Whenever a new technology comes on the scene, there’s always a bridge that needs to be built. That bridge is a cognitive bridge and it takes some powerful envisioning (and marketing!) to communicate that vision to the public. It is a bridge between what before was only manageable by human intuition and hard work, and what can now (supposedly) be entrusted to another. In short, every new technology today is a bridge from human agency to automation, a bridge that will deliver us from the toil of Egypt into the Promised Land, from the land of servitude and strife into the land of human freedom and rest. No longer to futz with the TV guide, no longer to debone the chicken—all of this, and yea, even more, will be finished. “You are free to move about the country.”
We are currently witnessing this bridge-building process in the burgeoning world of “home automation,” where thermostats are adjusted and toilet paper is ordered by voice command. While the voice-command concept has been explored over the previous five years, the possibilities have exploded with the arrival of Amazon’s Alexa and her oncoming fleet of competitors. Alexa, which has become increasingly popular and has proven to outshine the capabilities of our other ur-companion, Siri, has marketed itself as a highly intuitive and malleable software system, so that thousands of other companies can get in on the automated fun. As Jenna Wortham wrote in a recent NYT Magazine article,
The company bills Alexa as a smart personal assistant, one that can play your favorite song or read you a book or recite a recipe as you cook. You can also make purchases through Amazon simply by asking. The possibilities are seemingly endless, because Alexa can learn new “skills” (as Amazon likes to call them) from third-party developers who integrate Alexa into their own products. And developers have leapt at the opportunity to do so: At the beginning of 2016, there were 135 skills designed to work with Alexa, but this year that number increased to more than 7,000. Alexa can now order you an Uber or a pizza, check your bank balance, control your TV, turn your lights on and off and even measure your car’s carbon-dioxide emissions. “ ‘Alexa, buy me coffee’ is just a fraction of what it’s going to be over time,” said Ben Schachter, an internet analyst who covers Amazon for the equities firm Macquarie Securities. “What can they improve with the voice activation? Some of that has yet to be seen.”
Alexa has already evolved from an experimental device to an irresistible household fixture — perhaps surprisingly, given Amazon’s spotty track record with hardware. Kindle e-readers are popular, but the company’s attempt at a smartphone flopped hard. Schachter told me that part of Alexa’s success was luck, in that there were few other shiny consumer offerings on the market this holiday season and the price point was affordable. But something about the future-feel of this device, its ease and convenience, has captivated a mass audience, even the most privacy-conscious among us. Alexa is always listening, ready to be of service. (This has already backfired: When a newscaster relayed a story about a little girl using her Alexa to order a dollhouse, it triggered dozens of Alexas in the homes of people watching the broadcast to also try to order one.)
Of course, the cutesy dollhouse anecdote belies a more sinister point that Wortham wants to make—namely, what deeper side effects alter a home that is automated this way? What gets lost when everything we ever want is summoned to our front stoop? Alexa is named after the Library of Alexandria, which is definitely a mythic euphemism for Amazon positioning itself into our living rooms. It could more aptly be named after Aladdin’s Genie, who grants us our wishes but cannot save us from them.
The “marshmallow test” of the 1960s tested the ability of preschoolers to resist temptation — the titular marshmallow, within reach — with the promise that they would be rewarded with two if they waited. In the experiment’s most popular interpretation, those who had self-control grew up to be much more successful than those who did not. It is one of the most formative studies in self-control and how people make decisions. Alexa is the ultimate marshmallow test, and most of us are failing. We are being conditioned, as a population, to never wait, to never delay our gratification, to accept thoughtless, constant consumption as the new norm. But how we think about consumption and willpower carry enormous implications for the environment and the culture of society as a whole.
There’s a chapter in Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft that makes a similar observation. The book, which is a philosophical defense of labor-intensive, time-intensive trades, argues that automation promises a counterfeit understanding of freedom. Freedom, in a world of guaranteed wish-fulfillment, isn’t freedom at all, but bondage. He calls this heresy freedomism, where we believe that getting what we want will make us free.
I also want to notice that there is a whole ideology of choice and freedom and autonomy, and that if one pays attention, these ideals start to seem less like a bubbling up of the unfettered Self and more like something is urged upon us. This becomes clear in advertising, where Choice and Freedom and A World Without Limits and Master the Possibilities and all the other heady existentialist slogans of the consumerist Self are invoked with such repetitive urgency that they come to resemble a disciplinary system…
In any hard discipline, whether it be gardening, structural engineering, or Russian, one submits to things that have their own intractable ways. Such hardness is at odds with the ontology of consumerism, which seems to demand a different conception of reality. The philosopher Albert Borgmann offers a distinction that clarifies this: he distinguishes between commanding reality and disposable reality, which corresponds to “things” versus “devices.” The former convey meaning through their own inherent qualities, while the latter answer to our shifting psychic needs.
Crawford illustrates these two realities by comparing a musical instrument to a stereo. A piano requires you to play according to its rules (52 white keys, 36 black keys), while a stereo allows you to plug in whatever you like. The piano requires you to submit to its reality, while the stereo leaves it all up to you. (Which would make sense of my daily struggle with Spotify, where I stare at the blank interface—infinite new musical discoveries at my grasp—and can’t seem to think of anything.) It goes to show that the bridge doesn’t work the other way. Once you arrive in the Promised Land with your two-day shipping and all the free-time to boot, there’s no going back. It’s hard to think of life any other way. Even if any other way might be better.
Along with Crawford and Wortham, I would say this is a willpower issue, and a human flourishing issue. But I would also argue it isn’t one we can win by paying closer attention or by boycotting Alexa. If I can buy boneless chicken thighs, I’m never deboning a chicken again. That is, unless I am forced to. In other words, the only way I can get free of Alexa (and free of myself) is if Alexa fails to deliver. Thankfully, that promise is guaranteed.