster.

Elisa would love to be good at words. Why is it so hard, for Sharifa, to understand she can’t keep doing this? This so called job is an aberration. It’s inhumane, to spent your days at the mercy of weird people. Offices? Cubicles? As if this was just another call center. Some vile clients enjoy their flat rate subscriptions with the RHHB, the Regional Health and Happiness Board. HH as in haha. The acronym is the perfect misrepresentation of average employee job satisfaction.

At the other end, Sharifa takes a deep breath. Freaking out won’t work. She has to play this cool. Slouching on a bean bag chair, vintage 2012, she takes a sip from the replica one-way coffee-to-go cup before resuming the pep talk. Elisa can be so… complicated. Two hours ago, her flat mate stood up, went to the bathroom, had breakfast, summoned a commutopod, folded herself into the guaranteed harassment free mono compartment and rolled off, without one single complaint. Now that she’s there, right in front of her workplace, she starts arguing. Stupid. No wonder she wasn’t considered viable for any more intellectual occupation.

“What’s not to like, Elisa? It’s safe, it’s inside, it’s technology-driven, it’s hygienic,… Your job delivers good marks on pretty much any scales anyone can come up with. Just think of the poor field scavengers following the harvesters. They at least have a reason to complain. Even your hours are good. Every fourth week. When you’re on the 08:00 to 14:00 shift. As you are now. As I hopefully won’t need reminding you. Please look at the watch in your glasses to check, if you don’t believe me. And while you’re at it, please do notice you’re running out of time. If you keep idling in front of that building, you will have to dress up at speed. Don’t you come home moaning about how you had to endure a crease in the gear pinching you mad for six hours…”.

Sharifa trails off again. Sarcasm doesn’t work, on Elisa. She needs a gentle hand. Gentle, but firm. Even for the early shift, the most harmless of the four. Most roboes, as RHHB staff call themselves, are quite comfortable with the early shift. It’s mainly about exercise and shopping, interspersed with a bit of wellness and very few odd requests. Late shifts are far more rowdy. And only the most seasoned and thick skinned employees manage to handle a full week on one of the night shifts without resorting to doping. Antidepressants, mostly.

Sharifa sits up to have another go at exhortations when the little dot on the monitor wall starts moving again. And in the right direction, too. Five more meters. Up the stairs. This is the lock. Hurrah, Elisa is inside. A major milestone. All is not yet won, though. She could still turn around and call it quits. As long as she’s not geared up and plugged in, escape is possible.

This is exactly what Elisa is thinking about, wandering through the hall to reach the elevator. But you don’t get out without an interview. If you try to leave before having performed according to the shift schedule, you will have to explain your motives. All roboes end up in that interview at least once in their careers. Typically early on, in their first or second week. 

It starts harmlessly enough. You get to select your preferred type of voice for the artificial intelligence in charge of human resources: Male, female or hard to tell? Old, young or hard to tell? Intonation oriental, orientav, orienty or plain glob? For anglotrads, please add @ to confirm you claim minority status and wish to be addressed in a complex ancient language.

That’s how the interview starts. Two hours later, you feel like a pile of trash, for having considered leaving without performing. ‘Retroactive depersuasion’, that’s what they call this management technique. Elisa shivers. A six hour shift is bad. Getting interviewed by HR is equally bad. She would like to dissolve into thin air, to avoid both options.

Some of the roboes love to speculate, for hours, about the interview algorithm. It’s supposed to be based on a matrix combining your choice of linguistic interface with your profile. One legend has it that the @ will spare you the worst, whatever your origins and educational achievements. But you need to be more than a bit crazy, to actively claim anglotrad status. Asking to be mobbed, that is. And what if you don’t manage to make sense of the questions? Replete with nuances, the antique lingos. Anglotrad is supposed to be more straightforward than Aramaic, but…

Elisa asked Sharifa for her opinion, on the @ legend, and she just laughed. If Artificial Intelligence algorithms were that simple, she would have made it through the computer science selection process easy. Instead of hitting the wall at level five out of eight and being made to earn the means for her vintage tastes as a mere human medical procedure interface. Better than a roboe, but not a career you proudly mention in sophisticated company. You can’t second guess an artificial intelligence, dumbo. Why not put humans in charge of running RHHB, while you’re at it?

Of all the people Elisa doesn’t like to meet it has to be Polymeros joining her in the elevator. Brimming with service mentality, as usual: “Elisa, isn’t this one wonderful Wednesday? Can’t wait to get online! Just hope it’s not too quiet. Seems like a bit of a lull, lately, doesn’t it? RHHB really need to do more marketing, no offense intended. I had three breaks, yesterday, three! In just one shift! And the longest lasted for upwards of four minutes. Felt like a holiday. I immediately cancelled one of my five days of annual leave, to make up for it…”.

Elisa would love the elevator to accelerate. Instead, it stops at level three. She should have opted for the session with the artificial intelligence. Anything is better than Polymeros. If he got his head stuck into a toilet bowl, you can bet he would scream: “Oh, lovely, a waterfall!”.

