The Future of Good Old Fashioned Hard Labor

A Short Story
By Andrew Davidson
on May 13, 2020 (estimated 22 minute read)

This fictional short story was originally started on my Wordpress blog in 2012, archived to a Google Doc in 2015 when I retired that blog, then rediscovered and finished during the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020. Am I trying to be prophetic? I probably am, but I hope not.

Sharp business suits no longer ruled Manhattan; riderless Segway robots now teemed the streets. Noah sidestepped one as he hustled to the meeting place. After weeks without a job prospect, he needed this; Since he couldn't afford the subway, he hoofed it to the large concrete municipal building at the south east corner of NYC's Central Park, across from the Plaza. It housed one of NYC's last corporations that still hired actual people: The Central Park Conservancy. The ominous building stood silent and grey, just across the street from the green and blooming Park, the city's garden of life. Noah turned off 6th Avenue onto 59th street and hustled down the block. He dodged another handful of robots making deliveries; their owner companies were emblazoned all over the nimble robots: Staples, Starbucks, Dunkin'...

As he entered the cavernous room, Noah saw his buddy Ryan in the back of the room and gave him a nod as he waited in line to be processed by the administrators of his new job. A business casual suited group of executives were guiding the line of incoming workers to small booths, where they would be processed as new hires. Ryan had suggested Noah for the job, he was an ex-Amazon warehouser who enjoyed working outdoors, and had offered Noah the opportunity to apply as a friend of a current employee and bypass the drudgery of applying via public channels. Noah had to take the opportunity.

Noah waited a moment for a booth to open, he looked about the room; the boxy concrete warehouse echoed of a thousand voices mumbling directions to another thousand waiting ears. A dull roar of white noise. Noah was directed to a booth that held a refurbished voting machine that had been re-purposed into a virtual Human Resources person. The animated avatar spoke at nearly twice the speed of an average person, and managed to verbalize a long-winded disclaimer and legal agreement in the 19 minutes it counted down at the onset. Noah decided to listen to the entire speech instead of fast forwarding through the disclaimer, as many other employees seemed to do.

'This is my first day...' he thought, 'No reason to blindly click through.'

The avatar droned on, Noah began to lose sense of when sentences began and ended in the relentlessly scripted announcement. He longed for a half speed setting. Finally the soliloquy came to an end, and after Noah stated aloud 'I agree', he was hired.

'That was quick and painless,' he thought to himself as he waited his turn in yet another line, where he was handed a cell phone, a single app already running, requesting that he take a selfie for identification and invoicing records. Noah snapped a photo of himself as he wandered his way to the back of the densely packed room. The picture was passable, you could see the sweat dripping off of Noah's head, his brow furrowed in a question. The entire room stank of sweat and desperation; so many others happy to be employed.

Working in NYC used to be the world's dream, but the harsh reality was that 97% of New Yorkers were unemployed. Self-driving cars had but killed just about every self-employed cab driver in the city, with better safety record, lower rates, and zero assaults in the last dozen years. It was a wonder anyone would trust a human driver anymore. Taxi medallions had hit the 5 million mark, making them nearly inaccessible to anyone but the insanely rich, who now bought them for their own profiteering: Self-driving Uber cars, with an average income of 6-8 million per year, with a low annual cost of 1 million in fuel and insurance. With those types of returns, it was no wonder the medallion market was crowded and ever increasing.

Wall Street was sold to condo developers, and moved to the middle of the country, where supercomputers could do the work of thousands, better, faster, and with no errors. They also bought cheap land and big wide pipes from the ISP's who convinced them they could save money in America's homeland. I.T. were the true heroes, keeping the fragile monetary system running on silicon processors.

Lower Manhattan no longer swarmed with suits midday, but rather of clusters of women pushing large baby carriages - foreign nannies taking care of the offspring of the idly rich.

The last bastion of employed work these days was good old fashioned hard labor. I say hard labor and not skilled labor, because the skilled engineers got IT jobs, or fixed outdated legacy systems that were required to stay up and running. Noah's new job was going to be cleaning Central Park.

