A Boy and His Droid

[CN: apocalypse, starvation, mentions of violence and cannibalism]

Recently my friend Michael Nam posted this drawing he’d made in Other Worlds: A SF/F Community, a group we’re both in, as a writing prompt. After just a brief look at it, a story wrote itself in my head. Here it is.

A drawing of a boy with a large gorilla-shaped robot.

I was alone, completely alone, in the wasteland. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen a human being, but it must’ve been months ago. In the few years since the world fell apart, I had only met a few other people. Most had either tried to kill me for my body and my food, or they had been too weak and close to death to attempt it.

I didn’t have to fight them, though. Atlas, my droid bodyguard, took care of that for me. Atlas was built like the gorillas I had seen in my school texts–big, powerful animals that had lived long ago. He usually walked on his arms and legs, but could raise himself up to swing his massive arms at anyone who tried to hurt me or take my things. Yet his gaze, when he turned it towards me, was gentle and kind. His peaceful presence protected my spirit just as his strength and willingness to use it protected my body.

Before, anyone who could afford it had had a bodyguard like mine. It was the only way to stay alive and whole as our society had teetered, jerking and thrashing, towards its inevitable collapse.

Even though our homes were sealed and protected, hackers always found ways through our security systems. Children were kidnapped and ransomed, adults were more often robbed and killed outright. The smarter hackers figured out how to disable people’s bodyguards. The ones who weren’t so smart tried to fight and destroy them.

Sometimes, though, they succeeded. Desperation is what leads a frail, starving person to attack a 700-pound mass of steel programmed to defend its charge. It can also be what leads them to win.

I wasn’t much interested in other people back then. When I wasn’t attending my virtual classes or doing my homework, I was usually immersed in some game or novel on my headset. In those games I was always a loner, too, exploring a nuclear desert or fighting aliens on a spaceship with no crew. As bad as the world outside of virtual reality got, I never thought it would become so much like my games.

Besides reading and gaming, I spent a lot of time back then tinkering with Atlas. That’s probably what saved my life more than anything. I learned his code, made him smarter and more perceptive. I tried to teach him to think more like a human and less like a machine, to make choices that made rational sense rather than logical sense. I also gave him solar panels, which is how he gets his power now. That’s why he’s the only droid bodyguard left. The rest ran out of juice long ago. He scavenges their parts, now.

Most other children in our community didn’t care much about their bodyguards. They treated the droids as objects that were just there, like any other security system, like a locked door or a set of armor. I don’t think any of them ever learned how to program them. They all called the droids “it,” never gave them names.

The children in my virtual classes ridiculed me constantly for referring to Atlas as “they” rather than “it.” I didn’t understand what was so funny. “They” was the standard pronoun we used for someone who hadn’t told us their gender, and Atlas hadn’t told me his yet. So how else would I refer to him?

Later, one day not long after the collapse, I asked Atlas if he had preferred pronouns. It was evening. Like many evenings, we were spending it sitting quietly in the remains of a building we’d found, trying to conserve our limited and precious energy. Despite the darkness, it was warm. I didn’t know what season it was supposed to be, but it’s always warm now. Atlas and I sat face to face, me with legs crossed and him with legs folded underneath him so he could leap to his feet and defend us at a moment’s notice.

I said, “Do you have pronouns that you like to use for yourself?”

“I have never really thought about that,” he said in the calm, gentle voice he uses when addressing me.

“But aren’t you thinking about it now?”

“Yes, I am now.”

I paused, even though I know that he thinks faster than any human being and had probably finished thinking about it before I’d even asked the second question.

“I will use the pronoun he,” he said after a moment.

And so he became he, to me.

Before the collapse he was a benevolent protector that I valued; after the collapse he became a companion. Once I no longer had the option of talking to other people, I started to want to, desperately. I spoke to Atlas for hours on end about the books I’d read, about the classmates I’d envied, about my parents that I’d respected and feared but never really loved, and now missed wretchedly.

Atlas rarely responded, but he listened. He always looked at me when I spoke to him, his bright blue eyes deeper and more soulful than a piece of machinery should ever be. Although I knew his code well, I understood then that knowing how words translate from one language into another isn’t the same as truly knowing that other language. I couldn’t know what was actually going on inside his processor, what his experience was like, how he felt. I felt silly for even thinking of it in those terms, but I had little else to think about besides my own survival. It took my mind off of things.

