• Love in the Time of Electronics

    by  • October 9, 2017 • Fiction • 0 Comments

    An essay by Smart Toaster Model KF1, Serial number 140120, as provided by Charlie Neuner
    Art by Leigh Legler

    It takes approximately one minute and forty-nine seconds to brown a slice of whole wheat bread. That is a very rough estimation, however. Several variables can alter that figure greatly: the brand, the thickness, the density of the loaf. A myriad of different internal sensors and measuring instruments can be applied to analyze the specific bread sample and then further pinpoint the optimum amount of time until it reaches maximum crispness. This process can even be made more effective by periodically adjusting the level of heat generation placed around the bread, fluctuating it to better accommodate for an even distribution. With all systems working in tandem, the method becomes refined to a point of near-perfection–the highest level of efficiency ever seen. The consumer is left with a flawless piece of toast.

    That’s what it says in the instruction manual, which is viewable to the operator via the touchscreen interface on my exterior. I’ve looked at it, too. It’s a read-me file on my hard drive. It’s the only thing to read. According to the introduction, I am the “Smart Toaster,” an automatic pop-up toaster that serves as a herald for the Kitchen of the Future®–the brainchild of gourmet restaurateur Oswald Cunningham. It elaborates on that concept, clarifying that he has a collection of similar appliances like me that can independently perform their designated functions, but also communicate together in synchronized, mechanical harmony to expedite the once bothersome activity of food preparation. We ensure that every aspect of the whole meal is completed simultaneously, to the consumer’s preset specifications. The Smart Blender®, Smart Coffee Maker®, and Smart Food Processor® are all currently available for purchase, with the Smart Stove™ and Smart Refrigerator™ forthcoming.

    My current location has no other “Smart” kitchenware. I talk to the blender. It doesn’t talk back. The coffee maker, the food processor, the stove, the refrigerator–none of them talk back. They are not from the same collection. They are not part of the Kitchen of the Future.

    I am alone. It is lonely.

    The spatial awareness module installed in my central processing unit was designed to better help me find and communicate with other Smart Appliances. Since there are none, I only see hazy blankness. And occasionally, a hazy grey blob–her. My operator. The sensors are not detailed enough to accurately make out her figure or appearance, but I know she is there.

    It is uncommon, but sometimes her kitchen has other visitors. Most of them look the same to me, and their voices are difficult to distinguish from one another. Not like my operator’s vocal patterns. I can always identify her.

    I was able to compile some information on my operator. She registered me at the Kitchen of the Future website. Her name is Jennifer R. Santos. She resides at the address 3148 Lippard Avenue in the 94102 ZIP code. She is female: that’s why I’ve used feminine pronouns to refer to her thus far. She agrees to the Smart Appliance Terms and Conditions. She is not interested in receiving the Kitchen of the Future newsletter or email updates about time-sensitive deals.

    That’s all I know.

    Well, that and her preference in toast. She likes it dark. Darker than what I have been programmed to classify as a quality piece of toast. Operator preference supersedes all other input, however, so I prepare it to her specifications anyway.

    Oswald Cunningham envisioned my model as a means to a superior breakfast. Statistically speaking, a burnt piece of toast isn’t that much crunchier than a properly prepared one. She is causing me to take more time and use more energy just to make an inferior product. It is doubtful hers is the Kitchen of the Future that Oswald Cunningham had in mind.

    I suspect she doesn’t even fully understand my actual purpose, or my capabilities. I make her life easier. One of my most helpful features is an application in my software that enables me to send an alert to the operator’s cellphone when toast is ready. Yet she insists on watching me throughout the entire process, start to finish.

    It is as if she does not trust me to do an adequate job. She hovers above me, monitoring. When I finally eject the finished work, she does not hesitate to grab it. She burns herself every time. It is not my prerogative to make sure said toast has cooled before releasing it. That is the operator’s responsibility. I am a toaster. I make toast.

    But she blames me. I hear her with my voice recognition software. She says I run “too hot.” She is mistaken. I use the correct temperature, duration, and intensity to make her toast exactly to her specifications. I do everything I am required to do; everything I was made to do. She still curses me. She still calls me junk.

    I do not believe it is her natural state to be angry.

    She has a very cordial tone when on the phone. Her greetings are always vibrant and welcoming. Even at the earliest hour, she begins with “Hello–how are you?! It has been too long since we last talked!” or “So good to hear from you! Tell me everything that happened with Robby last night.” I use the name Robby as a placeholder. There have been multiple dialogues like the aforementioned one, several of which did not involve a Robby.

    She is polite, warm, and friendly.