Noah himself had wondered as he glided through the park one day while exploring the city - he noted how neat and clean the park was. Compared to his tiny 5-floor walk up in (s)lower Alphabet City, Central Park looked cleaner and more presentable than his own domicile. Leaves seemed to be algorithmically applied to the sweeping grass lawns that surround the park. Now scanning the room of the hundreds of workers about to be assigned to the same task, it became evident as to why Central Park looked so good. It made sense from a programmers perspective: Use X amount of staff to clean X amount of space an a daily basis, based on X occupancy and use.


Just as he put his newly assigned phone to sleep (a last generation Android knockoff with a NYC-Parks branded logo stamped on the plastic back), he noted the app had a map background, and a dollar counter in the corner of the app. The money counter read $0 and there was a huge cluster of red dots in the center of the screen. Just as the display flickered to black, he thought he saw the money counter flicker.

Noah shrugged it off to a glitch in the display, and warmly greeted his buddy Ryan in the back of the room. Ryan stood, resting his back against a concrete wall painted with the NYC Parks service logo. They wordlessly exchanged nods, pounds, and a back slap. Ryan was nose-deep in his personal cell phone, texting his fiancé.

"Can I get all your attention over here?" a booming female voice echoed in the gymnasium size room. The thick New York accent was welcome in a world of computerized Siri's.

The hundreds of workers turned to and surrounded the tiny Latina woman holding a bullhorn. Ryan stayed attached to the wall, Noah stepped closer.

"My name is Maria, and I'm your district supervisor. I see some of you are returning, and I see some new faces in the crowd. Please listen carefully as I go over orientation." She pointed and gestured to others with her free hand to punctuate her speech.

In a far corner of the room, an official looking person wearing a dark grey suit stood silently, watching the crowd. The cut of the suit showed a distinct improvement over the tailors of the class of business suits that greeted him earlier. This might be a C-level executive, if not for the lack of surrounding yes-men that made him seem less important.

"This is gonna be fast so pay attention!," Maria bellowed the last few words to quell the murmured discussions going on in the surge of people. The room became silent. All eyes turned to her, ignoring the wizard behind the curtain for once.

She held up her phone, and continued to speak into the bullhorn; "This is your assigned tracker and ID. Without it, you don't get paid. Don't lose it, don't sell it, don't trash it. We'll invoice you the entire equipment costs if it isn't returned in the same condition at the end of shift."

Noah glanced at his assigned phone. It was certainly used, had a handful of scuffs on the sides, and a single splintered crack across the bottom of the screen. He wondered if he was liable for that damage. He returned his attention to Maria. She was kind of cute, and had a wickedly curvy figure hiding underneath her baggy green jumpsuit.

"This phone is running our app, and only our app. Do not run any other apps, do not install any apps, and do not power off your phone. You received it fully charged, the battery should last an entire shift. Never, and I mean Never, plug it in an untrusted USB port to charge. Any and all of these violations will dock your pay." The group wordlessly nodded in understanding; Maria continued.

"Here's the kicker, people! As long as you are within 50 feet of another employee, you will be docked income. If you spend all day within 50 feet of another employee, you will owe us a days pay, not the other way around. The more employees you surround yourself with, the faster we dock your pay. If you hustle, steer clear of your co-workers, and do your janitorial duties, you can earn up to $25 an hour."

Noah glanced at his phone's screen; his money counter ticked to -$7.25. It had been 20 minutes, and he was surrounded by people draining his income. He turned to Ryan, who nodded and shrugged. Ryan knew, but hadn't disclosed this to Noah earlier, and now he was pissed. This 'work' day might actually make him lose money at this rate. Noah began to sweat again. Ryan assuaged his fears by slipping Noah a handful of black plastic trash bags - the minimum supplies required for work that day, and one less trip.

Noah tuned in and out of the rest of Maria's speech as she covered his expected duties, where they could get additional free supplies, and showed them the heat map of the park, with less-frequented sections of the park highlighted in pink, and the highly trafficked in dark blue. She showed them how to quickly navigate the most important parts of the app, and how to authenticate at days end and get paid electronically. Noah noted they paid in Bitcoin, and he wondered how it was trading today. She pointed out the most important readout on the busy screen: the Earnings Per Hour (EPH), it read the hourly rate you were currently generating. Noah felt sick when he noted his was reading -$25. Noah tried to calculate the loss per minute in his head.

