Short story: Nuke my jobbot


Are jobbots invasive pests or useful tools that improve productivity? By Emma Ross Munro. 


Gatsby

Because I’m an optimist, I rotated my inspiration cube to read “Born Free” as Blair from Human Resources wheeled her trolley over. She handed me a vibrating box.

“Here we go, Melissa,” she said. “Welcome to taking your work to the next level – to 110%.”

“That’s wonderful,” I lied. “But I thought Data Acquisitions wasn’t scheduled for tagging until next quarter?”

The spasms in Blair’s fingers belied her botoxed serenity. I had momentarily dropped out of the corporate ecstasy required in this quadruple-dip recession, despite having signed the recontract with its mandated productivity upgrade.

The contents of the box – my very own biotech companion – was designed to make the upgrade possible. It was developed by Bioengineering Efficiency and Productivity Inc, a two-year-old pop-up, now ranked number three on the Global 100 Index. According to BEPi’s label the innovation’s two-fold objective involved evaluating an employee’s ‘enjoyment factor’ whilst increasing their productivity – more like welcome to another round of inept managerial decisions and extreme micromanagement.

My workday consisted of inserting data into spreadsheets, and now I had to factor in the joy of an airborne pest keeping tabs on me.

Blair smirked. “Maybe you’d rather opt out?”

She repeated the 110% sales pitch 24 times before teetering

into the lift with an empty trolley.

“Not at all.” Not in a labour market with 1,600-plus people chasing every job. I flipped the lid and out popped my fist-sized, yellow-and-black bumblebee-striped buddy. “Oh, how exciting. Does it come with a manual?” And an ‘off’ button?

“Oh, you needn’t bother reading the manual. Each jobbot is self-monitoring, self-reporting and self-adapting. That’s what bioengineering means.” She stretched out the word bioengineering as if I were an idiot.

“This thing is alive?”

Blair actually tittered and said: “Of course not, though they used some biological processes in its design. Don’t worry about that stuff. Worry about the automatic reporting.”

I sighed. Say hello to Big Brother. Blair tiptoed away on red stilettos. She repeated the 110% sales pitch 24 times before teetering into the lift with an empty trolley.

My jobbot buzzed over my workstation like a bee scouting for pollen. A busy bee swooping from my paper stacks to my alphabetised folders to my blank computer screen, possibly assessing my readiness to start working. Five seconds later, my new buddy dashed to the computer’s on/off button, and then to the bridge of my nose, and then back to the computer screen. It repeated this noisy dance until I realised it would not let me sip my latte while I gradually joined the rest of the wide-awake world.

Two gulps finished the coffee. From the depths of my bag I grabbed a vial of ginseng and an electrolyte shot, both of which I poured down my throat as if it were month-end reconciliation. While the desktop warmed up, I sorted reports into urgent versus never-mind piles and tapped my toes to the combined thrum of caffeine and sugar. Within seconds, my fingers flew across the keyboard.

As fast as I typed, the jobbot hit the delete key. Multiple error messages flashed. In the corner of my screen, technical support opened a chat window: did I need help? That had to be the fastest response ever. Normal response time could be two days. With the jobbot hovering above my knuckles, I declined their assistance with shaking fingers. The little bugger objected to gibberish being entered into the database. If it could read and use a keyboard, what did the bosses need me for?

At elevenish, I uncranked my spine, cracked my knuckles and stood for my midmorning OH&S-mandated stroll. Normally I took full advantage of the open-space design, chit-chatting my way to the water cooler so I could discover whose core competency rating had fallen foul of Human Resources’ SWAT team. Not this day. After a couple of backbends and wrist extensor exercises, the jobbot headbutted me back to my desk.

At midday, a desperate dodgem race got me through the washroom door. The pest followed me into the toilet cubicle where the fine print on the recontract had said it was not supposed to go. Joy factor: zero.

At lunchtime, jobbots swarmed to block the lift. Like trained rabbits, we sat back down at our desks. My jobbot slowed and landed, only to crawl all over my homemade sushi rolls. I leaned back and peered around the partition between our workstations.

“Hey, bestie, you still a go for liquid therapy tonight?”

“Sure. We’ll have earned a Long Island tea by then.”

