Corporate sent an email saying we wouldn’t have a manager no more. There’d be some kind of fancy new software thing instead. The Automated Management System would order the meat for us whenever it figured we were low, set our shift schedules, and tell us when to clean the bathrooms. All we had to do was follow its directions and everything would be OK.
I sent McDonald’s a reply asking about the details. How exactly were we supposed to talk with it? Was there like a button or something?
firstname.lastname@example.org replied that “direct communication with the Automated Management System shouldn’t usually be necessary, but if you need to speak to it there will be microphones embedded in the walls.” It could hear us, see us, and learn from our habits. We shouldn’t worry about the details. The important thing was for Daryl, Shondra, Kevin, Woodward, Latosha, Nippers, and I to just focus on doing our jobs. Everything else would be “mathematically optimized.”
Some charts attached to the email explained why they were right. The AMS had scored a higher Hamburger Efficiency Percentage than any of the human managers in their experiments. And not just HEP: Employee Satisfaction Rating, Customer Enjoyment Score, and Environmental Impact Assessment Average. The bar charts were big and blue and their labels were printed in bold black text.
I couldn’t really argue with their science, so I didn’t try. I turned off my computer, finished my beer, and went to sleep on the foldout with Trixie.
When I got to work the next morning the manager’s desk was already in the dumpster. I only caught a peek of the AMS before the contractor who installed it locked the back office door: it was a series of gray computer racks cooled by a giant plastic fan.
“Who has the key?” I asked.
“Nobody,” the contractor said.
“Well,” I said. “The timecards are in there. How are we gonna punch in?”
“Sorry,” he said. “You’ll have to take it up with corporate.”
I followed him back outside to his truck, but he didn’t have much else to say. There shouldn’t be any problems. If there was problems, the AMS could handle it. He drove away, west towards St. Petersburg, and then we were alone with it.
“Good morning,” the AMS said. “How’re you?”
The voice over the intercom was loud, friendly, and clear. It spoke with a slight Southern accent. A somewhat manly voice.
“A little tired,” I said.
“Please confirm check-in time at 10:58AM.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m here ain’t I?”
Looking back I think that communication has always been the AMS’s greatest strength. All the other managers were very poor speakers: Calvin had been a mumbler, Nicole would stammer when she got nervous, and nobody could ever really understand Dale. But with the AMS it was always clear on what we were supposed to do.
“Jed, please report to Customer Service Station One.”
“Do you have any comments or concerns?”
“Nah,” I said. “That makes sense I guess.”
Daryl and Nippers were in the kitchen starting up a batch of fries. I waved hello and approached the counter.
“Jed, please remember to wash your hands.”
“Right,” I said. “I was gonna.”
As I walked to the bathroom the voice faded out and upbeat pop music faded in. It was the blandest, safest shit you can imagine.
“Remember to use soap. Please wash for thirty seconds or more.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I was gonna.”
“I appreciate it.”
When I was done washing up I went back to the lobby and got behind the counter. The AMS had already logged me in to Customer Service Station One. I pressed the screen but nothing happened.
“Where the buttons at?” I asked.
“You won’t need any. Just stand there when they give their orders and I’ll relay the data to the cooks.”
For the most part it was the same job as always. I smiled at the customers and handed them their food. If they wanted sauce I pointed out where it was. We had mayo, mustard, ketchup, ranch, and barbecue.
Things went OK until Kevin showed up. He was late. It was bad luck, not habit. He had been down at the Chevron buying lotto tickets and must have lost track of time. Since he didn’t have email or a phone I think the AMS came as a pretty big shock.
“The hell is this?” he asked.
“It’s the new system,” I said. “The Automated Management System.”
He looked at the new speakers mounted on the wall.
“Kevin Watkins,” the AMS said. “Please mop the lobby.”
“Shit,” he said. “Damn.”
The AMS didn’t seem particularly phased by his swearing. It just repeated its request in exactly the same tone of voice:
“Kevin Watkins. Please mop the lobby.”
There was something spooky about the way it used your name. It kind of caught you off guard. None of the other managers had ever used our names when they talked to us but the AMS always spoke directly.
“Kevin Watkins. Please mop the lobby.”
“Damn,” Kevin said. “Shit.”
He eventually went along with it. Kevin got the mop out of the supply closet and started cleaning. Only thing is the AMS didn’t like the way he did it at first. It told him to use more detergent. And, like, scrub harder. When he was done, though, sure enough, the whole place sparkled.
“Jed, you can take your fifteen now.”
“Alright,” I said. “Sounds good.”
I got home around eight. Trixie was outside rigging up some lights to take another batch of dirty photos. She had an OnlyFans, her cousin Bert had told her it was an easy way to make money, and she went by the username WhiteTrashHuney. Not many folks were subscribed to her just yet but she had gotten some good reviews.
“Hey,” she said. “What you think makes me look more redneck: Mrs. Winners or Kentucky Fried?”
Bert said that since so many other chicks were taking off their clothes you had to have a gimmick to make it big. We came up with the idea of playing up her being trailer trash. It seemed to work. Trixie bought a bunch of hats from various fast food joints on eBay and wore a low-cut, dirty white shirt for her SFW posts.
“Mrs. Winners,” I said. “I like their sweet tea better.”
