by Morris J. Marshall
It’s still not too late to back out, I thought while changing into a pair of black dress pants and a white short-sleeved shirt. My palms were sweating profusely, my throat felt like sandpaper when I swallowed and my head was pounding. It was six-thirty in the evening and my best friend, Alex, was on his way to pick me up. The meeting would start in half an hour. “You’ll enjoy it,” he’d said on the phone the previous evening. “It’ll get your mind off of your troubles. Just think of it as meeting some nice people, friends you haven’t met yet. That sort of thing.”
A car horn honked outside. I could still back out. I could tell Alex I’d contracted a communicable disease in the last half hour, one that’s capable of wiping out a whole town. If that failed, I could tell him my Aunt Martha just called from the airport. She’d arrived in town unexpectedly and needed help lugging her four suitcases back to my place.
Sighing, I checked my hair in the bathroom mirror, gave it a customary pat and swipe. A little hairspray to keep it down.
Another longer horn honk sounded.
I’m coming, I’m coming, I thought. A warm gust of summer air brushed my face when I opened the front door to my apartment and shut it behind me. I winced at the bright light of the evening sunset that flooded my eyes. I hadn’t been out much since losing my job seven months before.
Robots can do a lot these days: producing cars on an assembly line, home cleaning, even teaching. After earning an advanced accounting designation in my mid-20’s, the last thing I expected was to be replaced by “Deep Blue” at age fifty.
There had been rumors about my demise a few months before it happened. The company was looking into a new line of life-like androids capable of complex mental functions. In my own mind, computers played chess against Grandmasters. They didn’t do accounting. If I was going to be replaced by anyone, it would be a Millennial with a hipster beard, a man bun and a penchant for numbers.
“What took you so long, Mark?” Alex asked as I slipped into the passenger seat of his car. “Having second thoughts?”
I smiled. “Who, me? I’ve been looking forward to this all day.”
“I know how you feel,” Alex said. “The first night’s always the hardest, but you’ll make friends quickly.”
“Just remember that we’re all in the same boat.”
After a twenty-minute drive, we turned off the main street into a small parking lot. We got out of Alex’s car, climbed a set of stairs and went through a glass door that led into a spacious lobby. Coffee, tea and baked goods had been laid out at one end of a table covered with a red and white table cloth. At the other end, a heavyset, red-faced man greeted arrivals with a handshake and friendly smile. “Jim Wilson. Welcome,” his nametag announced.
“You’re new,” he said, looking up at me. “Could you please fill this out?” He handed me a pink form. It asked for standard information such as Name, Address, Person Who Brought You and Time Unemployed.
After filling it out, I handed it back and joined Alex inside the meeting room, which resembled a church sanctuary. He waved me over to one side of the hall where four people congregated. “Mark, I want you to meet some of my friends.” Alex went around the circle, introducing me to Phan, Glenda, Eddie and Bill.
Glenda, the youngest of the four, had worked as a cashier in a grocery store until four weeks ago. The store had laid off two cashiers after investing in a self-checkout machine.
“We’ve all been through it,” Bill said. “I was an Economics professor for almost twenty years before a life-like android replaced me. Not only was it better-looking, but it was apparently more entertaining. On top of that, androids don’t require an income, and they don’t take summer vacations.”
“True,” I replied, looking around the room. A tall bearded man with long brown hair in a ponytail was testing the mike on stage. People had already seated themselves near the front.
“It doesn’t seem right, does it?” Alex said. “A person works hard their entire life and loses their livelihood through no fault of their own. Soon no one will be working. We’ll have a workforce comprised entirely of robots.”
“They’ll still need people to oversee and service the bots,” I countered.
Alex shook his head. “That won’t make up for the loss of jobs. The very act of working gives people a sense of dignity and meaning in life. Once that’s taken away, what’s left?”
“Let’s sit down,” I said. “I think they’re about to start.”
The bearded guy on stage approached the mike. “Test... one, two, three. Test. Would everyone please quiet down?”
The drone of conversation melted away. Jim Wilson got up from the table in the lobby, closed the meeting room doors and sat down at the back of the hall.
