“Can we see the robot?” one of our daughters asked.
“Sure,” my wife answered.
We were finishing up lunch and I had mentioned I wanted to briefly visit the Stop & Shop to look for something. I had no idea this outlet near our home employed one of those grocery store robots I had seen mentioned online ubiquitously. These slim, monolith grey towers on wheels are outfitted with large googly-eyes as one would a child’s craft. I had heard they were being installed in more and more stores; friends had posted photos of them at their local supermarkets. I had yet to see one in action.
The shopping center at Linden Place and the Whitestone Expressway in Flushing is a zone of cluttered chaos and the logical effluvium of the overcrowded eyesore of the streets nearby. Forgotten New York rightfully calls this part of Flushing “Queens’ Crappiest” for its lack of aesthetics, complete disrespect of historic buildings, and utter incompetence of the design of residential buildings. The shopping center was not long ago filled with crater-like potholes. It has a check cashing establishment and was for a time frequented prostitutes that served truck drivers. I try to avoid this shopping center because of the traffic alone—it’s either accessed by a busy highway service road or a two-lane street that is often busy. My kids love the McDonald’s that is there for some reason; perhaps I have already failed as a father.
The Stop & Shop there is a last refuge of desperation when we are looking for groceries that aren’t found elsewhere. Now I also wanted to see the grocery store robot. These robots are named “Marty.” Stop & Shop supermarkets have deployed them in more them in more than 200 stores to look for spills and hazards. According to Mashable, each robots costs $35,000 and weighs 140 pounds. Also, these robots don’t clean up anything, but just alert people nearby to the fact that there is a mess.
I went looking for the one item I hoped they had: a specific popular baby food pouch that serves as a healthy snack for our youngest daughter. I headed for the baby food aisle while the rest of my family made a bee line for the back of the store where they spotted the robot.
The baby food section was the same mess it was at my last visit and was without the food pouch I was looking for. I scoured again and looked behind every box and envelope to no avail. The robot had not spent enough time in this aisle.
My excited daughters came to get me to show me the robot, which was making its way across the back of the store from where they had first met it near the deli. They ran after it and my wife and I followed.
When my children ran up on the robot again, it seemed to pause to allow us all to gawk at it. Bored shoppers accustomed to the googly-eyed rolling cyborg went about their shopping.
“Hi Marty!” my children thought this thing was great. Maybe you could put googly eyes on a giant steaming people of crap and children will find it convincingly anthropomorphized into a cute friend and want to take it home. The robot slowly moved away from us, not interacting with anyone other than moving out of our way and appearing to look at us with its false, plastic, and unblinking eyes.
New York City seems like a poor choice to send Marty. Our supermarkets are too crowded, and our people in need of work is always plentiful. Also, New Yorkers are more skeptical of gimmicks like this. While little kids got a kick out of Marty the robot, most adults are put off by it.
The supermarket robot is not the coming incarnation of Skynet, the computer system that becomes self-aware and plunges the world into a nuclear holocaust in the Terminator films. It’s pretty underwhelming by itself.
The truly troubling issue with the increasing use of robots is not that technology is marching forward and machines are doing jobs people want to do. It’s that people no longer want to act like people as much anymore.
If society functioned well, customers would report a spill to an accessible employee, who would easily see to it that the spill was cleaned up, or the store would employ enough cleaning staff to make it a pleasurable experience. Instead we’ll gawk at a machine and be on our way.
We are spurning human contact in favor of technology-driven convenience because our human interactions have plunged in quality. That’s not the fault of the machines, that’s our fault.
An annual tradition in our family is to go to Mohonk Mountain House on President’s Day weekend. It’s a tradition started by my wife’s father and stepmother and we are happy to take part in it.
This year Mohonk Mountain House is celebrating its 150th anniversary (called a sesquicentennial if you want to use a big word and impress yourself). As part of its observation of this milestone, the historic resort plans to create a time capsule to be opened in 100 years. They invited all of their guests to fill out postcards to be sent 100 years into the future, presumably to be poured over by historians or glanced at by bemused guests in the next century.
