Love, Death & Robots is back for a second season, and while I have not seen any evidence that Netflix is presenting the episodes in different orders for different people as they did with Season 1, I still have some hesitance in referring to “Automated Customer Service” as the first episode of Season 2. Regardless, the episode (directed by Meat Dept and based on a short story by John Scalzi) features a relatively simple story wherein an older woman named Jeanette (Nancy Linari) and her dog are attacked by a Roomba Vacuubot.
The dystopia of Sunset City should be apparent from the opening shots of “Automated Customer Service,” as various older folks are shown lounging around the pool (but with VR headsets on) and robots serve tasks from walking a dog to serving as a crossing guard. I suppose some people may see convenience in the possibility of such automation, but the best dystopian visions are the ones that flow from someone’s idea of utopia, as the logic of the premise moves to entail terrifying results.
Automation isn’t the real villain of “Automated Customer Service,” however—the real threat lies in the other part of the title, with the voice on the other end of the line (Ben Giroux) that is supposed to help Jeanette with her problem but instead becomes insistent that she sacrifice her dog to the killing machine (to distract it).
It’s quite humorous, but we see here the terrifying logic of late capitalism playing out. Jeanette would have to wait for six hours and fourteen minutes to speak to a human being, which is absurd, but is it unrealistic? Isn’t this already the logic we can see playing out on a day to day basis as automated systems catch us in inescapable loops of Kafkaesque bureaucracy? “Automated Customer Service” is funny because it hits close to the truth.
And of course the secret behind those labyrinthine machinations is revealed at the end of the story—the Vacuubot’s turn into an unstoppable killing machine isn’t a defect or something gone awry with its programming so much as a plan to ultimately try to get Jeanette to pay to be whitelisted.
Rather than servicing an existing need capitalism long ago moved to manufacturing desire. You can read about this in marketing textbooks. And now things have clearly gone further, with crises themselves being manufactured that one has to pay in order to resolve. There is no outside to the system, and while the technology involved in a smart home or a broader internet of things brings this out quite clearly, we can already see the same logic invading our phones and personal devices. You don’t have to agree to the terms of service if you don’t want to—you have the option to instead not use the computer you bought.
At times I feel like a Luddite or that I am being judged as one (pejoratively) but “Automated Customer Service” presents a nice example of the way in which I want to express a gentle resistance to things that in themselves seem banal. A robot to vacuum your house for you? It sounds convenient and certainly no one likes vacuuming the house but…how about not?
To be clear I don’t expect your Roomba is going to decide to eradicate all life in your house one day, or send a message to all of the other robots to exterminate you. But when Boston Dynamics creates a robo-dog and the NYPD decides to deploy one…perhaps we should take Black Mirror seriously. And indeed there is already something at a much smaller scale in “Automated Customer Service” when the Vacuubot keeps moving Jeanette’s picture against her will—we hand over ourselves to the tech and the tech is supposed to love us, but even if we view the Vacuubot as doting it is still intrusive and violating Jeanette’s autonomy.
Love, Death & Robots Season 2 is off to a good start (if it’s safe to call this the start) with “Automated Customer Service” as it blends humor and darkness in the way we’ve come to expect from Season 1. I kind of expected the Vacuubot to kill Bill (Brian Keane) when it electrocuted him to keep him from shooting it with a shotgun, but there is still quite a bit of darkness to the way the episode does end, with Jeanette, Bill and the dog riding off into the sunset while the computerized voice informs them that they will be hunted until their DNA has been eradicated from the planet…
Unless they subscribe to be whitelisted for a reasonable price.