Even in the 21st century, housework still sucks. No wonder robot vacuum-cleaners have a certain appeal.
Recently, a robot vacuum came to stay. The idea was I’d try it for a week and then write about how it had changed my life. I was sceptical – but intrigued. Everyone I know who has one is evangelical about them, especially people with kids and pets and busy lives.
Generally I’m a low-key housekeeper, house-proud but not routine-bound, given to sudden frenzies. The kids pick up their rooms, him indoors does the bathrooms, and everyone respects the kitchen spider. We all muck in.
I’m quite fond of the 1970s feminist slogan: “If your housework is done, you’re neglecting the movement”. Vacuuming, however, is my kryptonite. With open-plan indoor-outdoor flow, two kids, three cats, assorted rugs and a hardwood floor, it’s one chore I find I can’t ignore. Gotta suck it up.
So, a miracle contraption that does the hovering and hoovering for me? Living the Jetsons dream! But was it a ridiculous extravagance, or just a logical extension of the 20th century revolution that promised to free us from the daily grind by automating domestic tasks?
Within her lifetime, my nana had graduated from doing laundry by hand to a fearsome agitator with a lethal mangle to a thoroughly modern Gentle Annie. Having raised six children in a state house, including a long solo stint during wartime, she’d earned every precious hour that lovely machine gave her back in retirement.
We take these things for granted now, but it’s still a pleasure, indeed a privilege, to have a device that washes your dishes or your clothes at the touch of a button. One might even murmur a heartfelt “thank you” to one’s electronic staff as one sets them off on their task. I know I do.
True, one still has to unload the dishes, hang the washing out to dry, and put everything away so one can start all over again. But even the most basic appliances add a little luxury to everyday life. Which brings me back to my fancy guest.
A shiny creature with clever whiskers and a stylish home base, it had the air of a beetle or a busy beaver. Equipped with 3D laser scanning like a tiny self-driving car, it was also responsive to voice commands, including at a distance. Imagine being able to phone home and ask someone to do the vacuuming, knowing it would actually get done.
Alas, we failed to connect, literally. And the more I struggled with the Wi-Fi, the more time I had to ponder the fine print. What counted as “personal data”? What else would the bot see while mapping my floors and doing the rounds? Would footage of my fleeing cats end up on the internet?
As I fiddled with the app on my phone, more doubts crept in. Who’d empty the dust, and the dirty mop water? And what about stairs? All that carrying up and down, barriers to prevent a tumble, and it also needed its bottom wiped occasionally. Was this a state-of-the-art cyborg or a plug-in toddler?
Toddlers love to help, but they’re notoriously slapdash on the details and not much use above knee-height. Who’d tackle the cat fluff on the couch, or (thanks, kitchen spider) the bug bits on the windowsills? I doubted my shiny pal would poke its snout out the front door and whisk the leaves off the doormat, like I do when I’m on a roll.
My dander was up. I considered the claim of 95 percent accuracy in ignoring valuables while sweeping up dust. I’m no mathematician, but that suggests one in 20 lost socks or dropped earrings will go up the spout. In which case any time you saved would surely be spent sifting through the detritus by hand to recover any goodies.
With that thought, I was struck by a sense-memory from childhood – of emptying out the humble manual carpet-sweeper. A light and easy tool, the carpet-sweeper was the favoured option for a quick runaround when you couldn’t be arsed getting the whole vacuum-cleaner out. Not smart tech, but not dumb, either.
Packing my too-clever and disobliging guest back into its box, I did a quick search. Sure enough, the carpet-sweeper lives on – at a fraction the price of its flash cyber-cuzzie.
No disrespect to the robot revolution, but I think I’ve seen the future.