The most fundamental piece of a droid bodyguard’s programming is that they will protect their charge and their charge’s belongings. A droid bodyguard will seek to protect the person they’ve been assigned to while causing minimal harm to others, but they will injure, maim, and kill when necessary. A droid bodyguard treats their charge’s belongings as an extension of their charge’s body; they would no more allow someone to take their charge’s belongings than they would allow them to amputate and steal a part of their charge’s body.

If that sounds like an odd analogy, believe me, these things have happened.

They were programmed that way because, as food and water became scarce, defending what belonged to you became equivalent to defending your own life. It’s even more true now than it was before the collapse. If Atlas allowed someone to steal even part of my food, that could make the difference between surviving long enough to find more food, or not.

That’s the part of his programming I’ve never been able to alter, not that I would want to. Humans are not like droids that way. I have seen humans abandon all of their beliefs, all of their most sacred values, when the situation called for it.

Atlas and I spent most of our time walking or resting. There was no sense in staying in the same place once we’d found all the preserved food we were going to find. Sometimes we hunted and killed whatever small rodents managed to survive on whatever limp grass still grew.

I knew that some survivors had scavenged human bodies. I had not done that, not yet. Not because I was disgusted at the thought; I’ve been hungry enough that my disgust had dried up like the last stuttering streams and rivers. I was afraid of the possibility of dying in agony of whatever had killed them.

But with the passing years we were finding less and less food. There wasn’t much to begin with, and what was still left after the collapse had probably been found and consumed by people who were long dead of the diseases and poisons–natural and humanmade–that had consumed them in turn.

I held on, though, and Atlas was still able to get some sunlight despite the smogs. It was always a tradeoff: save energy but go hungry, or spend energy and risk wasting it on a fruitless search.

Despite everything, I kept tinkering with Atlas. It helped me feel like I could still leave my mark on this broken world. Atlas would endure far longer than I would. He didn’t need food, he was immune to sickness, and he could repair himself most of the time. Maybe one day there would be people again, and maybe Atlas would be alive to teach them about us and our mistakes.

Would he miss me?

Over time, Atlas started to speak more, sometimes without my prompting. He often pointed out what he saw as beauty in the world: a surviving dragonfly, a jagged cliff, a pink and purple sunset. Before I had treated the landscape around me as my enemy, as something that I had to defeat anew each day in order to survive. Atlas taught me to see it differently.

He started to tell me stories, too–stories of his time in the factory before he came to me, stories of other droids he had known. I wondered how much of these stories and the emotions in them was something he invented for my benefit; I’d put the code in him, after all. Or maybe he had always held these thoughts, but had been unable to speak them until I gave him the language to do it. I couldn’t know.

But the day I truly knew he had changed into something different was the day we found the person.

It was hot, so hot, although that barely registered anymore. That day there were almost no smogs, and the sun beat down on us as we crossed a wide expanse of dry, dusty earth with the faltering hopes that we’d find something on the other side. We were almost out of food. I hadn’t eaten in three days.

The only reason I believed I might live was because we had found a small pond the day before, and gathered water in plastic bags that we sealed and carried with us now. With water, we might yet make it.

Then I saw something dark a few hundred feet before us. I might have written it off as a log, had there been any trees anywhere near. There weren’t.

I walked faster, Atlas matching my pace with little effort. For me it was excruciating, but I had to see.

As I approached, the shape resolved itself into a small person, no bigger than me, lying on their side on the cracked earth. They were probably about my age, 12 or 13, with dark skin. Their short hair and tattered clothing were dark, too, though the clothes had clearly once been another color. They lay still, but I could see them breathing slowly.

For so long I had dreamed of seeing another person, but now I felt rooted to the ground like a dead tree, unsure of what to do. Should I wake them? Were they sick? Could I help? Would they attack?

I wasn’t sure I could bear the sight of Atlas killing yet another person.

But then Atlas did something I will never forget, not for as long as I live–short as that may be. He reached into my backpack and took out a can of chicken noodle soup, one of our last. He peeled the top off of the can. He slowly extended the can to the crumpled form in front of us, nudging the person gently with the can.

The person on the ground shifted and groaned. They raised themselves up on their arms and looked up. Finally noticing the can, they moved with a speed I hadn’t known they had, snatching the can from Atlas and drinking the soup until it was gone.