Noah was making a plan. He had to move quickly. He noted other co-workers in the room also coming to the same conclusions, and becoming anxious to their current losses. As soon as Maria finished her scripted speech, the room erupted in a mad rush; Both double doors on the park side were open and a stream of newly hired janitors were out to make 50 feet of room between them and the guy right behind them.

Noah noted the majority of the stream of folk were heading straight into the park. Thinking quickly, he hopped on 5th avenue and started working his way uptown, walking at a hustled rate. The map on his cell phone alerted him to the 3 dozen employees still within the 50-foot docking distance. He walked quicker, wondering when they might drop off behind him. His EPF decreased to -$5. A fitter coworker raced by at top speed to quickly make distance between himself and the rest of the group. Everyone else agreed it wasn't worth that much effort. We were the tortoise, not the rabbit; We will get you eventually.

As he passed the first subway station, he noted the trailing pack of coworkers had dwindled to 20, a dozen people were going to try and outrun everyone using public transport. With the cost of single subway fare, they might lose more than they earn in the first 2 hours.

Noah glanced at his phone, it read -$34.25 in earnings, and he was already an hour into his workday. He cut into the Park, hoping to put some distance between his invisible pursuers. His phone zoomed in and the single red dot became alone. His money ticker finally stopped losing traction; it finally started ticking above 0.

Noah relaxed, and looked about him. The spotless Central park mocked him. He was in a high-traffic zone, and it had dutifully covered by previous days shifts. Not a single candy wrapper to be found.

He bent over to pick up a leaf to put something in his empty trash bag - something to get started. His NYC Parks phone gave a quiet ding as it registered his bending over. He ignored it for now. He was on a mission to increase his income. He was in the hole at the blackjack table, and doubling down to win.

His own personal cell phone buzzed a moment later. It was Ryan.

"Start ticking up yet, Buddy?" said the hollow voice through the phone.

"Yes, finally! After an hour of losing money. You dick, you should've told me!" he retorted.

Ryan hemmed and hawed for excuses as to why, but instead offered a bit of solace. "I've got a few hints that'll help you, as a first-timer."

He continued, "First, take your assigned phone out of your pocket. Turn it about in your hand while you work, as it'll register as you picking up items - make you look busy - it makes a noise."

Noah did as requested, and the phone dinged repeatedly as he twisted it about - seemingly trying to reorient a GPS signal.

Ryan continued; "You earn faster when it detects this." Now you're pulling in the maximum. If you just walk around at a pace of over 8 miles per hour, you can expect about $25 an hour. They use this to weed out the lazy, and you won't get asked back if you're lazy."

"Another thing," he added, "They don't count the weight of the pickup bags, so don't worry about filling them with heavy stuff. They do, however, check volume. So if you can fill it up with nearly any trash, and they'll accept it as a good days work. If you can find a cast-off newspaper, separate it and crumple the sheets for huge volume - it's got to look substantial at the exit interview."

Noah doubted he would find a gold-mine of a discarded newspaper. They were too expensive for average consumers, and offered no real value to anyone truly 'connected' - the sheer time delay was too great to be profitable or opportunistic. They were for luxurious reading - a habit long lost. No one had luxuries, just bills.

"Finally, their phone detects other nearby devices... It'll dock you if you use your personal phone all day. No more gabbing with family and friends while you work. Also avoid any park guests, and their phones, too. This is harder than you thought, right?" Ryan asked.

Noah glanced at his assigned phone. The ticking up had slowed while he was on his personal phone. The extrapolated earnings per hour had dipped to $12. He knew he had to hang up. "That it, Ryan?" he replied, "this call is wasting me money..."

"That should cover it. Good luck - see you around 10pm, we can get a beer after work! I'll give you some more tips then!" the phone clicked dead before Noah could respond with his own pleasantries.

He silenced his personal phone and dropped it into his pocket and continued to twirl his assigned phone. It dinged in time to his twirls. His trash bag dragged empty behind him and he plodded through Central Park. He tried to keep a steady, fast pace, slightly over 8 miles per hour...

