My On-Again/Off-Again Relationship with Alexa
My relationship with Alexa started with the basics. I already had an Amazon Prime membership and was aware that the device had access to a library full of content, so I started using the Echo for music which had been found to be one of the most common motivations for using the device (Ammari, Tawfiq, et al. 1; McLean, Graeme, and Osei-Frimpong 28). Calling out for a new song while I was busy in the kitchen making dinner was admittedly both convenient and enjoyable. When a tune with which I wasn’t familiar came up, I didn’t have to pull out my phone to do a search because Alexa could tell me who the artist was in a matter of seconds. I was starting to really enjoy having the easy access to music at any given moment. After a week of it in the house, I even found myself doing the exact same thing when I had visited other homes with smart technology- showing it off. “Check this out,” I began when my parents came over one night, and proceeded to interact with Alexa in front of them. Like the beginning of any relationship, I was excited by what Alexa could do and wanted to talk about her [yes, I had even started using a pronoun in just a matter of days just like Porcheron et al. had predicted (5)] to anyone willing to listen. The experience of having Alexa in our home was going so much better than I could have imagined and I started to wonder why I was ever skeptical about having a smart speaker in the first place. That is, until Alexa and I had our first fall-out.
It started one evening when I asked Alexa to play the soundtrack to one of my son’s favourite movies, Spiderverse. Expecting her to respond with the usual “Sure,” I was surprised when she told me that it wasn’t available unless I wanted to upgrade my Prime membership to include Amazon Music Limited. Wasn’t my Prime membership unlimited? Seeing as though I was already paying an annual fee for what I thought was an extensive music library, I wasn’t pleased to hear that a song as popular as the one I had requested wasn’t included. Neither was my son, who was adamant about hearing the one song and eventually told Alexa that she wasn’t being very nice. It didn’t really matter to her of course, not because she doesn’t have feelings, but because she couldn’t hear us as she went through the sales pitch for a membership upgrade; a message that could not be interrupted or stopped until it was completed, which just added to my annoyance. I didn’t put her on for the rest of the evening.
A few days later, Alexa and I made up when she played a fun interactive story upon request from my kids. It was a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story about knights and dragons, and Alexa picked up each of my kids’ voice commands with ease. We have a rule in our house about how much television the kids are permitted to watch every day, and like many other parents (Plowman and McPake 29), my husband and I tend to allow it during times when we are busy doing a chore and need to keep them distracted. The introduction of the Echo meant that they could now be entertained by technology that didn’t require them to sit in front of a screen. Alexa was playing nice again. As the story unfolded based on their choices, my kids got increasingly more engaged and excited. Perhaps a bit too excited, because they started to call out commands in unison, which made it harder for Alexa to pick up, and I found myself having to put a full stop to the experience as they got louder and louder. Not wanting to discourage them from using the Echo, I had to explain to my kids how the speaker worked and the best ways to talk to Alexa. When I could see their eyes begin to glaze over with all the information, I put on another skill that allowed them to speak to Pikachu, their favourite Pokemon character. They were entertained with that for the next ten minutes until they got bored and decided to play in the basement. Alexa went back to playing music for the rest of the day.
When I’m studying at home during the day while everyone else is in school or at work, I find that Alexa helps fill the emptiness in the house. When she’s not playing music, she might be set to a timer to remind me when to get up for a stretch after hours of writing a research paper. Or perhaps she’s ready to answer a question about converting measurements as I’m preparing dinner in the kitchen, or telling me the time as I hurriedly get ready upstairs. Her soothing voice is a reassurance as I go about my busy day.
Yet, there is something that stops me from trusting Alexa completely. With all the recent news pertaining to privacy issues when using smart speakers, it does bring back those feelings of being creeped out when I first witnessed my friends interacting with their voice assistants. Even though the company has said that Alexa is only triggered after she hears the wake word, she has to be “listening” for it to begin with (Ammari, Tawfiq, et al. 5; McLean, Graeme, and Osei-Frimpong 30; Hoy 85). With that in mind along with reading Amazon reviews by users who claim that their Echos sometimes turn on unexpectedly makes me realize that my little device isn’t even close to perfect, and as a media maker and more importantly a parent, I have a responsibility to learn more about this technology if I choose to continue using it at home. My relationship with Alexa has became a bit one-sided as of late, as I keep her unplugged and thus offline, unless I need something from her. It’s a minor inconvenience to plug her in every time, but for now it gives me peace of mind. I don’t think she really minds anyway. At least, she hasn’t said anything to me…yet.
This autoethnographic account was pulled from an Audience Intelligence Portfolio that I created for academic research.
Ammari, Tawfiq, et al. “Music, Search, and IoT: How People (really) use Voice Assistants.” ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), vol. 26, no. 3, 2019, pp. 1–28.
McLean, Graeme, and Kofi Osei-Frimpong. “Hey Alexa … Examine the Variables Influencing the use of Artificial Intelligent in-Home Voice Assistants.” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 99, 2019, pp. 28–37.
Plowman, Lydia, and Joanna McPake. “Seven Myths about Young Children and Technology.” Childhood Education, vol. 89, no. 1, 2013, pp. 27–33.
Porcheron, Martin, et al. “Voice interfaces in everyday life.” proceedings of the 2018 CHI conference on human factors in computing systems. ACM, 2018.