Thursday, November 8, 2007

Manna and Robo-Burger

Something sort of weird happened. In the comments of this post, one of the people who fairly regularly posts - and I deeply appreciate his posts because he often disagrees with me, but does so intelligently and respectfully, which is the perfect kind of disagreement for me! - and he said this, "I've seen other articles and books on the topic - including a novel/screed by a futurist that posited automation happening first in a fast-food joint and spreading globally at the speed of light. The title escapes me but it's on the tip of my tongue."

The weird thing is, I thought he was talking about me. Several years ago, I wrote a short story called Robo-Burger. You can go read it! It posits that automation starts in fast food and spread rapidly creating widespread social upheaval.

In truth, what Brian was talking about was the online novella Manna. (Calling it a novel is an exaggeration. It's eight short chapters.) It is in part about how automation starts in fast food and spreads rapidly creating widespread social upheaval and a second part that is utopian, the same technology used benevolently. Oh, there are lots of differences, but the similarities were sufficient to make me check to see if the author, Marshall Brain, could have plagiarized me. (The answer is "no". I actually wrote Robo-Burger after he wrote Manna; I wrote Robo-Burger after learning that the US Army was deploying robot soldiers in Iraq back in 2005 and was still struggling with science-fiction writing prior to writing Condotierri. I actually considered Robo-Burger a failure as a story, but you decide. Re-reading it, I liked it reasonably well.)

Now what's interesting to me, and I find this utterly fascinating, is that we both decided that a labor crisis would follow in the wake of fast food automation! I'm really geeking on that! I have been thinking all evening about why we might both come up with so similar ideas. That fast food is symbolic of low wage, low prestige work. That fast food is nigh universal in our society. Fast food would be (and will be) reasonably easy to automate, as it is largely doing a number of easy tasks without creativity or innovation. And, mostly, really, who hasn't had the experience of have your order wrong after dealing with a rude employee in a filthy restaurant? But you're on this schedule, on your own pathetically short lunch break, and it's either eat what's in the damn bag or not eat at all. Who hasn't dreamt of fast food restaurants always being clean and the service always being accurate and friendly?

But I've never been this much, so immediately, part of thinking the same thoughts that someone else has been thinking at roughly the same time! What I am wondering, now, is if fast food chain CEOs are thinking these thoughts about total automation of their restaurants. The problems, even at this point, would be largely engineering; the technology already exists.

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