Carey’s jobbot circled her whole-wheat pasta salad before pushing the jam-filled donut into the trash bin. Nutrition monitoring was not in the recontract either. Carey, who looked like a marathon runner but wasn’t, muttered, “Never mind, I’ve got a boxful at home.”

I tore at a piece of chewy seaweed and wished for the pint of Ben & Jerry’s in my freezer, while mentally listing my feedback on this efficiency monster. The X-rated version got me grinning.

I swallowed the last mouthful of rice to find the jobbot revving up to full buzzing volume. It zoomed between screen and keyboard in a figure-eight dance, once, twice and then so fast I could barely see it. As if hypnotised, I found myself sitting up straight and typing.

That first jobbot day, all 25 of us stayed at work an extra hour until, fingers stinging and backs aching, we trudged outside, which is when we discovered the bloody little monsters could leave the building.

“Bollocks,” Drew said, eyeing his monster in an evil-scientist way, “it is not coming home with me.”

“How are you going to stop it?” Mine spun overhead like a demented halo as Carey, Drew and I plodded up the metal stairs to our suburban train platform.

“I’ll figure something out. Watch this space.”

Gatsby

I didn’t share Drew’s confidence but I admired his determination. I checked my watch. If the train was on time, I’d be home, in slippers and nestled on the couch in 20 minutes. We shuffled forward to join the hundreds of queuing commuters. About half had jobbots of their own. As the train approached, our jobbots lowered to waist height and proceeded to whip around, corralling the three of us on the platform. Like sheep.

Blair appeared, jobbot-free, skirted around us and dashed between the closing doors. We gave her retreating backside the collective finger. Our jobbots slowed to cruising speed and zipped out of swatting reach of my handbag and Drew’s cap.

“Double bollocks,” Drew said. “Hello to the optional 24-7 monitoring clause, to be applied at the whim of management, but apparently not to management.”

“Blair wouldn’t do that to us. It has to have been upper management,” Carey said, busily texting her girlfriend that she’d missed the train. Because I’m such an optimist I hailed a cab, but wasn’t surprised at the jobbots extending their bee-like stingers when it pulled over.

As the train approached the jobbots lowered to waist height and proceeded to whip around, corralling the three of us on to the platform. Like sheep.

Drew kicked the curb. “Wanna bet there’s a clause in the fine print about daily exercise?”

“Maybe this is a technical glitch? We could try calling tech support.” Carey was already searching her phone. Five minutes later, she found the single option of contact via email, through which we could request assistance, but the 48-hour guaranteed response was a little useless – and not at all surprising.

“Plan B?” by which Carey meant the nearest bar instead of our favourite one two blocks from home. We lived in the same apartment complex.

“Sure.” I liked Carey’s go-with-the-flow life mantra – so dependable. But I hadn’t bought my shoes with an hour’s trek over concrete in mind. Wanna bet the jobbot wouldn’t pierce my blisters?

“I’m sure we’ll find plenty of booze specials to numb us along the way.”

After a few minutes of Carey Googling the safest route with a happy-hour bar, we plunged into the crowd of workers trudging home. Hundreds, if not thousands of jobbots buzzed overhead, drowning out the traffic, something I’d thought impossible. Close by, two cops and their armoured jobbots herded a family of street people back into a side alley of dumpster homes.

Carey shook her head. “That’s the alternative, isn’t it? Jobless and living in garbage.”

“They’re losers,” Drew said.

“Oh, you know their life stories, do you?” Though I disagreed with Drew, their ratty clothing, unkempt hair and hungry eyes were my worst nightmare. Head down, handbag clutched tight, I didn’t look back down the alley.

Soon enough, we found a happy-hour bar. Two bouncers with bats stood on either side of the doorway.

They nodded in a friendly way. “Duck,” the biggest one said.

He swung his bat and cracked my jobbot all the way across the four-lane highway. For the first time in my life, I whooped like a cheerleader. Drew and Carey’s jobbots belted past. Drew hooted and Carey videoed.

“Quick, get inside. We’ll keep them busy. Enjoy yourselves.” The bouncers swung into action as the jobbots hurtled back, stingers extended.

We stayed until closing. That night it was leather lounges, live music, dry martinis, mojitos, pints of lager, mixed olives, Yukon gold potato fries. Topped off with fudge brownies at 2am smothered in hazelnut ice-cream at my place.

