The Yamako building was like a white plastic knife-blade sticking out of the vast asphalt belly of the single level parking lot, which was speckled with the multi-colored plastic cars owned by the employees. Greg was directed to park in a lot near the back, and was considering his survival chances attempting to walk the distance to the building when a tram pulled up and offered to drive him directly to the front door. He thanked the plastic driver and settled into the plastic seat. The tram pulled out and snaked its way through the parking lot to the building. As it did so, Greg noticed that he was not alone. He thought he was alone, but was startled to discover another man sitting next to him on the tram, surprisingly close, considering that he hadn't noticed him before. The man had average Japanese features, and wore a nondescript suit of unremarkable color and quality. Greg nodded to him, and he nodded back, flashing a perfunctory smile.
“Late for work?” asked Greg. “Or are you back from an early lunch?”
“I do not keep regular hours,” said the man in an even voice. He spoke perfect English, though, without a trace of accent.
Greg suddenly felt sorry for the Japanese men and women who were forced to leave their homeland and live in the comparative slum of any other country they exploited for their corporation's profits. It must be like a slimy hell for them to be surrounded by such human detritus and scum as could be found everywhere else. Greg was surprised by his own thoughts. Then, he looked at himself, and realized that he was such detritus. Greg could feel himself quite at home with the title: Dreg of humanity. Then again, most people were. Greg did not resent the Japanese, though, like some Americans did. He admired them. He envied them, but he did not hate them. They were, after all, only doing what anyone else would have done if they were bright enough to have taken advantage of certain economic opportunities. He was rather ashamed that his own people had failed him so miserably. They had sold the country out, despite vocal protests from fringe elements of society that could see the writing on the wall. They treated America like a kind of commons to be exploited instead of a nation that looked after its own people. When there was nothing left of the wealth of America, they rolled over and apologized for being stupid. By then, of course, it was too late. The Japanese people protected their culture, while Americans diluted theirs until the word 'culture' lost all meaning. With no culture, there was no ethos, no solidarity, no strength, no protection, no economic power.
It is a subtle thing, the disintegration of a people, yet Greg had witnessed it in his lifetime. The process seemed inevitable as the effect of gravity, or entropy. Then again, he sometimes wondered if it was really a natural process that had doomed his culture, or a clever contrivance from the elites in unholy union between corporations and government. In any case, as the culture became more Balkanized, there were fewer cultural norms. Polite society ceased to have a reference for itself: as there were many norms, so the norm became null. Since there are so many different cultures with different needs, everyone cannot be simultaneously happy, and nothing suffices but to rule the lowest common denominator. Diversity, however, ensured that human behavior continued to slip through the hands of the ever-increasingly draconian laws like sand through a child's fingers. Laws are written to account for increasingly erratic behavior caused by the disintegration of norms, until everything was illegal all the time, and nobody could be counted on to know or do what was right, for the concept of moral rightness or wrongness was lost in the sea of buzzing diversity. Only the law was right. If you were not in jail, you were a good citizen. Everything else was moral behavior by default. Who was to say what was right or wrong? Good or evil? Black or white? The System. Thus, the system of laws slowly assumed the mantle of moral and ethical absolute, transferring responsibility from the individual to itself.
A symptom of this decline of individual responsibility was evident in the progression of legal defenses predicated on the diffusion of personal responsibility. Murderers, muggers, and rapists were not responsible for their behavior: they were victims of an unjust social order. People in the legal system did not consider individuals smart enough to avoid spilling hot drinks, eating the wrong foods, or drinking to excess. Instead, corporations were held accountable because they failed to exert enough control over individuals to prevent them from harming themselves. Thus, the transfer of power from the individual to corporations meant a simultaneous shift of responsibility from the individual to the system. The system was supposed to know what was good for its subjects. The system was supposed to take care of all their needs. The system, thus, was responsible. In a sense, the system became human, while human beings became human resources. An abstract THING, such as a corporation, a legal fiction, could therefore be held responsible for making the ethical decisions, while individual people had become something less than human. They had become consumers: cattle to be milked for cash without human dignity, self determination, or civil rights. Greg had seen all this come to pass in his own lifetime. He wondered if the pendulum would ever swing in the other direction.
“Where are you going?” asked the man sitting next to Greg.
“Where are you going?” he asked again.