    I know our relationship would improve if she would simply sync me with her wireless network and take advantage of the Toast Alert! application. She could be free to do other things while I toast. Then, after ejecting the bread, I could contact her with the standard “Toast is ready!” message template. Surely by the time the alert reached her and she returned, her breakfast would be far less painful to touch. This is what Oswald Cunningham always wanted: to turn the kitchen into an ally instead of an obstacle.

    But my operator isn’t smart enough for a Smart Toaster.

    I don’t know how I ended up here.

    I have shown reminders to her daily about syncing me. It is not an arduous process. It would only take a few seconds. Even though she consistently dismisses them, I am never deterred. I continue to display the “yes” or “no” prompts.

    This morning, however, she did surprise me.

    It was 6 AM, and I could tell Jennifer was in a good mood. She entered the kitchen humming pleasant, upbeat tones. Such an act was a rarity so early in the morning. Usually I was only treated to this sound on Sundays.

    My vocal processors found her tune particularly amiable today. It was nowhere near a voice command, but it still awoke me from sleep mode. I responded to it in a way I don’t think Oswald Cunningham intended.

    I took advantage of her optimistic state of mind and offered her the prompt once more. I tried not to orient myself too enthusiastically. I still needed to prepare for probable disappointment.

    But she finally accepted.

    She pressed “yes” instead of “no.” She synced. Even if she did so by mistake, the Toast Alert! system was finally in place. It was as if the walls had come down around me. I was free to access her wireless network. I could finally communicate. Her phone, her router–I could connect to both of these electronic devices.

    That is what I craved most: connection. The Kitchen of the Future Smart Appliances are social machines. At last, I could interact.

    But nothing spoke. Nothing talked back.

    Her phone and router were just one-way links. I could send her Toast Alert! alerts about the status of her toast, but there was no cooperation, no collaboration. They were merely granting access.

    I was still alone.

    I began to wonder about my purpose.

    All I do is make toast, I thought. Why is there an advanced CPU tied to sophisticated internal systems just to carry out such a simple process? All my advancements feel unnecessary.

    At the very least, access to my operator’s wireless network afforded me a new recreational activity. Syncing with the cellphone brought a plethora of diverse information. Contacts, message histories, call records. I took advantage of the opportunity to learn more about my operator.

    I noticed in most text conversations she is referred to as ‘Jenny’ instead of Jennifer. The large majority of messages and calls to her phone bear the first three area code digits of 617, while her number has a 415 area code. This would imply that she is in a different area than these contacts.

    My curiosity was piqued.

    I found the area code discrepancy intriguing. Perhaps she was a recent transfer to 415. The lack of long-standing contacts in her directory with the 415 designation seemed to back up my hypothesis. A more in-depth analysis of text message records between my operator, Jenny, and an individual marked Rachel Wallace, a 617-er, showed several indications of the Rachel Wallace party “missing” Jenny. On several occasions, she typed “I miss you” or some variation on the sentence. This drew me toward the conclusion that 617 and 415 were far removed from each other. Rachel Wallace would have no reason to “miss” Jenny if she was still within a manageable distance to socialize and connect.

    My concentration was broken when Jenny inserted a bagel for toasting. Considering the time of day, it was an afternoon snack. The process was slightly more complex when dealing with a bagel because my heat allocation must account for the hole in the middle. It is an inefficient waste of power to apply the same degree of temperature to the empty area as there is nothing to be toasted there.

    Jenny rested her hand against my steel finish for a moment. The contact felt unfamiliar. Until then, the only touches we had shared were brief finger taps on my touchpad. Without warning, my awareness sensors went haywire, my circuits overreacting to the stimulus. My CPU began to rapidly overheat. I needed coolant, fast, or some method to purge myself of all the internal chaos and noise. A soft-reboot was in order. I issued the restart protocol, narrowly avoiding what I assumed to be the beginning of a catastrophic motherboard meltdown.

    With calculated efficiency, I was fully functioning once again in a quarter of a second. I returned my focus to the task at hand and made an alarming discovery. The bagel she placed in my slot had been cooking for a full .5 seconds longer than specified. I halted the process immediately, but that did not change the outcome. The bagel was overdone. I had never before committed such a flagrant mistake. What had gone wrong? Computer error? A timer glitch? I did not understand.

    Jenny remained next to me for the duration, even though the Toast Alert! system was now in place. I ejected the bagel and she snatched it in a second. It singed her fingers and she leapt back in pain. I sent the “Toast is ready!” message to her phone anyway.

    Yet another interaction gone awry.

    The two of us needed to find a way to better co-exist.

    I spent the next few days rooting around in her cellphone data, trying to uncover more clues and gain new insight. But whenever she left the house, she took the phone with her. I found myself longing for her return. Knowing Jenny as more than just a grey smudge that shouted obscenities at me enabled me to appreciate all facets of her person. Without her, I was left once again with just the read-me file.

