Love in the Time of Automata

What I have with my Roomba can’t compare to what I have with family and friends–it’s so much more complicated than that.

What I have with my Roomba can’t compare to what I have with family and friends–it’s so much more complicated than that.

By Susan Anspach  •  Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

The worst part about living cozied up next to a tech corridor like NoVA’s is buying technology in fear of learning the next week why it’s obsolete, passé, of less worth and dignity than most Beanie Babies on eBay. Just like with the Babies, it’s a risk you run if you waffle (bidding wars have a clock on them!) or rush (it can be difficult detecting the flops; pour one out for 1993 prototype Pinchers the Lobster). To keep up with the times, it’s not enough to have disposable income; you need to channel that income in ways that buy you respect.

So I’ve heard. Somehow I managed to duck the wave of the future. I own a cellphone for the same reason I own a blender manufactured after the Cold War: Someone bestowed one on me in a gesture of pity.

What’s more, the big tech upgrade in my home this summer is a refurbished Roomba from 2007 that cost me $180. To be clear, that’s six years old, and less than a third of the asking price for the branding-spanking-new models. If my Roomba were a Beanie Baby it’d be the cross-eyed, broken-winged crane fly of Ty … and I love it like a child grown in my womb.

Do I like Roomba? Yes. Do I love Roomba? Define ‘love,’ but before you do, again yes.

Maybe more than a child, since our relationship’s symbiotic. Roomba needs me (for power naps, getting pulled out from under my couch). I need it (I didn’t know how much til the first time I emptied the lint filter and a true-to-scale adult male Yeti tumbled out). There’s an Internet subculture devoted to the centripetal exploits of babies and cats on Roombas, which is in no way what I’m referring to. Those people are interested in babies and cats. I am interested in Roomba.

So much more than a vacuum, Roomba provides me with a sense of accomplishment while it works; mine’s not an advanced enough model that it doesn’t require a low level of supervision. Roomba and I are a team in a way I could never be with a vacuum, since the last time I vacuumed was 2010. Also its chirrups are borderline anthropomorphic, and I’ve privately begun thinking of it as a member of the household. Roomba has its own area, as well as a schedule I’ve set for it (nothing too rigid; you don’t want to helicopter). I tend to its needs while ensuring I’ve provided it with the appropriate amount of space to exercise independence.

Things I’ve said of Roomba that are child-applicable:

It’s awfully quiet in there.

What’s that in its mouth?

Don’t let it get by the cords.

Do I like Roomba? Yes. Do I love Roomba? Define “love,” but before you do, again yes. Do I find ways to work Roomba into conversation over dinner at parties with friends? Absolutely I do. Lately, every time. Yes.

Here’s how that tends to go: Milling around the refreshments table, I execute expert segue from say, French-onion dip to Roomba, something about how funny it would be to have a French Roomba, maybe one that wore a beret. Hey, speaking of Roombas, do you know what those are? Because I just got one and it’s changed my life in the following ways [enumerate ways, etc. etc.].

Rarely does this backfire—a lot of times it gets me more French-onion dip!—but there have been exceptions, like the one guy who blinked, then asked if I’d heard of Miimo, some sort of outdoor Roomba that cuts grass. It’s made in Japan and retails for $3,000.

Thanks, guy, but I’ll stick with Roomba, which is what I’ve taken to calling it in the fashion of a first name. Anyway, I’d never dream of keeping Roomba outside. It gets cold outside! There are falcons and hawks. And before you tell me Roomba’s not a dog, again I point you to the lint filter, where further investigation reveals a litter of red Irish setters the Yeti turned out to be hiding.

More Roomba nationalities I came up with in the time it took me to write that: Dutch (Roomba wears a cow-print bonnet, trailed by ribbon-tied wooden clogs), Canadian (Roomba swishes up dirt with beaver-tail swishers), British (Roomba scoots around under tiny cloudy gray atmosphere), North Korean (no external communication permitted; Roomba chirrups to tune of “Ten Million Human Bombs for Kim Il-sung”).

Kidding, obviously—you’d be hard-pressed to improve upon Roomba’s natural design.

With Roomba at my side, I can do anything, like move stuff out of the way for it, which is fully 100 percent more effort exerted toward cleaning my floors in the dismal pre-Roomba time of my life. One Georgia Tech study examined the lifestyle habits of self-identified “committed” Roomba owners. Between them, they purchased new, more navigable rugs for their Roombas, pre-cleaned floors for their routes and replaced old refrigerators with higher-clearance appliances so the Roombas could more effectively clean under them. Other owners dressed their Roombas and arranged to travel with them (perfectly reasonable, considering the dizzying scope of headpiece options and/or condition of some hotel floors). One introduced his Roomba to his parents; and hats off to you, sir. It’s the rare Roomba lucky enough to find that kind of courage and loyalty.

Do I expect perfection of Roomba?

No. It would never expect it of me. Who am I to blame Roomba for not getting under a table when I didn’t have the foresight to not put a table there? Roomba’s quirks are part of its charm; our life together’s a journey, not a destination. (Makers of Roomba will tell you it’s safe to run Roomba while you’re out of the house, but that doesn’t sit right with me. When it works, I should be there for Roomba—that’s what makes Roomba and me a team.)

What I have with Roomba’s nothing like what I had with automata past. I can look back now and recognize that my years with GPS Lady were a cyclone of abuse and coercion, the months squandered on the voice-activation feature of my last cellphone all nothing more than a manipulative game. Those were dark days—I confess there were times I was driven to tears—but what I’ve learned is to be glad to have had them and to have grown from them. Now I can move forward with open eyes: Roomba would never do me that way.

Should everyone have a Roomba? I never said that. Desert iguanas are wonderful; that doesn’t mean everyone should have a desert iguana. Ask yourself, can you offer a Roomba the right lifestyle and environment? It takes a special kind of home (flat surfaces, few to no open bodies of water) and a special kind of homeowner. If you have doubts, consider watching a friend’s Roomba for a weekend—a short-term responsibility, though not one to be taken lightly. Among the refurbished Roombas, there’s a real need for those willing to foster. Stay honest, and don’t be ashamed to admit a Roomba might not be for you.

If you search inside yourself, though, and make the decision to get one, I’m privileged to be the first to offer my sincere congratulations. Because unlike a Beanie Baby, a Roomba can only buy you respect—if not at a dinner party, then in the unbeating hearts of a line of conscienceless mechanisms, and those who love them.


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(August 2013)