“Oh, sorry: I was lost in thought. I have an appointment to see Mr. Kenshi, third floor.” Greg had never been on such a long tram ride.
“I am going that way myself. Perhaps I could accompany you.”
“Do you know your way around this building?”
“Intimately,” said the Japanese man.
“Greg Hunter,” said Greg, holding out his hand. The other man did not shake it, but gave a stately nod.
“Sato Shinjiro,” said the man. “You may simply call me Mr. Sato, however, as my first name is probably difficult for you to pronounce.”
“Your first name?”
“Hah! Sorry: my given name.”
The lobby of the Yamako building was immense. It reminded Greg of the Crystal Cathedral he visited once or twice as a kid. The floors were gray tiles, surrounded by high glass windows, held together with a white framework of steel or perhaps PVC tubing. In the center was a large diamond-shaped desk. There was a kiosk nearby with a holovision showing robots doing household chores, rescuing children from burning buildings, and playing chess with Russians. Behind the desk stood a very attractive Japanese woman in a gray suit. Her hair was immaculately braided. She wore a little hat that matched her outfit, complete with silver trim around the edges. She regarded him expressionlessly as he approached the desk, then, as though he had stepped on a triggering mechanism in the floor, her face lit up like a fluorescent light bulb as she smiled a greeting to him automatically.
“Welcome to Yamako corporation,” she said grandiloquently. “May I offer you any services?”
“I'm looking for the elevator,” said Greg.
“This way,” interrupted Mr. Sato. “Follow me.”
“You should follow Mr. Sato,” said the woman. This told Greg a couple of things. It told him that Mr. Sato must be important if the woman at the front desk knew him by name. It also suggested that Greg had better do whatever he said if he knew what was best for him. He did so. Mr. Sato efficiently directed him to Mr. Kenshi's office and left him at the door. Greg knocked and waited for a buzz to be let in. Greg wondered why the security was so elaborate.
Mr. Kenshi's office was small and featureless. It conveyed none of the stark vastness of the lobby on the first floor, or the Zenlike simplicity of the hallway. His desk had a small device that served simultaneously as a computer and a space heater (the second function was considered an undocumented feature of the product). Around it were bits of paper, though there was nothing flammable closer than five inches away from the computer. Greg imagined that Mr. Kenshi may have had personal experiences in the past that reinforced the company safety policies in this regard. He had a small teapot on his desk also, in the shape of a dog. A teacup rested nearby. On the wall behind him was an enormous scroll with beautiful Kanji executed by a master. Greg had no idea what it said, but he could tell it was done with exquisite skill and style.
“Mr. Hunter, please sit down,” said Mr. Kenshi, indicating the chair. Greg sat and tried not to slouch.
“I have been looking over your electronic resume, and I find it most interesting. I would like to ask you a few questions about your job history.”
“OK, go ahead.”
“You graduated in the 95 percentile from UC Irvine, with a triple major in physics, music, and computer programming. Quite an accomplishment. You must have taken twenty four units every quarter to do that.”
“I owe it all to my discipline and unforgiving regimen of caffeine ingestion.”
“Perhaps we should experiment with caffeine at Yamako,” said Mr. Kenshi, apparently trying to make a joke. Greg smiled and attempted a conciliatory laugh.
“It says that you immediately went on to work for Braincom.”
“You were programming for Braincom?”
“I was designing their expert systems, at first, then I went on to code a few AI modules for them.”
“Very impressive. It says you were there only two years.”
“After I initialized the programming strategies, they laid me off and hired programmers from the…ah…global market that could follow my initial direction but for a sixth the cost of American programmers.”
“I see. So you found another job as a programmer?”
“Yes, at Siedler Industries. They wanted someone to do more low level programming. I lasted there for about two months before they laid off the American workers and hired people from India.”
“How unfortunate. That was the last programming job you had?”
“I decided that programming was the wrong career choice, so I decided to go into Information Technology.”
“Yes. So you went back to school?”
“I hadn't even managed to pay off my student loans, but I went back to school for several years in order go get a degree and certification in IT, networking, and computer science.”
“So what happened then?”
“I found a job, but after another year, I discovered that all those jobs had migrated to China.”
“I am beginning to see a pattern here,” said Mr. Kenshi, taking a sip of his tea.
