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.
Sorry, Alexa is not a feminist.
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.