I glanced at Atlas. He looked back at me, blue eyes searching, questioning. Did I do the right thing? he seemed to be asking, although he did not speak. How had he done it? How had he taken from me to give to another?

The person on the ground was sitting with the empty can, staring at the two of us. They slowly brought themselves to their feet and closed the small distance between us. They took my hands in theirs and looked down on them as if to reassure themselves that my hands are real, that I am real.

They finally spoke: “I can’t believe I found you. I’ve been looking for you for so long.”

I understood what they meant. I felt such a warmth, then; such relief, such love. I withdrew my hands from the person’s grasp to throw them around their neck in embrace. They wrapped their arms around my waist and we held each other.

How long we stood that way, I could not tell you. But the sun started to fade and fall, and we needed to find shelter from the windstorms that would come. And so we set off together, Atlas’ lumbering form shielding us from the back. I felt a hope that I knew could not be fully rational, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t alone anymore. I had found people.

Two of them.

A Boy and His Droid

Is Passion Necessary?

Lately I’ve been finding the idea that your work should be your passion about as oppressive as the idea that work should be boring well-paid drudgery or that you should pick your career based on what your father and his father and his father’s father did for a living.

I’m not even talking about the fact that only certain fortunate people even have the privilege of being able to choose to do something they love, although that’s also something that the Do What You Love crowd ignores.

I’m talking about the fact that when we accept the idea of your work being your passion, we accept unfair treatment of workers as a reasonable price to pay.

Whenever I mention (in some relevant context) that my field is underpaid, the response is often, “But at least you get to do What You Really Love!” They’ll sigh, and add, “I wish my work actually made a real difference. Instead I just sit in an office and move people’s money around.”

When I talk about the difficulties of living on a low salary and the lack of institutional support for the self-care our employers all patronizingly insist we prioritize, they say, “Well, that’s a small price to pay for getting to Follow Your Passion.”

(Actually, my work isn’t my passion. My passion is reading books and spending time with people I love, but nobody’s monetized that yet.)

I do love and enjoy my work, but I also really get a kick out of being able to pay off my student loan debt, take the occasional vacation, be allowed adequate time off to do all those Adult Things that can only be done during business hours, have my own apartment, and not worry about money all the time. That would really be fulfilling. You could almost say I have a passion for it.

The idea that Your Work Should Be Your Passion seems empowering on the surface. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone could get paid to do something they really love? How great would it be if you could spend most of your day actively making the world a better place, or whatever it is you care about most?

But if your work is your passion, then it won’t matter so much that it doesn’t pay that well…right? If your work is your passion, you might want to miss your kid’s sports game or musical performance so that you could stay a few hours late and keep working. And if you want to, surely it’s not too much to expect you to.

If your work is your passion, but suddenly you’re asking to work remotely or part-time because you just had a baby, maybe you’re just not that into your work anymore and your job should go to someone who’s more passionate.

If your work is your passion, then “attitude” matters more than actual competence. “Passionate” people are more fun to work with and we assume that they’ll be more dedicated to their job, so we hire people who are “a good fit for the company” rather than people who have a proven record of getting shit done.

Which leads into the other way that this emphasis on passion becomes counterproductive and ultimately harmful: the idea that “passion” is ultimately the reason people succeed.

Erik Devaney breaks this myth down in his article about passion and work:

Ultimately, the role passion plays in a person’s success depends on the context of that person’s unique situation.

For some folks, the road to success is smooth and straight, and being smart and hardworking and passionate can help those folks travel down that smooth and straight road even faster.

For others, the road to success is full of hurdles and potholes, and even if they’re just as smart and hardworking and passionate as the folks on the other road, they’ll never be able to catch up.

Life, as we all know, isn’t fair. But that doesn’t mean that the folks with the unfair advantages get to decide how everyone else thinks and feels.

Besides the fact that people with relatively little privilege face roadblocks that no amount of passion can overcome, this idea that passion is what makes for success also masks the often massive amount of practice and skill-building involved. And that, ironically, is easier to do than to force yourself to feel passionate about something you’re just not passionate about. Changing behavior tends to be easier than changing feelings, and pretending that your feelings are other than what they are can be counterproductive. Ferrett writes:

“Look,” I said.  “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay in better touch with your friends.  But what you’re doing is this fucked-up equation where you go I miss my friends == I need to use the Internet == I want to use the Internet.  And because you think the only way to do something is to be the sort of person who wants to do it, you’re psyching yourself up to be something you’re not.”