“Welcome, everyone, to our weekly support meeting for technologically displaced workers,” said the bearded guy on stage. “I see several new faces in the audience and I’d like to extend a special welcome to each of you. I’m Charles and I’m recovering from being ‘Obsolete.’ This is my first time moderating, so please be patient with me.” He smiled.
“Hi, Charles,” the audience of about forty responded.
“First I’d like to acknowledge Sandra Jones in the front row. She recently got a job as a Code Writer after being unemployed for two years.”
Warm applause erupted in response.
“Before we start our regular meeting,” Charles said, “we have a special guest. Edward Spencer, the Provincial Minister of Labor Affairs, joins us tonight to make an announcement. Would you please give him a warm welcome?”
As people clapped, a tall, stocky man with short brown hair and black rimmed glasses stood up, walked to the front and took the mike. He wore a red tie and a dark blue suit that was slightly too tight for his generous paunch.
“Thanks, Charles. It’s great to see so many people out tonight. In the last five years, the percentage of people who have become unemployed in Toronto due to the introduction of robots has increased from eight percent to 33 percent. I want you to know that we’re working on a policy to help ease the impact of this change.
“Your support group has been chosen for the pilot project of Toronto’s Guaranteed Basic Income for Technologically Displaced People. There are two qualifications: you lost your job due to technological advancement and you must have been unemployed for at least six months. You can sign up online at the Ministry of Labor. Are there any questions?”
Alex raised his hand.
“The cost of living is very high in this city. How much will the annual income be?”
“Thanks for the question,” Spencer said. “It’ll be set at $19,000 per year, slightly above the poverty line for a single person in Toronto. It will also be adjusted annually for inflation.”
“That’s not much,” I whispered to Alex, “especially when you’ve been earning professional wages.”
“Are there any other questions?” Spencer asked, glancing down at his watch.
When there were none, Charles said, “Thank you, Mr. Spencer.”
After the Minister left with his two bodyguards, Charles picked up the microphone. “In spite of the Guaranteed Basic Income, most of us will still seek employment, so let’s start our regular weekly meeting. We’ll review our five-step program for overcoming Obsolescence.”
I turned to Alex. “I’m not sure I should have come. Is it too late to—”
He slapped me on the shoulder. “Relax, Mark. Just give it a chance.”
“Step One is Overcoming Denial,” Charles said. “We must be willing to accept the fact that our skills need updating and stop blaming others for our failures.”
I looked at Alex. “That’s easy for him to say. Mr. Suave and Debonair.”
“Shh. Just listen.”
“Step Two involves realizing that we’re powerless over the natural forces of the economy. We must turn our situation over to our Higher Power, as we understand it, to work it out.”
At that point, I tuned out. What could this Romeo possibly know about the hardship and stress of losing a job? His perfect hair, flawless skin and ivory-white smile. I scanned the hall. The women in the audience were staring adoringly at him.
After Charles finished speaking, a twenty-something lady rose and addressed the crowd. “Hi, I’m Elaine and I’m Obsolete.”
“I was employed at a fast-food place until a few months ago. Half of us lost our jobs due to self-checkouts.”
The group booed. Elaine waited a few seconds before continuing with her story. She’d returned to college and was expanding her technological skills set.
After a few more testimonies, we stopped for a break. While Alex and I drank coffee and munched on sweets, Charles approached us.
“Hi, I’m Mark,” I said, extending my right hand. “I enjoyed your spiel.”
“Thanks,” Charles said. “I’ll be telling my story after break. I’m looking forward to hearing yours.”
Alex patted me on the back. “He’ll be sharing it soon enough.”
I looked at Charles. “I don’t think I could get up there in front of people.”
“Sure you could. Well...I hope you enjoy the second half of the meeting. I’d better get back.”
Alex and I returned to our seats while Charles returned to the podium and reclaimed the mike. “I’m going to tell a little bit about myself for the benefit of any newbies. I happen to know there are some here tonight. I was working at Vision Financial Firm as an accountant for only a month when I lost my job to a robot. That was six months ago.”
