Almost every day I make a pot of tea. Strong, black tea, the kind you have to steep properly in a ritual that involves a kettle, a tea tin, tea lights, a tea cozy. It’s a four-minute brew, so I set a timer. I used to do it on the microwave, but some time ago I just started asking Alexa, via the Amazon Echo on my kitchen counter. “Alexa, set a timer for four minutes.” I can do this while pouring from the kettle to the pot. It is an efficiency that feels indulgent in the early morning or late evening (decaf; don’t judge me).
The only problem is the waiting. Staring out the window, scrolling the smartphone, just waiting. Alexa provides no feedback, no seconds counting down. The Echo’s lip blues mysteriously. It issues a sound when time’s up, which a voice command suspends: “Alexa, stop.” It’s silly, but the invisibility of my tea timer haunts me.
Yesterday, Amazon announced a new line of Alexa-enabled products, one of which provides a solution. It’s a cheap analog wall clock. The minute markers can illuminate to show the progress of timers set via Alexa. That’s it. On the surface, it seems like a preposterous, excessive solution to a problem that doesn’t even really exist. But for 30 bucks, it’s tempting.
This is how Amazon has infiltrated the home with its voice-activated devices and service. Not through genuine utility, but by scratching the smallest itches of ordinary life—even when Amazon itself is the cause of the initial irritation. The results might be convenient, but they also facilitate a new depth of corporate surveillance.
I never intended to use Alexa at all. I have all the usual worries about privacy, and adding more microphones to my home felt unwise. I bought an Echo as a way to communicate with my visually impaired father, a topic I wrote about for The Atlantic earlier this year.
But once the thing was in my house, it turned out to be kind of useful. I connected it to my whole-house audio, making it possible to ask Alexa to play music in different rooms. That also meant my 4-year-old could do so, and when Sonos, the wireless-speaker company, introduced an Alexa-enabled speaker, I got one for her room—now she can ask for music while she’s playing or going to sleep. Calling for Alexa to weigh in on a dispute or to relay a bit of trivia from the dinner table feels less socially disruptive than retreating privately into a smartphone. And the tea timer, of course.
Useful might be the wrong word. None of these shifts in daily life is necessary, and the benefit they provide is so incremental, it often feels like a step backward. Eliminating the 10 steps and five button presses of setting an analog kitchen timer, or creating the ability to turn off the lights without getting up: This is tiny succor in an otherwise difficult life. Despite all the baggage of bringing a gendered, privacy-eroding digital assistant into the home, Alexa offers enough small comforts that users are willing to overlook them.
Amazon’s plans for the service are ambitious. In addition to the wall clock, the company announced a barrage of Alexa-enabled products yesterday. Among them are home-audio devices that compete directly with Sonos’s offerings (at much lower prices), along with updates to its Echo speakers and Fire television units. The company also introduced Echo Auto, a device that brings Alexa into the car, using smartphone connectivity for operation. In addition to allaying concerns about distracted driving (and helping people negotiate increasingly common hands-free laws), Echo Auto also opens the door to, well, opening the garage door by voice from the car.
That seems ridiculous. Can’t people just reach up and press the button, like they have done for decades? But once again, scratching tiny itches can produce surprising relief. The car I drive has thick sun visors and I’ve never been able to attach my garage-door remote to them effectively. So I store the remote in a compartment in the dash, and haul it out every time. Which means risking accidentally pushing the button as I do so, a failing that has sometimes sent the door descending upon my car inadvertently. A voice-activated door opener would avert that risk. This is precisely the kind of small comfort that makes these devices appealing.
Amazon’s ambitions go well beyond timers and garage doors. The company also announced an Alexa-enabled microwave, which can translate voice requests into cooking actions. In Amazon’s demo, the user pressed a button on the microwave to activate Alexa (a nearby Echo could also be used), and then told it what to do—defrost a chicken, cook a potato, pop a bag of popcorn, and so on. The device can also interface with Amazon’s Dash Replenishment Service, counting the number of times you pop popcorn and automatically reordering when you’re running low.
