Bruce Sterling's short story "The Beachcomber of Novi Kotor" is a monologue by a rogue Montenegran artist-roboticist, delivered at the 85th Venice Biennale, in a world where climate change has made venices out of all the world's low-lying cities, where Montenegro has been plunged into economic collapse by the precipitous departure of the neo-Czarist Russian oligarchs whose tourist trade it depended on.
The narrator is there to present the Beachcomber Robot of Novi Kotor, the "hardest-working robot in all of Montenegro," a "a big wet balloon with some telescoping canes inside, and about a thousand cheap little shiny sensors on his plastic skin" that rolls patiently up and down the beaches of Montenegro, skimming up all the beach detritus, from microplastics to the wrecked and tossed remains of the world's drowning cities.
The Beachcomber is art, not a product: "a petroleum-based plastic robot who eats plastic petroleum products blown in from the plastic-drenched sea by the wet Greenhouse storm-surges caused by burnt petroleum. He's crisis, solution, debris and creation all at once."
Our Beachcomber is a thousand times better at combing a beach than any human laborer can ever be. You could send out a hundred German volunteers to clean our beach (we wouldn't perform that labor ourselves, for this being Montenegro), but no matter how selfless and green and guilt-stricken they are, the Beachcomber robot will surely beat them.
If human workers bring in a hundred sacks of filth and swear they've fully scrubbed that beach, then the Beachcomber will go to that very same beach and bring in another two-hundredweight. I have personally seen that happen. It uses porous mesh in its membranes and sucks up tiny plastic shreds that are too small for a human eye to see.
There's simply no possible man-machine competition here. The Beachcomber is robotically superb. You could no more beat him than a human can beat a whale at sucking in krill with baleen teeth. As I said earlier, that's how it is and it must be.
So, if you're American, at this point, you might characteristically think: Wait! If this robot works so well, why aren't there a million of them? Why don't I have one myself? I'm a rugged individualist mass consumer, I have some revenue! What's the robot's price-point?
The Beachcomber of Novi Kotor [Bruce Sterling/E-Flux]
(Image: Gelatinous Cube/Wizards of the Coast)
(via Beyond the Beyond)