Did he just say “Vision Financial Firm”? My Vision Financial? It couldn’t be, yet everything matched: the company, the time frame. How many Vision Financial Firms could there be in Toronto? I had never met my successor, but if Charles’s story was true, he was withholding some crucial information.
“He’s stole my job!” I screamed, rising from my seat.
People turned around.
Alex grabbed my shoulder. “Sit down, Mark! You’re embarrassing me!”
I slipped free and sprinted down the middle aisle to the stage. I mounted the stairs, approached Charles and yanked the mike out of his hand.
“He stole my job,” I told the audience again between deep breaths. “I was an accountant at Vision Financial and I was replaced by an android.” The mike crackled with distortion. Someone’s ringtone went off in the front row. Everyone stared at me as if I’d just dropped my pants and mooned them.
“Get him off the stage!” someone in the audience yelled. “He’s crazy.”
I pointed at Charles. “Look at him. His beard, his smile, his expensive suit. You can’t even tell. He’s fooled all of us. Oh, the irony of having an android lead a group on robot-induced unemployment.”
Charles turned to leave the stage. I dropped the mike, ran after him and swung him around to face me. Although I’ve been a pacifist all my life, I watched in horror as my fist launched forward in a sideways arc and connected squarely with his nose. The “Pock” sound must have been audible throughout the whole auditorium. Groaning, Charles slumped to his knees, both hands rising to protect himself from further blows.
I felt someone grab my arms and pin them behind my back.
“Stop it, Mark!” Alex said. “What in the world’s come over you?”
Behind Alex, two security guards mounted the stage and grabbed me.
* * *
On the third day of isolation in a cell in the Metro West Detention Center, a guard approached me after breakfast and put me in a holding cell until the prison van arrived to take us to court. One of the other prisoners mumbled to himself about being “screwed” because he couldn’t afford a lawyer and had to rely on Duty Counsel. Another man with long, scraggly hair complained about the quality of the food.
Alex was at the back of the courtroom when I entered in the late afternoon. He smiled at me when he saw me. When my name was called forty minutes later, he approached the judge and offered to cover the $300 deposit for my bail.
“You were right,” he said an hour later as we sat in his car outside my apartment.
“Charles. I met a woman at a bar a couple of nights ago who works at your old company. Do you know Clarissa?”
“She was the office manager,” I said.
Alex nodded. “She told me that Charles matches the description of the robot they purchased to replace you. Only his model name was IS37223. One of his processors blew. He refused to obey simple orders and developed an independent streak. They replaced him with another, updated model. He wasn’t kidding when he said he was obsolete.”
“But he was so lifelike—”
“They’re becoming more real all the time. He fooled the entire group. I wonder if you could get a pardon for the assault. I mean, is it even a crime to assault a robot?”
I sighed. “Probably not in Ontario, but I hear people in other countries are fighting for robot rights. It’s unreal. A robot losing his job. He got treated just as badly as I did, and I slugged him.”
“You’re talking about him as if he were human,” Alex said. “Cut yourself some slack, buddy. You were angry. I would have done the same thing.”
“I don’t think I’ll be invited back to the group. I guess that means I won’t get the Guaranteed Basic Income.”
“You’re not missing much, Mark. Who could live off that amount anyway?”
I opened the car door. “Thanks again for bailing me out.”
The air was uncomfortably humid, but it felt good as it brushed softly against my face, a nice contrast to the stagnant stale air of the prison cell.
“Hey, Mark!” Alex shouted when I was halfway up my walk.
I turned around.
“Don’t worry about all that obsolescence crap. You’ll find a better job. I think I might even have a lead for you. I’ll text it to you when I get home.”
I waved at Alex and continued walking toward my apartment with renewed vigor. The sounds of nature, previously unnoticed all those years while I was busy working, burst forth gloriously: crickets chirping in the grass, a whipporwill in a far-off tree, the shrill screech of a crow flying by.
As I reached my front door, Alex honked his horn one last time, a sound which, only days before, had been irritating. Now it was reassuring, a raw expression of human emotion that had become all too rare in today’s mechanized world.
There’s nothing like the support of a good human friend.
Copyright © 2018 by Morris J. Marshall