Now, at 82—and with a different technology on offer—Dad is willing to adapt. After his initial fumbles with the Echo, he begins to get the hang of it, asking Alexa for football scores and stock-market updates, or to tell him who the president of Venezuela is. He discovers that, for some reason, Alexa isn’t set up to report the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s Nikkei index, and he begins to enjoy posing questions the device can’t answer. He taunts it the way everyone else does: “Alexa, what would you like for breakfast?”
Dad’s background as a psychologist makes his initial error of address—Electra rather than Alexa—accidentally funny. Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, coined the Electra complex to name a girl’s competition with her mother for the attention of her father—the feminine corollary of the Oedipus complex. But unlike in Jung’s formulation, my mother relishes this new interloper. For decades, Mom has facilitated my father’s access to news and information—and she’s happy to be unseated by a rival, even if it’s just a fabric-covered cylinder with a light on top. Even so, this new setup is not perfect. “Dad often gets his commands wrong,” Mom reports, “and he gets frustrated when she does not understand him.”
When I was younger, Dad would write me letters—big, weird, angular script on stationery left over from his private practice. That became harder for him over time, as his vision and dexterity degraded—and I was never a very good written correspondent anyway. Then email and text messaging came along, and communication began to channel through computers—and for Dad, through my mother. There’s a difference between being read a letter addressed to you, and being a secondary party to communications on someone else’s personal device.
The Echo promised to rectify this slight. Dad can dictate a message to Alexa, and it will arrive on my Echo, as well as in an app on my phone, as both a recording and a transcribed text message.
At first, Alexa resists: It has a hard time understanding “Ian” and matching my name in Mom’s address book. (And the fact that it’s “Mom’s address book” only demotes Dad to the dependent invalid he so hates to be.) After we iron this out, Dad and I start using the Echo for small talk—quick life updates, holiday greetings, sports commiserations.
The recordings Alexa delivers to me are comprehensible, but Dad’s mumbles and pauses make the transcriptions incomplete or inaccurate. This mode of communication feels like something between leaving voicemails and texting, a technological pidgin that travels across eras in time as much as it does across the space between my father and me. Still, we probably haven’t spoken this often in years, if this counts as speaking.
Then, while out to dinner with their neighbor Ron, my parents discover that he recently bought an Echo—making Ron another Alexa pen pal for Dad. Soon after, I ask Dad how his correspondence is going. A pause follows. Dad’s hearing is on the wane, too, and he takes a medication that makes him drowsy, so sometimes he vanishes silently from a conversation. At last, he reports: “It’s nice to be able to communicate back and forth.”