She doesn’t know the new entrant by name, but she (most probably she) looks nice sad enough. Especially by comparison. Anything is better than a one-on-one with Polymeros. And she (or would that be he after all?) had business on level three. At this hour, he most probably tried his luck at requesting a reassignment. Only two services, on level three. Vocational counseling and Accident & Emergencies. If you count the row of padded cells as part of A&E, which you should. Nervous overstretch is their biggest occupational hazard.

“…, that would be so nice! Or one more marshmallow addict. Love marshmallow addicts! Did you ever get one of these, Elisa? My last one, he went up to forty six. Forty six! Amazing, what this does to your metabolism. Went on a real high, wanted to keep going. But the emergency stop got triggered. Pity. Whereas your average fancy dress fan, not much happening. You really need to think of an extra, to turn this kind of performance into an experience. Like last night, for example. Because I volunteered for an additional early night shift. Was boring out at home. Just dressing up into a 1899 swimsuit would have been a terrible dud. So I ordered some ice cold water, added a couple of blue ice cubes for additional visual, and splash,…”.

Elisa is glad to see the third floor entrant sharing her feelings. Polymeros, and anyone of his persuasion, will be the first to go when the revolution comes. Perhaps they could be relocated to an island all of their own, the service mentals. Elisa longs for a humane revolution. No killings. Just some gentle relocations. Even though the likes of Polymeros don’t deserve kind treatment. They are every bit as bad as the job itself. Humiliating yourself to provide clients with a live flow of virtual experiences, that’s horrible. Becoming intimately associated with people fancying vanilla pudding, pints of extra sweet vanilla pudding, does ruin your emphatic inclinations. But coworkers pretending to like this nightmare of a job, they are the worst. 

Level eight, finally. Elisa doesn’t want to arrive. But at least she’s getting rid of Polymeros. He rides on to level twelve. Fishy, level twelve. Lots of service mentals. You wonder if they were mad before getting their performance space assigned, or if it’s the level turning them into freaks.

Sharifa was right to tell her to hurry. Elisa is late and has to stop brooding, to put on the captor harness as fast as possible. It might look like a blue catsuit completely covering the roboe’s body, including most of the face, but it is fiendishly difficult to adjust. All sensors need to be in exactly the right place. Feverishly tapping commands on the touchscreen, Elisa forces the material to adapt. All 120 captor point dots need to switch from red to green.

Currently, it’s all green all right. No red dots on display. Except her left ankle feels like shackled. Trying to reposition the captor promptly turns the dot back to red. Bloody fuck-up of a useless technology, will you behave now? It takes her two more attempts to finally achieve both a green dot and a bearable sensation. Someone really should invent a less tight captor harness. But trust the designers not to care. They don’t get to wear this.

Blue. Why does this place have to be so blue? The floor, the walls, the ceiling, the 3D outline of Elisa’s own body, all blue. Only exception: The red emergency stop button that has materialized on the display, next to the countdown signaling she will be online in twelve seconds.

Originally, the red button was intended to provide the roboes with the means to get rid of customers requesting inappropriate action. There are guidelines, and there is a filter, of course. RHHB worries about the potential for scandal anyway. A big company is just one staff error away from fatal scandal, according to Elisa’s trainer. He emphasized their right to cut off customers. In case of improper requests, they are to terminate the connection, at once. Complaint management will handle the rest, including apologies and refunds where necessary. RHHB is a principled employer who will not put staff in harms way.

The emergency stop in practice mostly serves as a pause button. The coffee break concept didn’t make it into modern shift arrangements. But bio breaks are hard to avoid, if you rely on human staff. The sensory stand-in for a customer sampling teas to decide which blend to order will need a bio break, at some stage. Even an artificial intelligence with only the most virtual grasp of the inconveniences associated with a full bladder can accept that input has to be followed by output. And that the next customer is sure to complain, if his experience is perturbed by sensory remnants of previous assignments. RHHB offers a premium service. The clients are made to believe the roboes idle around most of the day, only waiting for them to come up with an idea.

Three, two, one, could have been worse. Elisa’s first job of the day is a workout. To be performed in the body shape of a man. In his fifties. With a serious body mass issue. She looks horrid in this shape. He is sure to have photoshopped the 3D projection to make himself feel good about his appearance. But he’s horrid. The Superman shirt, his idea, makes esthetics worse. But a workout is good. Exercise is fine. Keeps you trim. Allows you to get rid of all the angry feelings.

Amazing how many people believe that remotely experiencing some of the sensations of a roboe exercising on your behalf makes you loose weight. Urban legends…

Elisa puts her heart into it. In her own body shape, this could be borderline pleasant. But doing it for someone else is so degrading. And she has another fourteen years to go. She feels like blowing up the whole place. You don’t get used to this. You can do it for fifty one years, and still hate every single day. And this is no way to celebrate your seventy first birthday.