At dawn my head bounced against the bedside table. The jobbot dive-bombed again and I crash-landed on the floor. I spat out carpet fluff and reached under the bed for the cricket bat. Lurching upright, I chased the jobbot, but it moved faster than I could at that time of day, or any time of day, for that matter.

Black coffee and a green juice later I emptied the hall closet until I found my ex’s water pistol, air rifle, dart gun and butterfly net. I loaded them all and devoted the entire weekend to shooting, drowning and netting.

Nothing succeeded in slowing the jobbot down, let alone stopping it.

Gatsby

A month later Blair, upgraded to HR supervisor, called a meeting to assess our productivity. Her predecessor had dropped dead over the weekend (surely a jobbot-induced heart attack). As soon as we were seated, Blair’s beach-ball-sized jobbot proved irresistible to our comparatively teeny jobbots, which darted over and stuck like gnats to honeycomb, making the meeting the best thing that’d happened at work since the upgrades had arrived.

Blair opened the session and thanked us all for the detailed feedback on our jobbot experiences. Many people had apparently accessed the email contact option.

“Human Resources is pleased to report that Data Acquisitions increased productivity by 39% in only one week.

“Congratulations! We eagerly anticipate your increasing efficiency …”

My personal productivity had zoomed up by 49%. I would have done naked handstands before openly acknowledging this benefit. Maybe jobbots weren’t the end of civilised work, but, as far as any water-cooler gossip might know, I stood firmly in Drew’s rebellion camp.

Even so, while Blair droned on about micromanagement practices, e-recordings and outmoded surveillance devices, I imagined retiring early, living off-grid and becoming a pastry chef who didn’t care if her hip dimensions doubled.

Blair’s jobbot jabbed its hairy proboscis into a socket. The wall of screens behind her flickered.

Each screen showed a different person.

"Jobbots are the best thing to have happened to us. Open your eyes."

There was Carey, stung to typing at finger-blurring speed. Sammy, flossing at her desk, jobbot zeroing in for a close-up shot. And Drew, chicken dancing after making his computer display a fake technical error, until the jobbot stung his jiggling posterior (he was still unable to sit down). All 25 of us watched in rabbit-struck horror, or twittery hysterics, as our lives for the past week played fast-forward on the screens.

And there I was gasping on the cross-trainer with the jobbot vibrating until it spun apart to form a pellet swarm of the word ‘FASTER’ in front of my face. Oh no … there … in the privacy of my home … about to bite into my last, much-cherished, though slightly stale, Belgian chocolate, caramel-centred brownie. Then, there I was with my tongue jobbot-stung to an obscene size. I rubbed my aching knuckles, a new habit I’d acquired since the arrival of my little friend, and grabbed my inspiration cube. Under cover of the table I speed-pivoted the six faces, mixing the letters to read “This Means War”. Drew, sitting beside me, nodded. Carey blanched and looked away.

Over squeals, gasps and giggles, Blair preached about the development of a superior workforce, core competencies and empowerment through ongoing personal growth. I discovered that one cannot actually die of embarrassment, but one can decide to inflict appropriate payback. Say goodbye to acceptance and optimism. Say hello to grievous jobbot harm. Or Blair harm. I could pierce her implants with scissors and switch her Botox for correction fluid. Or I could get another job, which would be far less messy than skewering her boobs.

Gatsby

Another job seemed less and less likely as weeks passed without a single interview, despite a hefty pile of applications. I could not – would not – end up like Drew, who was now living in a tent on my balcony. Drew had been fired after crashing the office network.

My jobbot never went on standby or ran out of power. There was no ‘off’ button. My jobbot didn’t show any interest in shopping, art gazing, theatre or knitting. It found bees intriguing, though, which I discovered on a distraction-seeking expedition to the zoo. Three hives now crowded Drew out on my balcony.

Most evenings, while the jobbot watched the bees, I ate chocolate fudge ice-cream, researched bees and sent out imaginative job applications. To reward my job searching, I’d sedate the jobbot with a bee smoker, then nuke it in the microwave while it was helpless.