One hundred years ago, much of the Western world was still recovering from the First World War, though no one would have called it that at the time because another 20 years would pass before the next World War would start. World War I was called simply “The Great War,” and Western civilization had not seen anything like it. Technology had helped nations create weapons that had not been used in large scale before and casualties were enormous. In fact, there are still areas of France off limits today because of the plethora of unexploded ordinance from the First World War.
Today our world is not in the after math of a great war but rather adjusting to the dissolution of the world order that was began after the Second World War. We have a new dominant world power in China and the world’s greatest superpower, the U.S., deeply divided. There is no shortage of conflict in the world that is taking a drastic human toll.
The world is still a scary, violent place, just in different ways than it was in 1919. We didn’t have mass school shootings in the U.S. in 1919, but we had a flu pandemic that killed more than 180,000 people. We didn’t have MS-13 gangs, but we still had anarchist bombings and labor and race riots. It’s not a bold statement to say that the world of 2119 will be frightening to the historical researchers who read our Mohonk postcards. Between now and then the world will change dramatically in ways we can’t predict, but human nature and the existence of conflict will remain.
But what is also constant, and what I tried to convey in the card, is that while conflict is never ending, so is hope and the human drive for improvement. As long as people have killed one another and destroyed past civilizations with sloth and greed, they have also constructed new communities and sought out the better angels of their natures.
In the postcard we left for the 100-year time capsule at Mohonk, I wrote to a future that would be as conflicted and fearful as our own. I conveyed to them that now, as will be the case then, people gathered to see the beauty of nature and share good times with the people they loved.
I added our postcard to the gathering mass of missives to the future, hopeful that maybe one of my great grandchildren will be enjoying some time at the Mohonk Mountain House and get to read our note from the past.
It wasn’t too hot when I had a few minutes to catch up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a year. We brought our kids to Francis Lewis Park, where there is a playground with a sprinkler and a view of Flushing Bay and the Whitestone Bridge.
“I don’t know how you own three of these things,” he said as my two older girls played with his son. Our youngest is only a year old and he and his wife have a three-year-old son.
“I don’t either.”
Having children is something that everyone is terrified of but no one regrets. Spending time with your kids is a great thing and you’ll regret not getting in every minute with them. But when they are as young as ours are, it leaves you too tired to do anything else. Many a night began with great plans and ended with me falling asleep on the couch at 10:15 p.m.
At the park our children go different ways in the playground. I don’t mind staying back and sitting down and watching the kids from a distance. You can’t be hovering over them all the time. But the world being the way it is, you don’t want to let your kids out of your sight for too long. A few times I lose sight of one of the girls and I start to get worried looking for her and just before I break out into a fearful disaster sweat she’ll come into view. This happens a few times and it wears you down a bit further.
My friend and I talk music, mutual friends, and the itch to be creative and make music. His son wants to go down to the water, to where there’s a great view of the Whitestone Bridge and a miniscule beach at the end of a small boat launch. I and my two older girls accompany them. We are disappointed by the amount of garbage on the beach and in the water but the view of the bay and the bridge, makes up for this.
One of my girls isn’t wearing any shoes since she was running through the sprinkler in the playground and I don’t think anything of it until we get to the boat launch and see some broken glass there. I curse myself for letting her come down here with no shoes on. On further inspection this turns out to be sea glass—glass that’s been in the water long enough that it’s been made smooth. Sea glass makes for a nice collectible and I tell the girls I will take this home for them to enjoy later. New York City will disappoint you and impress you in quick succession.
A lot of my friends also have kids but I also have many friends who are smart, creative people, the kind of people who should be doing more reproducing, but aren’t. I highly recommend having kids, though I realize it’s not for everyone.
My friend and I talk a bit more, discuss doing music again, what our schedules will look like later this year, and how we have the itch.
The itch, the need to produce art in some form, it never goes away and is a call that has to be answered. Children, jobs, the multitude of tasks one has to perform just to keep a roof over one’s head and the bills paid on time, these will slow you down, but they can’t kill whatever fire drives you to create.