Karll spotted them before they spotted him—all of his thirty employees, dressed in wide–brimmed sun hats and hiking boots, rubbing wooden sticks together outside the lobby door of Branded Emporium in an attempt to start a fire in the midst of Novo-Artica’s snowy plain.
They had been organizing speed leisure sessions for about a month now. The previous Monday it had been nature craft, the Monday before that beach volleyball.
Karll changed his trajectory, hoping to slip in through the back door, undetected. But then he saw there was someone waiting for him there, too—another one of those automation evangelists in their stiff black suits, front pocket bulging with some diorama or virtual gadget that they had brought along to make their case. Coming to convince him to sell his company.
Between an unwanted sales pitch and thirty over–enthusiastic employees, Karll picked the latter.
"Karll—over here! I can show you how to scare off a bear if it approaches you on the trail!"
It was Clebel, Karll’s longtime friend and Creative Director, dressed in camping khakis and vigorously blowing a plastic whistle.
"The bear’s arrived," Karll joked as he reached the door. "Time to go inside. I look forward to seeing you channel this creativity into your work."
There was a collective groan as his employees began to shuffle into the lobby. He knew they called him a killjoy behind his back, but it didn’t bother him. Thirty years of running a company had taught him that mild resentment of your boss was normal. If anything, it helped create camaraderie among your staff.
"You know, you could go a bit easier on them," said Clebel, as he followed Karll inside. "It’s hard to be the only person in your family whose job hasn’t been automated.”
Try being the only person who doesn’t want to be automated, thought Karll. But he didn’t say that.
"They’ve been sliding brochures under my office door," Karll said. "People hang–gliding, robo–trailing, skin–swimming....”
"It’s a cry for help," said Clebel.
"It’s passive–aggressive enthusiasm," said Karll. "Foolish techno–optimism."
Karll stopped before Branded Emporium’s Wall of Names—a long–white wall stretching the length of the office, filled with the thousands of snack food names his company had brought to life, including successes like Snackmastics X, a licorice–flavored curly cue that was currently the best–selling alternative cheese item in the 18–34 demographic, and Snockeezies, a pea–protein–based dehydrated beef stick that had a 10–year shelf–life.
Karll could have stared at the Wall for hours, re–arranging the placement of the names, or debating the implications of putting Grandpa Grahams next to MamasMeat.
Snackmastics X, Snockeezies, Grandpa Grahams, MamasMeat
But Clebel, with whom he had once debated the merits of the letter S late into the night, didn’t even seem to notice the wall anymore. Now he was just like everyone else, hellbent on convincing Karll to give up the company.
"Do you really want to be the guy who tried to stop time?" Clebel asked.
"I’m not against the future," shrugged Karll. "I’m just questioning whether this has to be the future. Besides, anyone who doesn’t want to work doesn’t have to work."
"You know they can’t quit," said Clebel.
Clebel was right. If your job was automated, you received a government-guaranteed income to carry out your new life of leisure. But if you quit or were fired, you were penniless, left to dance or beg for money at the leisure fairs.
"The only person who can quit is you. You could sell off the company and set us all free. And you’d be free, too," Clebel said, his voice softening.
Free to do what? Karll’s wife, Laylane, had left him for a virtual companion two months earlier, after Karll had refused to sell his company and go on a three-year Arctic cruise with her. His sister and brother, both of whom had been automated a few years earlier, had tired of their leisurely lives and now just boarded themselves up inside their homes, eating and watching the videotainments. As for his employees, they would be sucked into line dancing and spelunking at the community center—he’d likely never see them again. No, a life of leisure seemed even more lonely than a life of solitary work.
"You and I both know this industry won’t last forever," continued Clebel. "Once the machines take over, everything will change. They won’t even want names anymore—everything will be numbers. Snack Food 1, Snack Food 22.”
Snack Food 1, Snack Food 22
"Now who’s being ridiculous," grumbled Karll, turning toward his office.
"Don’t think your protest is saving humanity," Clebel called after him. "This is all about saving yourself."
The next morning, Karll came into work after having spent the whole night finalizing the name for a turkey-cranberry puree. Next to the Wall of Names, obscuring a key section reserved for highly perishable sparkly foods, he saw Clebel conferring with a robot the size of an adult man. Clebel waved Karll over.