Drew taught me the nuking trick. An ex-chemistry teacher, he’d figured out several ways to exterminate jobbots for cash or beer. His favourite kill involved flowers, ovens and dancing The Time Warp while the jobbot melted, despite knowing he’d get stung when the replacement arrived. Replacements always turned up, even after an employment agency blew up the original BEPi headquarters, because a jobbot swarm set up a hive on the bombed-out site. Pretty soon jobbot hives appeared in every city worldwide. The synthetic biologists had outperformed their own expectations. The jobbots bred like … well … like bees. What’s more, they evolved with each new generation: bulletproof carapaces, sharper stingers, larger – much larger – neural networks.

Coward that I was, I only started nuking once the jobbots stopped retaliating. Perhaps breeding prolifically meant each hive didn’t mind occasional losses. Or, more likely, payback – such as Drew’s repeatedly punctured butt – lowered productivity.

Nuking them was terribly satisfying, although each exploded jobbot was only a tiny victory, a focus for my fury towards the Blairs and CEOs who had introduced the jobbots in the first place.

Those jobbots had apparently become independent of human intervention – and that scared me.

* * *

Many months later, while we were warming up on parallel treadmills, Carey admitted she adored her jobbot. “I fit in my skinniest jeans, have a teenager’s heart rate and a new girlfriend. What’s not to like?”

Her pretty metallic green jobbot seemed to be in original condition, too – no nuking or dismembering for Carey. Love? Co-dependence was more likely. She couldn’t wait for it to weed the pot plants, balance her bank statements and dash to the store for diet cola.

As much as I hated my jobbot, I hated Blair even more for exposing our private lives, our secret vices. “So, what’s happened to Blair?” I said. “She’s gotten rather blowsy instead of liposucked skinny. I thought she’d had all her fat cells sucked out once and for all.”

“Oh, give her a break, Mel. It’s a little stress eating. Two job promotions in three months is a lot to take on.”

“One predecessor died of a stroke and the other from a heart attack. Management is turning us into worker drones. Like bees, which die on the job too.” My jobbot bustled in and hovered over the speed arrow. I pressed the appropriate button and picked up my pace.

Carey slammed her hand on the handlebar and actually frowned at me. “Jobbots are the best thing to have happened to us. Open your eyes.” She waved her arms around. “The gym is packed. Hospital admissions are down. Crime is down. Employment numbers are steady. The global economy is bouncing. The NASDAQ, the FTSE and the Dow Jones have hit their highest peak since the birth of the euro. How can you object to any of that?”

Somehow Carey did not seem to comprehend that people were too scared to quit. I trembled at the thought of food stamps and showering at the YMCA.

“Oh yeah, life is good on Planet Jobbot if you don’t mind being a drone at the beck and call of a fat queen.”

“You are in serious danger of becoming fattist.” Carey examined the treadmill program, selected cardio challenge and ran.

That shut me up. Carey had converted to jobbotism, a brand new term. My speed interval program kicked in, and I heaved in air damp with sweat, deodorant and perfume. I pounded the treadmill belt and imagined Blair stretched out on it, being pummelled with each footfall. Thanks to her, my co-workaholics and I were regularly exposed to ridicule, but not Blair. Her fat jobbot must have recordings of Blair, but how could I access and circulate them?

I knew where she lived.

* * *

That night Drew and I were squatting in a buckthorn bush arguing about how to break into Blair's townhouse when a swarm of jobbots hurtled to within a hair's breadth of my nose. We crawled out of the bush and very slowly backed away. The jobbots hovered until we turned the street corner.

Back home, we downed tequila shots and invented Plan B. Drew peeled open a jobbot and inserted a miniature spy device that streamed to the internet, as a test run for Blair’s jobbot. Within three seconds the jobbot ejected it in a foul stream of bot-poop on my shag pile carpet.

Time to come up with a Plan C.

Word must have got around that I was searching for another job, because Human Resources granted me an optimising placement evaluation – whatever that meant. Any offer would be irresistible if it meant getting away from Blair’s micro-monitoring.

A hefty mortgage, student loans and a weakness for plush lounges and air-conditioning meant I was a marshmallow who wouldn’t risk a written reprimand, let alone five minutes between jobs.

Yet I risked everything with Plan C. Possibly, I’d become ever so slightly obsessive-compulsive about Blair, a side effect of not having had a moment’s peace and quiet since the jobbot’s arrival. I had downloaded the appropriate Trojan software and loaded it onto a USB. All I had to do was stick it in Blair’s computer during the placement evaluation with a little help from my trusty bee smoker.