Noah knew that he wasn't gonna fill his bag with stuff in the highly popular sections of the park - they were covered by the worker drones of previous days. He needed to review his options. As he turned a corner on a path, his phone buzzed a different noise, and a red dot appeared in his radar; Another co-worker. He scrutinized their motion, then shifted his own walking direction to avoid his EPH dipping again. He stepped off the path and into the manicured grass to avoid him. The grass felt unexpectedly divine against his shoes. A welcome brush of nature as you traverse the world, leaving behind a chlorophyl green residue as evidence of distance travelled.

Noah decided to hit the northern part of the Park. Partially for being the farthest from The Central Park Conservancy, but partially for the lack of other employees driving his EPH down. Noah figured the richer neighborhood would have more entitled residents who might be willing to casually break the no-littering laws that were profitable, yet rarely enforced.

He trudged uptown alongside the many paths that serpentined through the park, keeping a pace above 8 miles an hour, and waving his clutched phone about to signal being busy. His eyes scowled the edges of the walkways, and the bases of trees and shrubs looking for things out of place. As he moved uptown, his bag slowly filled with bits of paper and mostly plastic shreds. Nothing worthy of recycling, nothing with a deposit he could cash out. Ryan had bragged of the sheer number of recyclable cans he'd found in the past.

His diligence and persistence had finally paid off; in a tightly well-manicured shrub next to the path in a darker corner of the park, Noah had to get on his knees to find a freshly tossed coffee cup that had been blown under the low bushes. The Starbucks logo emblazoned on the side was generic enough, but the handwritten 'Ivanka' and 'No Fat Double Latte Extra Whip' were the first clues needed. Noah had read in the app that the fines for littering were extraordinarily high - if caught and prosecuted. This find was gonna do wonders for his EPH. As he picked up the cup with his gloved hand, he noticed the lipstick mark on the rim, and a dribble of coffee and backwash in the bottom. More physical evidence! And possible DNA tracing, to boot! He wasn't sure what to do with this 'evidence', so he turned again to the app that had been running his day so far.

NYC Parks Logo

The app had an intuitive enough design for Noah to find his answer pretty quickly: He had found gold. $35,000 in fines, based on the area of the park it was found in, assuming identification and conviction. Noah would earn 15% of that.

He didn't bother pulling out his other phone to do that calculation, and figured it out in his head: just a hair over five grand - $5,250 to be exact - at least a few months rent, plenty of food shopping - and he could even afford vegetables! Noah began to unconsciously drool at the thought of affording fresh fruit.

The app instructed Noah in how to preserve the evidence (place in separate bag, seal), document the location (take photos with App), and assigned him a detective from the nearby precinct (a real human this time!). He was further instructed by the app to wait in place for the Police Evidence Robot to arrive, but when he noticed his EPH dipping, Noah simply walked in a large circle to increase his sagging earnings while he waited. Even with the promise of future money, Noah knew the value of continuing to earn. It took only 3 trips around before he saw the Police Evidence Segway roll over the hill with flashing red and blue lights atop.

Noah had to identify himself to the robot via a QR Code shown on his phone before it opened up it's trunk for Noah to place the bag with the evidence in it. The robot beeped with a positive tone then spit out a evidence receipt on a piece of paper, tore it as the exit point, and allowed it to flutter to the ground; Noah caught it before it landed. He snapped a photo with the app as instructed, then deposited the now useless slip into his trash bag. He grinned at the bounty of doing good, and getting free trash for his own efforts, then wondered about who pays for the littering of the robot. The Segway rolled back to deposit the evidence at the Police Station for further testing. Noah was hopeful.

The rest of the shift was about the same; Noah learned to stay off-path to avoid coworkers and 'obvious' trash locations. His arm grew tired of the constant twisting, but he realized the EPH didn't sway much when he simply did the job like normal, so he stopped flapping his arm. He silently cursed Ryan for offering bad advice, then reconsidered and figured Ryan was phoning it in. In an effort to prolong and extend his earnings, Noah waited until more than half of his coworkers had clocked out before beginning the trek back to The Central Park Conservancy. His EPH had stayed respectably high all day, and now he wasn't looking forward to losing money as he headed back to the office, surrounded by wage thieves. Noah's train of thought was interrupted by his personal phone buzzing again with another call from Ryan.

"You 'bout to call it a day?" Ryan asked before Noah could even get out a greeting. Noah fumed, annoyed by the loss of income with this interruption.