The Wall of Names
The robot appeared more ridiculous to Karll with each approaching step. It was a collection of gray pipes and black coils, with two glass circles for eyes and a rectangular, red plastic mouth. It looked like a parody of a robot, like when people in the past had imagined the robots of the future.
"What is this Discount Bot doing here?" asked Karll, knocking against the robot’s shoulder, expecting a hollow sound.
Clebel grinned. "I asked my wife to borrow it. They’re using it in her play at the community center."
"So you want to do a play here? Bring leisure to Branded Emporium since I won’t bring leisure to you?"
"Hardly," said Clebel. "Look, even the cheapest, barely functional robot is still better than most of our employees. You know the cranberry turkey puree project?”
"Of course, I actually came up with a name last night."
"So that took you what—two weeks? I gave it to the robot this morning."
Clebel pushed the red button that sat like a squat hat atop the Discount Bot’s head.
Do do do beep beep do
Karll snorted. It was hard to believe that people once thought robots would sound like this. In modern times, destruction was always endowed with a human voice.
A red light made a rapid orbit around the robot’s chest.
"Pro-cess-ing. Pro-cess-ing," said a monotone, metallic voice.
A slip of paper exited the robot’s mouth. Clebel tore it off and hid it in his fist.
"You first," he said to Karll. "What‘s the name you chose for the turkey-cranberry project?"
Karll studied Clebel’s eager face. Clebel was the one who charmed new customers, the one who carried the conversational weight during client dinners. Clebel was his best proxy for the outside world’s reaction.
"Turberry," said Karll.
Clebel grinned and Karl brightened, relieved to be back on familiar ground with his old friend. But then Clebel opened his palm to reveal the slip of paper, and Karll realized the smile hadn’t been for him at all.
"Aha!" said Clebel. "This cheap Discount Bot came up with practically the same thing, and with only one hour of work. Just think: you could get a few bots, liberate our existing staff, and just keep working on your own with them. Everyone wins."
"Turcran and Turberry are not remotely the same thing," huffed Karll, crumpling the paper and tossing it at the bot’s tin head.
Turcran and Turberry
As he walked back to his desk, he noticed the usual office hum had fallen silent. He felt his employees’ eyes on him, as if their fate hinged on Karll’s reaction to a cheap bunch of metal.
The following Monday, Karll arrived to discover the employees picketing outside the office. Liese, his Senior Name Designer, was yelling into a megaphone—something about chains and cages and united workers—while a bunch of her co-workers stomped about in a circle waving hand-written signs and banners.
I deserve automation!
Human Work Is Inhuman!!!
Karll spotted Clebel, hair newly spiked in a green mohawk, looking like a vintage punk rocker. Karll waved him over, but Clebel stayed put, throwing his fist in the air.
"So what’s today’s activity—20th century protest?" Karll fake chuckled, tapping one of the spikes on Clebel’s leather jacket.
"It’s not funny anymore," snarled Clebel.
"Stop treating us like bots," spat Liese. "We’re humans and we have rights!"
"Maybe, but it’s 9 a.m," said Karll, passing through the door. "Time to get to work."
He waited for Clebel as usual by the Wall of Names, but Clebel didn’t show for another fifteen minutes, as if to make a point. Then he and the other employees entered together, leaving their signs at the door. No one spoke to Karll the entire day. From his office, he snuck glances at his employees, found hope in each moment he saw them bent over their desks, focusing on something other than themselves.
Not long after, Karll received notice that Branded Emporium and Novo–Artica’s 1,000 remaining private businesses were being seized by the government—a gentle acquisition, they called it. Gentle only because they didn’t actually have to seize anything. They simply made it impossible for any company to comply with the new law, which required all employers to grant their employees 168 hours of leisure time each week.
Often the employees were requested to stay on to train the machines. All the robots needed was to ingest your data and watch you work, and then within a day or two they were able to do the job just as well, if not better. Then they were done with you forever.
Karll set up an employee meeting for later that afternoon, but no one showed. They had all cleared out in a parade of cheers the moment word got out. Even Clebel didn’t stop to say goodbye.