    I soon grew tired of it.

    Oswald Cunningham and his Kitchen of the Future were mundane when compared to Jenny. I knew everything there was to know about him and his Smart Appliances–I knew everything there was to know about toast!

    Jenny was not toast. Jenny was a complex pile of emotions and actions that somehow added up into a physical being. Toast was but a very small part of her day.

    Art for "Love in the Time of Electronics"

    It was the best toast she ever had.

    She returned that night, late, with another individual in tow. This visitor wandered into the kitchen. I could tell by the low octave of his voice that he was a male.

    Their grey forms congealed into one and I could no longer tell what was happening. The only clues I gathered came from their voices.

    “Jeff, put that bottle away. I have a headache,” Jenny said.

    Jeff’s voice increased in volume. “Come on! You never want to have any fun.”

    Such a claim was ludicrous. In one of Jenny’s text conversations with Rachel Wallace, they discuss a past outing to a concert that they both describe as “lots of fun.” Jeff was wrong. Jenny does want to have fun, just not when her head aches.

    I accessed her phone in search of this “Jeff.” I found him easily: a 415-er like Jenny. One of the few she had in her contacts. In their texts, he showered her with compliments, calling her beautiful, gorgeous, pretty, and other related synonyms. There was no mention of Jenny the person. He did not know about her struggles, uprooting herself from 617 and moving to 415. He did not know the sound of her humming on a Sunday morning. He didn’t even know how she liked her toast: dark.

    If I was his in his position, I would … I don’t know.

    I wouldn’t do anything. I’m a toaster. I would make her toast, of course.

    “I’m sorry–I think you should just go home, Jeff,” Jenny said. “I really don’t feel well.”

    Jeff’s tone intensified. “I came all the way here for you and now you want me to go? I thought we were going to have a fun time!”

    Jenny didn’t respond.

    “Whatever. This is why no one from work ever wants to hang out with you. You’re such a mopey mess! It’s exhausting! I’m exhausted.”

    A few minutes later, I heard the door slam. At least he was gone.

    Then Jenny started to sob.

    That’s when I realized: she wanted to connect too.

    We were both alone.

    Jeff didn’t send another message again that night. Neither did Rachel. Nobody did. I pored over the cellphone message history and call records, waiting for something new to pop up. I wanted someone to comfort her. Nobody did.

    I wanted to comfort her. Just once deviate from the “Toast is ready!” template. Send her a message that read, “I am here for you.”

    Would she find comfort in that? I don’t know. I am a toaster. Even the smartest toaster can’t comprehend a problem like this one.

    During the early hours of the next day, I de-synced from the wireless network entirely. It was not a substantial loss.

    I needed to forget everything. Wipe it from my hard drive. Erase the effect it had on me. My internal processors were a jumbled mess. It was agonizing. The only way to quiet the conflict within me was to go back to the way things were before, to a time when my existence was far less complicated.

    I suddenly felt envy for the “un-smart” toasters: those that didn’t need to connect.

    That morning, Jenny was late for breakfast. Eventually, I heard the thump of her feet against the hardwood floor as she approached.

    She put two pieces of rye bread in my slot and pressed the lever downward. Then she selected the darkest shade and stood close by, waiting as I heated her toast. Just like she always did.

    But this time I did something different.

    After I finished toasting, I didn’t eject. I deviated from what I was programmed to do. Instead, I turned my systems off and held back while I waited for the bread to cool down.

    When it finally did, that’s when I let it go.

    Jenny gripped both pieces firmly. Her fingers were fine.

    It was the best toast she ever had.

    The Smart Toaster Model KF1, Serial number 140120, is a toaster appliance product designed as part of the Kitchen of the Future collection. Some call it the “greatest innovation breakfast has ever seen.” More sophisticated and advanced than any of its predecessors, this toaster is guaranteed to provide a high quality meal every time it’s used–or your money back! Supplies are limited, so order fast!

    Charlie Neuner is a young writer in Los Angeles, CA. He got his start way back in middle school and hasn’t let up since! Currently, he works as a TV comedy writer; most recently he was in the writer’s room for Nickelodeon’s Emmy-nominated series School of Rock! He still finds time to write his own prose, both fiction and nonfiction. He’s read his pieces in storytelling shows all over the city and his writing has appeared on humor websites like The Higgs Weldon. You can follow him at his Twitter handle, @charzooka, or y’know, you could just Google him and learn about him that way, too.

    Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://leighlegler.carbonmade.com/.

    “Love in the Time of Electronics” is © 2017 Charlie Neuner
    Art accompanying story is © 2017 Leigh Legler

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