Blair’s office sent a reminder for the appointment. I saved, stood and squeezed past the back of Carey’s chair. The office layout had changed from open plan to a ‘focused collaborative workspace’ or hexagonal hive-hell. A vending machine had replaced the water cooler.

OK, yes, regarding the upcoming interview, thanks were due to my buzzy-buddy, I had to admit – I’d aced every performance review. And yes, my imagination extended to sneaking a peek at Carey’s performance responses and upgrading my own a notch or two. As far as Blair knew, I was a willing cog in the greater honey-making machine.

Honeybees were now my favourite topic of conversation and research. I preached jobbotism … loudly. Wasn’t it grand how babies and children now had buzzy robot companions to count down their sleep, play and study periods? Don’t forget the lucky retirees with nannybots to make sure they finished all their pureed broccoli.

In the honey-toned corridor outside Blair’s office, I mopped sweat from my upper lip. The possible consequences of Plan C, such as permanent unemployment, dumpster living and probably dying on the streets, held no appeal. Of course, I could leave the bee smoker and smoke grenade in my pocket.

Plan C depended on the jobbots emulating bee biology and behaviour, as seemed to be the case with my own jobbot. The smoke grenade would crowd the drones around their queen to protect her, maybe give Blair a little trouble breathing – it would possibly suffocate her. In the confusion I would plug the USB stick into her desktop computer, which would automatically install the backdoor Trojan and stream Blair’s videos straight to the Vimeo account I had set up.

One of her minions opened a door and ushered me inside. Blair pretty much lived in the office, along with her aerodynamically challenged jobbot. Her office, wallpapered in wildflowers, smelled of springtime blooms. Blair sprawled behind a rosewood desk piled with printouts, pots of honey and – of course – her jobbot.

“Welcome, Melissa.” Blair pointed me to a seat and offered me lemon and ginger tea. I accepted. “Would you like a dollop of honey?”

“Yes, thank you.”

An intern jumped up attentively and did the honours.

“Melissa, do you think jobbots, as similar as they are to bees, remind us to extract the honey out of life?”

Gobsmacked, I shut my mouth.

“What I’m wondering is, are you doing all you can to make your life more productive?”

“Ahh …”

“Always remember that the bee is the symbol of accomplishing the impossible, which brings me to why I asked you to come today. I’m impressed at how well you’ve adjusted to the jobbots.” Blair smiled at her flightless companion. “So, I’m pleased to inform you that you’ve been admitted to our career-enhancement program.”

Whatever that meant. “Thank you so much.” I hid trembling fingers in my pocket next to Drew’s homemade smoke grenade. Blair looked pale and tired. Perhaps she didn’t deserve suffocation after all.

“In fact, if you’re interested, you could strategically upsize immediately.”

I still didn’t have a clue what she meant but I needed to keep her talking. “Yes, I’m very interested. Thank you.” Images of Drew flashed before my eyes: sleeping on my balcony, obsessing about jobbot extermination, forgetting to wash, drinking too much beer. Did I truly want to risk my job and my home to settle this score?

Blair smirked, just like she had at the last mortifying Monday session. Enraged, I tugged the bee smoker and the small canister out of my pocket and stroked the grenade pin. She deserved it, all right.

“Excellent.” Blair tapped her computer screen, which beeped and flashed acknowledgement. She smiled. “Your verbal acceptance is recorded and verified. Your new position will take effect immediately. Congratulations on your appointment to Human Resources. You’ll start with the monitoring job I had, and one day you’ll be right where I am.”

Right where Blair was … oh, crap.

But … I needed my recliner, my film noir collection, and all my books. And, I’d damn well earned that Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream cake waiting for me in my air-conditioned apartment. Blair’s job had many tempting perks: such as jobbot-free time. Drew’s life as a corporate revolutionary wasn’t an option for me. Score yet another round to Blair.

I slipped the grenade and bee smoker back into my pocket. As I passed my desk on the way out, I reconfigured my inspiration cube to read “Born to Survive”.

Emma Ross Munro is a writer who lives in the Blue Mountains, and who works as a reader for Daily Science Fiction.