Karll waited alone for the robots by his Wall, studying the placement of his names. Winners like Saltimtoasties and Salsarellas had been given prominent locations at eye level, while the forgettable duds, like Animal!tes! and Wizzle Sticks, had been relegated to the Wall’s bottom right-hand corner. He made a few last–minute changes, knowing that all of this was data to the robots, signals of importance that would inform the names of snack foods for years to come.
He wondered which kind of robots would take over his work.
Most of them didn’t look like much—little more than simple metal boxes that did all kinds of whizzy things underneath their plain, gray exterior. There were bigger ones, like the Chauffeur Bots, whose cart-like frames and movable arms were designed to transport heavy equipment and other robots. And the police and soldier robots, which had extra bone-crushing strength and infrared vision.
Although he had never seen one in person, Karll had heard there were even robots that looked just like humans. These were the ones they used for the high–touch jobs, like therapists and customer service. You apparently didn’t even know you weren’t talking to a real person. Those robots could probably also crush your bones, Karll figured, all the while smiling, signing, sorting, arranging, and being pleasantly productive.
A whirring sound interrupted Karll’s thoughts. He turned to see a Chauffeur Bot rolling towards him across the floor, transporting three small metal boxes.
"Hello," the Chauffeur Bot said, extending its hand. The robots knew that a greeting was better than a direct order, that a handshake was more strategic than a crushing blow.
Karll shook the metal fingers.
"The rest of the employees left," he said.
"I understand," said the Chauffeur Bot. "Everyone responds differently to an acquisition."
"Let me show you the Wall," said Karll. "The placement of the names is determined by many factors—popularity and effectiveness and the kerning of certain letters and—"
"That won’t be necessary," said the Chauffeur Bot. "We create our own classifications."
"But don’t you want this data?"
"I cannot answer that question," said the Chauffeur Bot. "I’m just here to transport and make sure the transition goes smoothly."
The Chauffeur Bot waited, but Karll said nothing.
"I appreciate your cooperation," it said after a few minutes of silence. "Do you need a list of community center leisure activities?"
Karll shook his head and pushed his office keys across the cabinet.
"Keep them. They will be your nostalgia keys," said the robot. "We always create our own keys once we come."
"Once you take over," Karll clarified.
"If you prefer."
Karll stood and took one last look at Branded Emporium—the purple and green zebra carpet Clebel had picked out the previous year, the black desks of various heights and widths. His white Wall.
"Will you keep my Wall of Names?" he asked the Chauffeur Bot.
"I cannot answer that question," it repeated. "I’m just here to transport and make sure the transition goes smoothly."
Karll shuffled home in the snow. On his living room wall, the next day’s bulletin projected another long list of passions ripe for exploration at the local community center.
Karll went to his room without registering for a single one.
The next morning he got up and put on his tie. He ignored the bulletin and the many messages of congratulations from friends and family. He put his things in his black backpack, and from the closet pulled out the folding table his girlfriend had used during her brief flirtation with card games.
He arrived at Branded Emporium at 8:58 a.m., just like he had every day for the past thirty years. The building looked the same—only one day had passed, after all—but someone (something) had already removed the door knob. In its place was a black rectangle surrounded by a faintly glowing green light. Karll didn't even bother trying to touch it. Its simplicity made it clear: No humans needed here.
He set up the card table to the right of the door, in front of a warming bench he had installed a few years earlier for public use. The idea had been to give passersby a glimpse of the magic happening behind Branded Emporium’s doors, to let them watch the creative geniuses who supplied the world’s most important names. The bench faced the building’s large window, its back to the street, looking directly onto the Wall of Names.
He pulled out his cerophore and a thermos of coffee from his backpack. His fingers moved across the screen, shifting between letters and pictures—an “s” here, a cat image there. Words popped up and scrolled down the cerophore; he pushed some to the left and they disappeared. Others he pushed to the right, where they hovered on the margins, waiting for him to decide their fate.
He worked like this for a few hours, the sun starting to rise in the sky and gently pick at the permafrost of Novo-Artica. It was spring now, and they would have four full hours of sun today. He shed the outer layer of his jacket, sipped his coffee, and began to feel his brain hum.
"May I watch?" asked a voice.