“…this is like the way you hate exercise, isn’t it?”

“Fucking loathe it.  Went for a hard twenty-minute workout on the elliptical this morning.  Hated it every step of the way.  I realize I hate exercise so much I literally have to do it right after I wake up, because if I hold off until my brain comes online I’ll manufacture good excuses why I don’t have to work out all day.   I can only get exercise because I’ve acknowledged that I fucking hate doing it.”

You can, in fact, do things you’re not passionate about–even things you dislike–in order to achieve something you do really care about. You may not be passionate about playing scales on the piano for hours, but you’re passionate about the beautiful music you’ll create as a result. There’s no point in obscuring the fact that becoming a talented pianist requires more than just PASSION, but also a lot of rather boring hard work.

Many people would argue that if you don’t enjoy doing something, you shouldn’t choose it as your job. But that comes from the idea that Work = Passion and that things you’re not passionate about can never be things you’re good at and would be satisfied doing for money so that you can spend that money doing the things you are passionate about. In fact, the entire concept of being satisfied with your job rather than LOVING your job seems all wrong.

But it’s not. I know people who have pretty boring but acceptable jobs, who then go home and enjoy not worrying about putting food on the table. Instead, they do their hobbies, take vacations, spend time with their families, and donate to causes they care about.

The problems endemic in our approach to work were not caused by the idea that passion is mandatory, nor will they be fixed by taking a more reasonable view on passion’s role. (And they won’t be entirely fixed by better vacation policies or workplace discrimination laws, either.) Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

However, it pains me to see progressive folks perpetuating the myth that passion should be central to work. That makes it too easy to disregard unfair, exploitative, or even abusive working conditions. It asks people to accept receiving less than a living wage because getting to do What They Love ought to somehow make up the difference.

Loving my job doesn’t pay the rent. Loving my job won’t help when my job has taken over my life to such an extent that I can’t care for myself. Even if I love my job, it’s not the only thing in the world that I love.


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Is Passion Necessary?

What We Can Learn From the Reproducibility Project

I have a new piece up at the Daily Dot about the Reproducibility Project and why psychology isn’t doomed.

The Internet loves sharing psychology studies that affirm lived experiences, and even the tiniest ticks of everyday people. But somewhere in the mix of all those articles and listicles about introverts, extroverts, or habits that “make people successful,” a debate still lingers: Is psychology a “real science?” It’s a question that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Last week, the Reproducibility Project, an effort by psychology researchers to redo older studies to see if their findings hold up, discovered that only 36 of the 100 studies it tested reproduced the same results.

Of course, many outlets exaggerated these findings, referring to the re-tested studies (or to psychology in general) as “failed” or “proven wrong.” However, as Benedict Carey explains in the New York Times, the project “found no evidence of fraud or that any original study was definitively false. Rather, it concluded that the evidence for most published findings was not nearly as strong as originally claimed.”

But “many psychology studies are not as strong as originally claimed” isn’t as interesting of a headline. So, what’s really going on with psychology research? Should we be worried? Is psychology a “hopeless case?” It’s true that there’s a problem, but the problem isn’t that psychology is nonscientific or that researchers are designing studies poorly (though some of them probably are). The problem is a combination of two things: Statistical methods that aren’t as strong as we thought and a lack of interest in negative findings.

A negative finding happens when a researcher carries out a study and does not find the effect they expected or hoped to find. For instance, suppose you want to find out whether or not drinking coffee every morning affects one’s overall satisfaction with their life. You predict that it does. You take a group of participants and randomly assign half of them to drink coffee every morning for a month, and the other half to abstain from coffee for a month. At the start and at the end of that month, you give them a questionnaire that assesses how satisfied each participant is with their life.

If you find that drinking coffee every day makes no difference when it comes to one’s life satisfaction, you have a negative result. Your hypothesis was not confirmed.

This result isn’t very interesting, as research goes. It’s much less likely to be published than a study with positive results—one that shows that drinking coffee does impact life satisfaction. Most likely, these results will end up gathering figurative dust on the researcher’s computer, and nobody outside of the lab will ever hear about them. Psychologists call this the file-drawer effect.

Read the rest here.

What We Can Learn From the Reproducibility Project