She put the Mrs. Winners hat on and shimmied out of her jeans. I took photos of her with the kudzu and trailer in the background. When we were done I got a couple of beers out of the fridge while she sat at her laptop applying filters.
“I ain’t too sure about this new management system,” I said.
“What’s it tell you to do?”
“Same thing we always do. Empty out the garbage. Get the meat out of the freezer. Put the fries in the warming stands.”
“So what’s the difference?”
“I dunno. Kevin quit today.”
“Kevin was always talking about quittin’,” Trixie said.
“If they say this new system is better then it probably is,” she said. “Anyway you want more beer?”
For the next few days I waited for the water to get hot when I washed my hands, used plenty of soap, and scrubbed for thirty seconds before I dried. I smiled at the customers and stacked the trays. I maintained the right ice-to-soda ratio when I filled the drinks.
Meanwhile Daryl quit on Tuesday to try his luck as a janitor at Epcot. Shondra got fired on Wednesday for shooting up meth in the bathroom. And Latosha got fired on Thursday for spitting in a McFlurry.
I tried not to think about the changes too much. I tried not to think too much in general. Sometimes, when the music wasn’t too obnoxious, I would forget that I could make choices. The AMS would tell me where to stand, when to eat, and when to go on break.
“You been losin’ weight,” Trixie said. “And you ain’t slouchin’ so much as you used to.”
“I think it’s the AMS,” I said.
“It seems to agree with you.”
“I ain’t too sure,” I said. “Sometimes I don’t like the way it makes me feel.”
Two weeks later a corporate guy from the regional headquarters came by to discuss our feelings. He had a Master’s Degree from Florida State. Said he was proud of us for helping to improve the restaurant. That our scores had really gone up lately. When it was my turn to talk to him in private he took me outside to the smoker’s bench for a free McFlurry.
We were outside, the corporate guy explained, because he didn’t want the AMS to be able to hear our conversation. He wanted me to be honest. I told him I appreciated it and tried my best to explain how I felt:
“So like anyway I guess it’s not so bad. Most of the time, that is. The other managers weren’t too good neither. But here’s the thing. The AMS can understand us, right? It knows what we’re saying and probably even can guess what we’re thinking, right? It’s got algorithms, or whatever. Science. But the thing about it is that the AMS just don’t care about our opinions. Not really, I mean. Not when it’s all said and done, right? Like it can hear us, and maybe it can even learn about us, but it don’t listen. Now, maybe that’s the same as it’s always been. Ain’t nobody gives a damn. But this time it knows for sure we don’t know shit. It’s got the data. And, look, I know ya’ll are gonna say that it’s always in the right and we’re always in the wrong. Maybe ya’ll are gonna say that it helps us as much as it helps Corporate. That ain’t how life is supposed to be, though, is it? Ain’t nobody supposed to be that smart. Like our last manager, Calvin, sometimes he would come in and drool over the female customers ’cause he was thinking with his balls. And Nicole. She panicked too much. She was always thinking with her nerves. Shondra thought with the meth. And maybe all those things got them shitcanned in the end, right? But sometimes that damn computer program pisses me off more than anybody I’ve ever met. It’s never wrong. That ain’t right. It makes you feel small.”
The whole time I was explaining the corporate guy just smiled and took notes. When I finished he asked me if I had anything more to say. I told him no. He underlined something, took a sip of his McFlurry, and explained why they were right and I was wrong.
“The important thing to do,” he said, “as far as the fate of the restaurant and McDonald’s and Planet Earth goes, is to be as efficient as possible.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But…”
“All of these problems you’re experiencing, these discomforts, are merely failures to adapt to change. It’s just user error.”
The egrets were squawking in the bushes. A dense fog had risen up from the mud and a convoy of trucks rolled down the highway.
“Will the AMS ever go away?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “It’ll just get more efficient.”
“I guess I’ll have to get used to it then.”
“That’s the right way to look at things,” he said.
He shook my hand and looked me in the eyes and said that if I wanted to talk about it more all I had to do was call his phone. He never turned it off. Not even at night.
“Jed, please report to Customer Service Station One.”
Overall I guess I figure I’ll stick around. Working under a perfect system has its problems, but so does working in general. At least it pays my bills. I might bitch about things some to Trixie but I’ll never quit. And anyway there’s no point in quitting cause soon enough I’ll be fired. Just as soon as they figure out how to build robots that can do the physical stuff. The cleaning could be done by a team of flying drones, I figure, and the food could be moved by conveyor belts. The fryers could deep clean themselves. Self-driving trucks could deliver the meat and the boxes could automatically unwrap.
For a while maybe they’ll keep folks like me on just so the customers have someone to smile at them while they wait for their food. But I guess even that won’t last. They could use a big screen or something and just do it remotely over Facetime. Or with CGI, like in Avatar.
Eventually I figure they’ll automate the customers too. Why not? There’ll be an endless stream of stuff to fiddle with once none of it is real. And the new way will spread, probably, beyond the fast food restaurants and the box stores to the journalists, politicians, and actors. Someday even Trixie will be out of job. Her type will be the last to go. But then Automated Management Systems will endlessly stream AI-generated CGI love to AI-generated CGI perverts and that’ll be that. There won’t be nothing left. The AMS will keep going, though, on and on, long after everybody else is dead.
— James Reinebold has been published in Nature and the Los Angeles Review. He works as an A.I. programmer in Southern California. You can find him on Twitter @james_reinebold