How Alexa Ruined My Marriage
Amazon’s digital assistant is one bland, obsequious, creepy bitch.
My husband Doug and I were watching the halftime show of a nationally televised Sixers game when he squinted at the screen. “Who’s that on the far left?” he asked of the array of analyst/clowns seated on the set.
“You’re kidding, right?” I told him. “That’s Shaquille O’Neal.”
He shook his head. “No it’s not.”
“Of course it is! Who else is built like that?”
He peered again. “Man, he does not look good. How old is he?”
“I don’t know. Around our age, I guess.”
“Alexa!” said Doug. “How old is Shaquille O’Neal?”
“Shaquille O’Neal is 45 years old,” Alexa’s weird, anodyne canned voice responded after a moment.
“Huh,” said Doug.
And I said: “Huh.”
There was a time when Doug and I could have had a rip-roaring-good argument about the age of Shaquille O’Neal. He might have opened by noting that Shaq had been playing for the Celtics only a few seasons ago, so how could he be upward of 60, like us? I might have countered that our son’s first college roommate had been named for the big guy and Jake is 25 now, so there was that. We might have parried over whether or not Shaq had been on the Lakers team that beat the Sixers in the 2001 NBA championship, which would have led me to reminisce fondly about watching the first game of that playoff on a tiny battery TV outside my leader’s tent at the annual co-ed Patriot Days encampment at Daniel Boone Homestead while trying to keep tabs on two dozen hormone-ridden Girl Scouts, which would have led both of us to recall Doug’s first Patriot Days encampment, with Jake’s Cub Scout troop, and how it rained nonstop for three days until Jake stood in the middle of a field and cried because there was nowhere dry to sit down. We would have laughed at the memory, maybe clinked our glasses (his beer, mine wine) and felt warm-fuzzy and a little closer to each other, and we might even have gotten it on upstairs after the game was over, despite the fact the Lakers won.
But instead, we have Alexa. So we never did.
I come from a big, loud, argumentative family. (For most of our marriage, Doug’s parents thought I was Italian.) We enjoy nothing more than a big holiday dinner at which we all stuff our faces and shout at one another and bicker over inconsequential stuff like whether the recipe for Aunt Laura’s pound cake had sour cream in it and if Jack Ruby acted alone. We’re contented — hell, we’re actually most comfortable — in a state of quarrelsome upheaval. It’s how we show love.
Alexa is the opposite of love.
Alexa has two states: bland certainty and obsequious ignorance. In the former, she’s like a bad small-town newspaper writer: “The school-board meeting started promptly at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.” In the latter, she’s Edith Bunker, simpering and apologetic: “I’m afraid I don’t have that information just now.” If you tell her she’s stupid — which, I’m not ashamed to say, I have, more than once — her snappy comeback is, “That’s not very nice.” If I wanted a Sunday-school teacher to talk to, I’d invite the Mormons in.
I didn’t invite Alexa. She was a joint birthday gift to Doug and me from our son-in-law, whom we love like life itself. Basil is a millennial, though, and so far as I can tell, his life’s ambition, like the rest of his generation’s, is to lie on the sofa and control the universe from his phone. We first met Alexa at his house, in fact, where she monitors the thermostat, the music, the lighting, the grocery list, and for all I know his breathing. I’m afraid to use the bathrooms there.
Basil and my daughter, Marcy, have a very different relationship to privacy than I do. They like that their tubular tabulator knows when they’re running out of toilet paper. They think it’s cool that Alexa has learned their musical tastes. They don’t mind that Amazon is hard at work on what it calls “delighters” that will make her so much fun that neither of them will ever want to talk to a real human being again. In a recent CNET report on the quest to make Alexa more irresistible than ice cream, Ben Fox Rubin wrote, “Amazon also created several Alexa personality traits, including smart, approachable, humble, enthusiastic, helpful and friendly.” If Ben Fox Rubin thinks she’s all that, he needs better friends.
Marcy and Basil are also young. For them, it’s a plus that they can dim the porch light or start the coffee machine from the comfort of the sofa. Me, I need to get up and do such chores manually just to keep my blood circulating. I predict skyrocketing rates of bedsores and thrombosis as these devices catch on.
After Alexa came to live with us — it would have been rude to just leave her in the box — I read up a little on what tech people think of her. From this, I learned that she can do a whole slew of things that I am never going to want her to do. She can fill my living room with the sound of waterfalls or a purring cat or a crackling fire. She can tell me the temperature in Dubai. She can make herself speak MORE LOUDLY or more softly. She can play any song I want her to play, except, apparently, the first song I asked her to play, J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine” (strictly for nostalgia), which is only available to me via some convoluted subscription process that doesn’t offer instant gratification, so screw that. She can play podcasts. I have never had the urge to listen to a podcast. She can misunderstand or mishear about 85 percent of what I say, which requires me to perform verbal calisthenics as I try to restate it in a form her still fairly primitive AI is able to comprehend. She also tells dumb jokes, and lights up whenever the TV plays an Alexa commercial, which is about 50 times in the course of a Sixers game.
That summation may make her sound benign. She’s not. She’s totally creepy. She’s equipped with a sort of über-intercom feature called Drop In that, were Marcy and Basil dumb enough to enable it, would let my voice materialize in their bedroom without any warning. A slightly more upscale model would let me see into their bedroom as well. And vice versa. God forbid.
