Mrs. Jones’ alarm clock rings at 6am. Not that she really needs it. She just figures if she doesn’t keep some degree of a routine, she will lose her mind completely. She doesn’t have anywhere to go now that she has been laid off from her job as a middle school teacher for six months. School budgets, which have been cut every year for generations, were cut so much this year that most schools couldn’t afford to stay open. Instead, administrators all across the country decided to take an “innovative approach” to education, selling the buildings and conducting k-12 education entirely online. Most teachers were laid off because online, one teacher could handle hundreds of students, rather than the 30-students per teacher limit for in-person classes. This generally meant only one teacher was needed per grade level, and typically the younger teachers were chosen for this job. Mrs. Jones now looks back with regret at all the times she complained about having to go to work. She would do anything to have her job back now. She feels as though her days have no purpose anymore. At least she is fortunate that Mr. Jones still has a job in sales, one of the few positions where the human touch is still preferred so she is not dependent on meager welfare checks like so many of her friends and neighbors. It is disheartening to her that some wealthy people resent the higher taxes necessary for all these welfare checks, but since no one adequately foresaw the unemployment crisis that uncontrolled automation would cause, there was really no other option but to send welfare checks.
After a quick shower, she dresses in casual clothing suitable for lounging around the house or exercising, and then she shuffles into the kitchen where her coffee pot, set on a timer, has coffee hot and ready for her. She pours herself a cup, along with a bowl of cereal, milk and fruit which a drone delivered yesterday. An hour later, she hears Kelly, her fourth grade daughter wake up and pour herself a bowl of cereal before retreating to her room to complete her lesson modules for that day. If she stays on task, this should only take an hour or two, but she will often get distracted by friends messaging her on social media, causing it to take more like four hours to get her lessons done. Mrs. Jones knows she probably should get after her to stay on task, but decided this is an unnecessary battle. After all, what’s the hurry? Kelly doesn’t have anywhere to be until her private art, gym and music classes the Jones’ are fortunate to be able to pay for at a community center from 4:00 to 7:00 each day. Politicians didn’t see value in these things, so the compulsory education online consisted of the standard academic subjects of English, Reading, Social Studies, Science and Math. It was up to parents to pay for extras like foreign language, fine arts and gym. And sadly, the Jones’s realized that although they encouraged Kelly to study hard, and chastised her for bad grades, they knew that if the current trend continued, it was unlikely she would find a job and thus a purpose for her life either. She could learn writing, sales, or robot repair, train to be a police officer, apply to medical school or law school to try and get a job as a highly specialized doctor–routine checkups can be done using a phone app, putting most primary care providers out of work–or a lawyer that handled complex litigation better than a robot, at least for now. But the massive unemployment crisis has created such competition for these schools and the financial aid necessary to afford them that Mrs. Jones would not have been surprised if a study came out that you had better odds of winning the lottery than getting your child into one of these schools.
Mrs. Jones reads the usual morning news online while sipping her coffee, then puts her dishes in the dishwasher and proceeds to check her e-mail, chat with some of her own friends online, and then make sure that all bills have been paid and accounts balanced online. She is in no hurry either, so just like Kelly, she doesn’t care if she gets distracted by a cute photo or video someone shared.
Around 10:00, Mr. Jones comes home. He is done with his sales calls and now just needs to do some documentation online before his work is done. After brief pleasantries, Mrs. Jones leaves Mr. Jones to finish his work, but asks him to check on Kelly periodically, not that he would really need to. Kelly is so hooked to her computer screen she probably wouldn’t have even noticed if she was left home alone. Mrs. Jones steps outside and opens the taxi app on her phone, clicks a button to order a cab, and thirty seconds later, a driverless car pulls up. As always, the car takes her to her local health club. There, she will spend the first hour lifting weights and doing cardio on an elliptical machine. Sometimes she wonders why she even bothers to exercise, as she has nothing to exercise for. Her friends don’t even get together for reunions anymore because no one can afford to travel and they keep so up-to-date on social media that no one sees a point in the hassle of planning in-person gatherings anymore. But she still exercises every day because, if nothing else, it helps to pass the time. She will then spend another hour in the swimming pool, doing water aerobics per video instruction.