The microwave is a real product that consumers can buy, but it’s also a proof of concept for the “Alexa Connect Kit,” an Alexa micro-controller Amazon wants manufacturers to put in appliances of all kinds. Apple offers software tools for its similar home-automation services, but it doesn’t manufacture things like refrigerators. Amazon, by contrast, has been using its Amazon Basics line of products—which includes everything from diapers to microwaves—to compete with the retailers whose products it also sells. At a price of $59.99, the Alexa microwave could be read as a warning to appliance makers everywhere: Incorporate Alexa into your devices, or Amazon will undercut your prices and steal your market. (Ongoing antitrust concerns about Amazon are the subject of a preliminary probe by the European Union.)
The actual benefits of all the Alexa-enabled toasters and coffee machines and printers and razors are dubious. On the surface, it’s hard to imagine why pressing a button on a microwave and saying “Stop” would ever be more appealing than just pressing a stop button. But Internet of Things (IoT) devices didn’t ever promise greater efficiency or utility. Instead, they pledge to turn dead, offline objects into living, online ones. They make using anything, even a timer or a microwave, into an experience as familiar and pleasurable as using a smartphone.
In many cases, those IoT gadgets work badly or not at all: Hackers commandeer baby monitors, door locks cease to function during software updates, gas ovens risk spewing toxins into the room when actuated in error. But Amazon’s approach to the Internet of Things goes deeper than basic functionality. It finds the tiny shifts where the actions common to ordinary life can be made to feel slightly more compatible with the contemporary, computer-addled consumer. Companies like Amazon have created some of the problems they hope to solve with technology: Nobody would need a wall clock for an Alexa timer had Amazon not inspired that use case. But that doesn’t make the solutions feel less comforting when they arrive.
Just before Amazon was announcing its new Alexa lineup, the insurer John Hancock announced that it would cease to underwrite traditional life-insurance policies in favor of “interactive” ones based on tracking users’ fitness data through wearable devices. These trends have been on the horizon in insurance for some time—some health-care providers offer discounts for people who voluntarily use wearables to track health or exercise, and auto insurers offer breaks for people willing to install devices that monitor their driving habits. Critics rightly note that these devices don’t necessarily provide meaningful indicators of risk, and that they amount to a tax on insurance for those unwilling to take a premium hit in exchange for increased privacy. But John Hancock’s move might be a sign of what’s to come.
Whether or not Amazon gets into the insurance or health-care business, once the Alexa service starts gathering data on what people cook in their microwave or toaster, or when and how often they turn off their lights, or use their garage door, or do anything else made possible by the Alexa Connect Kit, the company will own an enormous database of collective and individual behavior. Today you ate a potato, but yesterday you zapped a frozen meal. Or maybe you bought lean chicken from Whole Foods, an Amazon subsidiary, and then cooked it in your Alexa-enabled oven, validating a potentially healthy lifestyle choice. The lights in the workout room can be turned on remotely, but if they never illuminate, then what does that say about your fitness routine? Amazon owns the popular Ring doorbell-camera company now, which means it also knows what happens on your stoop. Knowing when the garage door opens, thanks to Echo Auto, allows the company to track when you leave and return home. It’s even possible to determine what the occupants of a home are doing just by doing signal processing on its electrical main. Given the massive volumes of data that have already been collected about everyone, a world where Alexa’s everywhere has the potential to create an unprecedentedly powerful profile of human behavior. People are worried about Alexa listening to their conversations, but what about what Amazon can do with the inferred meaning of all the small actions and instructions we freely and knowingly give Alexa?
That future is still a ways off, but it’s on the horizon. It’s still so difficult to connect the possibility of a dystopian, corporate surveillance state with a new gizmo that makes an insignificant moment in ordinary life incrementally more pleasurable. Even for those who already know better. I’m still eyeing a spot on my kitchen wall where the Echo clock might go. It will blink off the minutes of my tea steeping while appliances all around me amass and transmit information about my life back to Amazon for further processing.