She also, in yet another iteration — the Amazon Echo Look — will let me stand in front of her while she critiques my wardrobe. (I have a cousin just like her.) She does this by taking a photo of me and comparing it to other photos she has taken of me and stored “in the cloud.” She then uses something called “Style Check” to place a yellow check mark on her outfit preference. Well, it might be her preference. Or it might be that of the “designated Amazon personnel” who are monitoring your photos and video so they can learn more about you, pitch products to you, and “provide and improve our services,” as Amazon explained to the website TechCrunch. I’m tempted to digress here into a brief discussion of millennials’ apparent constant, insatiable need for validation, to the point that they crave wardrobe advice from a camera attached to a speaker. But I’m too distracted by the notion that somewhere in Seattle, a bunch of snot-nosed kids could be snickering at my choice of scarf.
And then there’s the suicide thing.
The Wall Street Journal had an article not too long ago headlined, “Alexa, Can You Prevent Suicide?” Amazon’s research shows that more than 50 percent of users’ interactions with their digital assistants are “non-utilitarian” — we don’t want anything; we’re just chewing the fat. Toni Reid, the “vice president of Alexa experience and Echo devices” (!) at Amazon, told the WSJ the company was “surprised” that people were having so many conversations with their Alexas; right from the start, “Customers treated Alexa as a companion, someone they could talk to.” They ask her for her favorite color (infrared, FYI); they ask her to marry them. And they share information about themselves. They tell Alexa they’re depressed, or say they’re thinking of suicide. Amazon quantifies these last sorts of conversations as “sensitive topics” and has crafted “manual responses” for them (assuming, of course, that you frame your suicidal ideation in an Alexa-acceptable way).
Look, I talk to my cat all the time, and the only language she speaks is can opener. I understand loneliness and isolation; I’m a Union fan. But it saddens my soul that this era’s grand experiments in interconnectedness and worldwide community are trickling down to Twitter’s Insulter in Chief and a bunch of solitary people baring their existential despair to what’s essentially a Furby, only sleek.
On the other hand. In November, the Inquirer reported on how Inglis House is working with Amazon to install specially programmed Echos in the apartments of dozens of disabled people, who are using the devices to help them live independently. The article told how such a version of Alexa lets Richard Bernard, who has the movement disorder dystonia and has trouble speaking in sentences, direct her with single words.
On the other other hand. Bernard’s word for his bedroom is “Bill,” his brother’s name. He calls his kitchen “Mom.” As IT director Michael Strawbridge explained, “We figured we could change the commands to words that Richard could say, but also people whom he doesn’t get to see much. He found words that he could say and enjoys saying.”
Last year, Amazon provided the data from a suspect’s Echo to police who were investigating the murder of his friend. While Alexa is programmed to record only after she’s given her keyword, the devices “often record accidentally in response to non-keywords,” according to Business Insider. Brrrrr. Oh, and Business Insider also says that Echo devices “record audio from a few seconds before, during and after” hearing one of these keywords. Which, um — HOW THE HELL DOES IT KNOW TO START RECORDING BEFORE IT HEARS THE KEYWORD, HUH? How does it do that?!? Alexa is recording all the time. I know she is. I feel it in my bones. Wasn’t I gob-smacked when, a few days after Doug set Alexa up, he showed me the transcript on his phone of everything we’d said to her so far — including a couple of sick jokes our son had made about suicide?
I don’t think I’d worry about this Big Brother Is Listening stuff so much if I felt more secure about democracy in the Age of Trump.
I suppose it’s nice that Alexa can play practically any song I ask her to, or that she’ll queue up medleys based on my prior choices. But I don’t use Sirius. I don’t even play CDs on my (lengthy) daily commute. I punch the preset buttons on my car radio and see what serendipity lands on. This makes Jake crazy. “Wouldn’t it be amazing,” he began in his sarcastic-wonder voice the last time we were in the car together and I went through the sequence of buttons without happening on a favorite, “if there were some way to get the radio to play music you really like?” He just doesn’t get that the unexpected elation of happening upon A-ha’s “Take On Me” makes all the dreck worthwhile.
That’s what concerns me — the illusion of control Alexa gives her users. All her bells and whistles boil down, like so much of modern life, to distractions — hey Ma, look at me, ordering groceries with no hands! No matter how smart and interconnected you and your home and your friends are — even if Alexa can reach down and clip your toenails — life’s going to come at you. There’s going to be stuff her humble, helpful, enthusiastic responses can’t cover — a lot of stuff. She can’t teach your children about empathy, or comfort your spouse when he’s worried he’ll lose his job, or hold your dying mother’s hand. Theoretically, she should be freeing up more time for us to spend with one another. Instead, she’s freeing us up to watch more YouTube videos of otters and plug “Omarosa” into search engines.
The world is spinning faster and faster. I get that. It’s harder to keep up; I feel it every day. But there’s nothing Alexa can do for me that there aren’t other ways of doing — ones that let me stretch my legs while I’m at it. So there she sits in the corner, unloved and unused. Amazon must be very disappointed in her. I hope she isn’t depressed.
Published as “Alexa. That Bitch.” in the March 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.