After that, hungry for lunch, she orders the taxi to pick her up again, and it takes her to a deli where she uses an iPad at the counter to order herself and Mr. Jones soup and salad, and Kelly her go-to favorite of a grilled cheese and tomato soup. All of these items are made and delivered to her by a robot. She picks up the bag of food and heads back out to the waiting taxi which takes her back home. Lunch is eaten in silence, as Mr. Jones finishes his work and Kelly stares zombie-like at her phone screen, occasionally giggling at something funny a friend posted. Mrs. Jones knows she should take the phone away during meals, but decided it’s just not worth the fight and besides, life is so mundane and purposeless now there is nothing they would talk about anyway, even if phones were banned. At least for Kelly, phones are banned during her music, gym and art classes, where professionally trained staff know how to awaken the students from their zombie-like state. It occurred to Mrs. Jones that after these classes, Kelly is more exuberant and alive than the rest of the day. Mrs. Jones wishes she could break her family free of the grip the screens and robots have on everyone, but the structure of society doesn’t make this possible.
After lunch, Mr. Jones leaves to get his exercise, while Mrs. Jones puts in a load of laundry. She doesn’t have to sweep, mop or vacuum, as a robot is programmed to do that while they sleep. Between loads of laundry, she continues to alternate between chatting with friends and reading a book on her phone, while her daughter goes outside with her phone and plays a scavenger hunt app that uses GPS coordinates to locate things like fairies and gold coins, on her block, all the while chatting with friends playing the same game on their streets.
At 3:30, Mrs. Jones texts her daughter ordering her to come in and get ready for her evening classes, and promptly at 3:50, Kelly will order a taxi from her phone to take herself to class. Occasionally, Mrs. Jones will go with her daughter and watch what Kelly is learning with other parents through a window. But she doesn’t do this every day because she wants to give Kelly space and a sense of independence, so today she waves goodbye to Kelly’s cab and turns on the television to watch a mindless talk show, until Mr. Jones gets home and asks if he can watch a football game. Mrs. Jones agrees. She is not as interested in football, but frankly, she is really not interested in anything that is on television these days, so she is happy to mindlessly peruse social media while he watches the game. At 6:30, realizing that Kelly will be home soon, Mr. Jones pulls out some frozen chicken, pre-made mashed potatoes and a can of green beans, more food that the drone delivered as part of their weekly grocery subscription yesterday. He preheats the oven and gets the potatoes and beans ready for the microwave.
At 7:15 or so, Kelly bursts excitedly into the house, chattering nonstop about all the fun she had at class today. Mom and Dad are happy deep down, but Dad is focused on a football play, and Mom is reading another news story about a national debt crisis that social programs have exacerbated, and how elected officials are at a loss of what to do, when she knows all that is really needed are jobs. Sensing that both parents are pre-occupied, she quietly wolfs down dinner and then races up to her room to chat with friends about the classes on social media.
At 9:00, Kelly’s phone and computer are programmed to shut off, so Kelly will go to bed. Her parents will watch one more hour of television before retreating to bed themselves. At 10:00, Mrs. Jones rouses Mr. Jones who has fallen asleep on the couch and they get ready for bed. Before bed, they both check their phones one more time and see an automatic reminder to take their depression medicine. As Mrs. Jones gulps it down with water, she is ashamed that she is depressed. After all, they are blessed not to be affected by the poverty so many of their friends and neighbors are dealing with, and robots have made life so efficient and easy. But as Mrs. Jones crawls into bed and turns out the light, she realizes that is precisely the problem. It was the struggle of getting up every day to deal with middle school kids in-person, then stop at a brick and mortar grocery store after work and come home exhausted yet still have to cook dinner, clean the house and help Kelly through the drama that a full day of in-person interaction with peers and teachers created, it was precisely these struggles that made life interesting. She realized that she even missed driving. She ordered her first self-driving taxi the year before Kelly was born, and was so enamored with the convenience of it, and the improved safety since she learned most car accidents are caused by human error, that she never looked back. But now she even missed the road rage from other drivers, the speeding tickets, and the social interaction with the car repairmen or gas station attendant. As she crawled into bed and made sure her phone alarm was set for another day that would be just like today, she realized that what she needed was not depression medicine, but a return to some of the struggles of life that automation took away, because we need a sense of purpose and struggle to feel alive.