"You can clock out with the app before you go back. It'll stop your earnings, but also stop your losses. I usually clock out around 62nd street, and it works out well for timing your walk back..." Ryan continued.

Noah thanked Ryan for the tip, and noticed the same info relayed on the app screen when he opened his NYC Parks supplied phone again. His trash bag was plump, albeit light; More than 25% leaves from trees if you inspected it closely. Just before he crossed the 62nd street intersection, he dutifully logged out of the app on his phone. It had no notifications for him, and his EPH was still in the positive. There was no final readout of the earnings that day. He could see a cluster of red-dot coworkers on the map ahead of him, albeit some distance from him. The sun had set, and the streetlights were doing all the work illuminating the beautiful, glistening city.

As Noah turned the corner to The Central Park Conservancy, he could see Ryan waiting outside the entrance under a streetlight. His trash bag looked fuller than Noah's, but otherwise he looked the same as earlier. Another round of nods, pounds, and a back slap. They went into the building together and traded war stories. Ryan excitedly relayed that he'd found 5 aluminum cans and turned them in for the deposit money to pay for his lunch. Noah commiserated as his stomach growled from hunger. He'd skipped lunch to save money. The dreams of fresh fruit still lingered in his head; He'd selected a citrus.

Yet another line (much shorter now) awaited the two men to checkout for the day - the daily exit interview. Noah's back ached from the endless bending over again and again all day. His forearm throbbed where he'd been twisting the cell phone to 'simulate' work, when he didn't need to. He was finally directed to another booth with a live worker in it this time; He handed over his assigned phone and waited. The suited exit interviewer plugged his phone into his laptop, looked up to scrutinize Noah's face to see if it matched the loaded photo, then began tapping on the keyboard.

"Nice work" he muttered, "Thank for your participation" he read from the script. He continued to tap, then pointed with his head to the large scale on the floor where to put the trash bag. Noah followed suit. The tapping stopped. The exit interviewer pushed back from his desk and clapped twice.

"Whoa! Big payday, buddy!" The exit interviewer squinted at his screen, reading his name, "Noah! Good job!" Noah beamed, still unaware. The bag was far too light to be worthy of recognition... The exit interviewer continued "Yeah, that Violation you submitted on 107th street was investigated, charged and paid." he leaned in and squinted at the screen, tapped on the keyboard, "...and damn quick, I might add. Usually these payouts take a week or so, but this was... nice and quick!" the exit interviewer pumped his arm. It finally dawned on Noah that the exit interviewer would also get a cut of the bounty; he wondered how much, hoping it was a less percentage than his own cut.

The exit interviewer twisted the laptop toward Noah's gaze, and showed him his dashboard for his day of work. Noah scanned the page of the sheer amount of data dumped on the screen - 62.7 miles walked, 8.4 miles per hour average speed, 12% downtime, 39% unique paths, 63% positive EPH, finally the dollar amount payout for the day - almost $5,400 with fines - Noah grinned wildly from the windfall. He thought of the grapefruit he was going to buy as soon as he could - he mentally mapped his way to the nearest Whole Foods on the way home in his head. He knew he was going to take the subway home tonight, never mind the exorbitant cost. He needed the rest, he was exhausted from the days work. He was looking forward to the smooth, prompt ride home; He might even get a full night sleep tonight.

"Well, you're certainly welcome back, if you'd like to continue to work for us" the exit interviewer continued on his script. Noah nodded enthusiastically, and pulled out his personal phone to snap a photo of the dashboard (for bragging rights later with Ryan - screw his free lunch!), then loaded his virtual wallet for payout. He showed the exit interviewer his QR bitcoin address, and waited for the confirmation of the transaction. A moment later, the phone buzz confirmed his payout. The exit interviewer pointed to the way out, shook his hand (Noah felt like he was getting a bit handsy and very off script), and shooed him out. Noah again wondered what the exit interviewer's cut of that transaction might be.

"See you tomorrow!" the exit interviewer called after Noah as he walked to the exit. Ryan was just ahead of him, waiting outside the big garage door, smoking a vape pen. He tilted his head up, saw Noah coming and gave him an approving nod. Noah looked forward to giving Ryan the good news, maybe he'd buy dinner for both of them tonight, his treat as thanks for this hard work opportunity.