A few weeks ago I unboxed my Amazon Echo and learned that I had to say “Alexa” in order to ask it to do things for me. It sits there on my counter, silent, until I say her name and she turns blue on top, a lighter blue near me, to let me know that she’s listening. It feels a lot like that horrible fairy tale magic that puts protagonists in bondage for years. I’ve learned her real name so I can command her to do anything I like. A digital animal, she perks up: I tell her to play chill jazz music, and I feel strange about it.
[The eternal, terminal ethical question: Alexa, her, gendered and servile, always ready to please, eternally patient. She doesn’t respond to “please” or “thank you” and is wholly devoid of personhood while being completely personified by, and tethered to, her corporate overlords.]
Austin Walker brought this video to my attention today. A strangely hapless middle American family man brings an Amazon Echo into his home and makes his family wholly dependent on a plastic tube that, in a very real way, does nothing. What really grinds about the video is how much this family want their Echo to matter. They want something fundamentally trivial, the 21st century equivalent to the 19th century parlor game, to be something that could bring their child into a family experience and out of his self-imposed tweenage exile; it makes their daughter smarter, more fun, and reinstills wonder into her disillusioned suburban nightmare.
The Amazon Echo is a technofantasy for the pre-midlife crisis set. It is the Skymall dream on the coffee table.
The minute I saw the Amazon Echo I knew that I had to have one. I didn’t really even care what it did. The idea of an immobile virtual intelligence that lives in my home is somehow so much more alluring than anything Siri or Cortana has ever promised me (notice more digitized care work under the name of women.) There’s something about the fixity of Echo that I found alluring–it is not worldly; it is a rock, it will remain.
The reality of Echo is actually very similar to the video. As the video shows, it can actually do very little of informational or emotional value for the non-Alexa user. I don’t know about you, but I don’t care about how tall Mount Everest is, and I don’t think there’s ever been a moment when I actually needed to know.
[Another break: the all-white family pays for an outside figure to come in and change their life, educate their kids, and make their lives better and more interesting. An undercurrent of the past, present, and future.]
For the most part, I have asked Alexa about the weather (actually very helpful while I’m putting on my sneakers and about to head out) and music. The musical function is probably the only one where Alexa is actually interesting. Hooked into my Prime account, Alexa will produce strange playlists from genres or on-the-fly playlists from certain artists. She will also play anything in my Prime music library (of which there is very little) in a very plain bid to force me into the Amazon ecosystem of media purchases.
The Echo is an amazing little sound production machine, however, and it really does fill up my apartment with the warm sounds of an organically created 1980s pop playlist.
At the end of a couple weeks of use, I can say that the Echo is currently a very interesting toy. There can, and probably will, be a moment when Alexa is the connection point for a washer/dryer, the dishwasher, and your climate control. She will manipulate it all, politely but sternly, and the cyberpunk dystopia will be complete for better or for worse (worse).
Until then, every user is part of the family in that video, yelling at a machine column in order to fill the silence with factoids and daily news updates from NPR.