The Little Blue Light in the Dark
A few years ago I was sitting by the pool at a friend’s house — actually her sister’s house, but that’s by the by. It was a hot, clear deserty day — a photo I took that day shows A. and the friend in the foreground, with a large cactus in the background. As we sat there, a small robotic pool cleaner was roving about the bottom and sides of the pool, hoovering up pool-crud. And I was completely captivated. I sat there far longer than was entirely necessary, watching the thing, and never got tired of it. You might imagine that there aren’t too many homes in Britain with swimming pools, and you’d be right. So I’d never seen one of these adorable beasts before. But something more than just novelty was going on here.
I have this thing about machines. Not just any machines, though. It’s very specific. I mean, I’m devoted to my PowerBook, but it doesn’t quite qualify. There’s a class of machine that very quietly and efficiently performs a repetitive and/or lonely job. I feel, towards machines of that type, something that I can only think of as affection, in a weirdly anthropomorphised sort of way. It makes me happy to know that they’re busily going about their business, keeping things moving along, without praise or fault. We run a little wireless network in our apartment. Both the AirPort Base Station which acts as the router, and the DSL modem, qualify. They’re on all the time, quietly blinking away to show that all is well. And it makes me happy to know that they’re there. But here’s a thing. A few days ago I cleaned out a large closet that’d become a bit of a dumping ground for un-unpacked boxes while we were moving, and put our laser printer and the AirPort and modem in there, to hide all the spaghetti cabling. And I now oddly feel greater affection for them, which I can only imagine is to do with the fact that they’re now stuck away in a lonely, dark place, still cheerfully keeping our net running freely. I feel like peeking into the closet every now and again to see if they’re okay. Not to see if they’re working, you understand — I can do that from my PowerBook — but to see if they’re okay, that they feel valued and appreciated.
Doesn’t need to be anything so high-tech, either. When we moved into this place, a couple of power sockets in the kitchen and bathroom had little emergency light things plugged into them. They’re very simple. A light-sensitive doodad on the front detects when the light in the room is low, and turns on the small blue emergency light. It’s not very bright, but it’s enough to make sure that you don’t walk into things on your way to wherever. And I think they’re quite adorable, and feel affection towards them. Thanks, guys, for being on watch every minute of the day or night. How selfless of you to watch over us like this. Appreciate it.
Obviously this is some sort of category error. Machines don’t get tired or lonely. They’re not afraid of the dark. But still, my feeling of affection towards them for doing tireless, lonely jobs doesn’t need to be rational to exist.
And I’m reminded of the most tireless, lonely job that we’ve ever asked a machine to do: to sail away from the Earth towards other planets. Even further, beyond our vast but cosy-on-a-universal-scale solar system, into the depths of, if not nothingness, then very-littleness-indeed. Some are decades old already, yet still they quietly do the job we asked them to do. It’s endlessly endearing. It’s one reason why the end of Silent Running is quite so affecting. It’s not that the humans are gone, or that this is the last (so far as we know) oasis of greenery in the universe. It’s that the little robot is finally alone, yet still puttering away keeping things going. Not for anyone in particular, and with no end in sight. It’s just what he does, so he keeps doing it. It’s also why the central idea of the first Star Trek film works so well. Not the film as a whole, which has its moments but has the pacing of continental drift, but the central idea: that one of these lonely probes might actually find some companionship out there in the blackness, and then wake up to wonder what its purpose might be. It’s actually a idea that’s reassuring, because what would the alternative be? That the probe is driven mad by eternity, or that it dies a slow death, alone in the dark?
Anthropomorphism. It’s what we do. Sometimes it’s our little blue light in the dark.