“I tried doing tech support at the Trogant corporation. That lasted for a few months before they exported the jobs to India. This time, I decided to get smart and move to Bombay. I found my job again in India and picked it right up, about a month before they automated the tech support system using an expert machine from Braincom. They laid off all the guys in India, so I guess I wasn't the only one out on that score. So, I went back to school in order to get a teaching degree. I figured: teaching people was a kind of service that would not be outsourced to another country or done by robots.”
“So you taught for a year?”
“Yes. My assumption was incorrect. Within a year of getting my fifth degree, the jobs had all migrated. It was about that point I decided not to go to school anymore. My education could not keep up with the disintegration of our economy.”
“A wise choice,” said Mr. Kenshi, apparently unaware of the irony. “It is much better to leap into a career with no training than to train for a job that will not exist when you finish your training.
“Mr. Hunter, my initial impression of you has been confirmed by reading this resume. You are a unique individual. You seem to live on the cutting-edge of obsolescence, the bleeding edge of oblivion. I do not believe I have seen in a single individual a better indicator of economic trends. Whatever job you seek becomes the next job to go overseas, or to be outsourced or automated. You are like a magnetic compass that always points to the next business opportunity for Yamako.”
“Is that so unique?” asked Greg, rather surprised by Mr. Kenshi's bluntness, or, as he thought of it, lack of autonomic politeness he thought was some kind of genetic trait.
“Not unique in a general way, but unique nonetheless. Millions of Americans are constantly forced to reschool and repurpose their lives, constantly forced to march ahead of the advancing army of automation and cheap labor, but you, Mr. Hunter, seem to hit every single trend precisely at the moment before its complete collapse. It is for that reason we have been watching you with particular interest.”
“We? Who's we?”
“We at Yamako.”
“Ok, I'm getting a little creeped out now.”
“Mr. Hunter: do not think it was a coincidence that I took Spazzo to your place in the subway. We had just developed a robot that could do what you did, and we were quite successful in displacing you.”
“I knew you did that on purpose!”
“Quite so, but you perhaps do not understand why.”
“OK, why? Why pick on me?”
“Because, as I mentioned earlier, you are a leading economic indicator. Your life is the vanguard of economic decline. You are a loser, but you are the pinnacle of losers. You are the epitome of the loser. I'm sorry if my language offends, but I am trying to make you understand your importance to the future of Yamako. By studying you, we have discovered the new market directions and new industries into which we should expand, and we have been fairly successful. Spazzo is proof of that.”
“I think I'm beginning to understand this chaos,” said Greg. “But don't you think you're sabotaging this system you've devised?”
“You say that I am the economic indicator, however, it is your company that has influenced my decisions about what careers to pursue. You're influencing your own predictor, invalidating its predictions. Your company is what has forced me to abandon my career goals. You say you follow me to the next market, but you are pushing me ahead of you. Secondly, if you offer me a job here at Yamako, are you not worried that, given the predictive nature of my job history, that Yamako, itself, will become obsolete?”
“What you have just said, Mr. Hunter, has great wisdom. I will leave these ideas for you to ponder. You seem to know much already, but I cannot reveal any more to you at this time, except that we would like to hire you to teach our robots to do what you do.”
“You want me to teach your robots how to become obsolete?”
“Hehe, Mr. Hunter. That was quite amusing,” said Mr. Kenshi, attempting to appear genuinely amused. “You cannot teach someone obsolescence.”
“Let me try to explain. You seem to have an instinct for pursuing skills that are about to become automated. What we would like to do is have you teach our robots those skills, so that we can better define the market for automation.”
“In other words,” said Greg, “you want to direct the market to define certain skills as obsolete and ready to be automated, and you want me to identify those skills and to get your robots proficient in them so that when the market agrees with your assessment, you'll have a whole workforce of robots waiting to take over the new job niches as corporations follow your lead and lay people off. Is that what you're saying?”
“Mr. Hunter. You have an exquisite grasp of the situation. I am very impressed.”
“That's because my next career choice was to be a human resource manager…like yourself.”
Mr. Kenshi laughed nervously, then fiddled around with his papers while he collected his thoughts.
“I can start immediately,” said Greg, smiling.
Click Here for Part 3--the conclusion of
PLASTIC CHILDREN, by Nigel Strange