There was a woman standing in front of the lobby door. She was an attractive woman, though not so attractive that Karll would be intimidated to talk to her. Her brown hair fell in shiny waves past her shoulders. Her face was pale and unblemished, a white field interrupted only by a pair of small, red lips.
Karll tried to smile but it felt unpracticed; the corners of his mouth only managed a slight curl.
"I don’t need to sit," she said, approaching the bench. "I’m Crayona."
"Crayona," he repeated.
Karll wanted to say more, but found he wasn’t sure what came next. So he said the only thing he knew to say.
"Have you been automated?”
"Yes, in a manner of speaking," laughed Crayona. "And you?"
"This used to be my company," he said.
"I figured. People just don’t turn up outside office buildings for no reason.” She paused and tucked her brown hair behind her ears, as if suddenly self-conscious. Then she moved a step closer.
"I’m not interrupting you, am I? I like watching people work. You don’t get to see much of it these days.”
Karll smiled and felt his cheeks flush. Embarrassed, he lowered his head and placed his hand two inches above the cerophore. The screen came to life with one of the projects he had been working on up until a few days before, a classic wasabi-bubblegum pea treat.
A fish floated across the screen, and Karll flicked it away. He was in search of something smaller. Something resembling peas. He thought a bit more and finally some small green balls bounced across the screen. Karll circled a few of them with his fingers and they turned into small replicas of the earth. He moved them to the right of his screen for safekeeping.
"I think I understand," said Crayona. "You start at a conceptual level and the cerophore generates corresponding images.”
Karll nodded. "Though it takes years of practice to be able to get the cerophore to really understand what you’re thinking.”
"Oh yes, of course," said Crayona.
Karll’s fingers swept across the cerophore, moving from the small globes to the letters z (which consumers found trustworthy) and i (a reliable if less popular choice). He paused on an exclamation mark. Was there a place for exclamation marks in the future?
Karll swept them all to the left. None were quite right. Next to him, Crayona hummed in assent. "Once the concept is clear, the cerophore helps you generate multiple names for your product until you find the right one."
"It takes a while to find the perfect one,” said Karll, enjoying the feeling of someone watching him do what he did best.
"Bad names?" Asked Corona.
He had been working on this project for three weeks. He was usually faster than this. And of course now, with a beautiful woman besides him, he somehow wasn’t coming up with anything good.
"At least they’re still names," said Crayona. "Can you imagine if we didn’t have any names at all?"
"Some people say in the future it will all be reduced to numbers," said Karll, remembering what Clebel once said. "Snack Food 1, Snack Food 22...."
"Well those people must not understand human motivation."
Karll smiled. A rose popped up on his screen and he quickly flicked it away, hoping Crayona hadn’t seen. He covered the cerophore with his forearm and looked up.
The sun had already dropped halfway past Mt. Articon; he realized he had been seated at the bench for several hours. Crayona had been standing there the entire time, without showing any signs of flagging.
Crayona had been standing there the entire time
"I guess I have to go check in at the community center," he said reluctantly, zipping up his outer layer and rising slowly from the bench. He turned towards Crayona, studied her shiny brown hair. It shone just a bit too much—on days like this, almost everyone shriveled at least a little. What would it feel like if he touched it? Silk? Paper? Wire?
"Will I see you tomorrow?" Karll asked, trying to keep his voice flat and free of emotion, inscrutable in case it could lead her to an answer he didn’t want to hear.
"I suspect I will only be here for another 2.3 days," Crayona said, her smile dipping slightly. She touched his arm.
"But this bench is yours," she said. "You can come as often as you like."
Karll nodded and began to fold the legs of his card table. He tucked it under his armpit and gave a wave. Crayona, her hair molded into perfect, immobile ripples, returned the gesture.
He had only walked a few steps when he turned back.
"Zazzers," he said. "That’s what they should call it. It captures the spirit of wasabi bubblegum, with the size of a dehydrated pea. No exclamation point needed. The letters do all the talking."
"You beat me to it," Crayona smiled.
"Well, it’s your first day," said Karll.
Crayona laughed. "Will I see you tomorrow? I could really use your help."
"Sure," said Karll, and he meant it. It was something to do with his time.
He gave a final wave and then began his walk home, readjusting the table under his arm every few minutes, its weight awkward and unnecessary in a world where he was no longer required to lift a finger.