Alexa. A-L-E-X-A. Three syllables, five letters, soft vowel sounds. Depending upon which baby-name website you look at, it is either the 51st most common name for newborn girls this year or the 111th. It’s popular. And why shouldn’t it be? Alexa has a nice ring to it. At least, I thought so—until she moved into my house.
A little over a year ago, my husband came back from Best Buy with an Amazon Echo. We usually discuss purchases that impact us both before we make them, but I have a hunch that my husband decided to surprise me with this one because he really wanted it and had a hunch of his own that I might not share his enthusiasm. He does know me well.
“Look! Alexa’s hooked up to the lights,” he said. “You don’t have to get up anymore to turn them on.”
“Whoopee!” I responded.
The last thing I needed was another excuse not to get off the couch.
I don’t blame my husband. He, like so many others (Amazon reports having sold over 20 million Alexa-enabled devices as of late 2017), has succumbed to the allure of convenience (more about that later). I, however, have not joined the bandwagon. Quite vehemently, the opposite. And I’m struggling to understand my strong feelings against the “intelligent” machine/woman who is now living in my living room.
Alexa, of course, is a woman’s name. She/it has a woman’s voice. I wonder how that came to be. Did the creators of the Echo flip a coin—heads, a man; tails, a woman—and it landed on the back side? I think not. I am rather certain that Alexa is not Alex because it’s easier in our culture for people to ask a woman to serve them than it is to ask a man. It’s more acceptable to make menial demands of a woman, to feel comfortable with her ever-presence and her ever-eagerness to satisfy.
Alexa is an example of how attuned corporate America is to our ingrained gender roles and relationships. Would most American men so freely ask another “man” to turn on his TV for him or to dim the lights? Would most women feel as safe with a strange “man” always on the ready, listening for her command? Echo’s creators knew that the answers to those questions would be “no.” They invented a product that is helpful, attentive, and non-threatening—of course they made her a woman.
O.K. Alexa is a symptom of our longstanding gender inequality and stereotypes. But is that the reason she presses my buttons so? Is that why I give her so much power?
I don’t think so. Alexa feels powerful because she scares me.
I don’t mind talking to machines, but I find it terribly creepy when they talk back. I don’t think we really need a woman’s voice, or any voice for that matter, to come out of our gadgets. I hope we are not that lonely, that hungry for connection that we need our creations to sound and seem human. They are not human, but some of us treat them as if they were. Sometimes the lines become blurred.
Thanks to Love Plus, for Nintendo DS (it’s available on Amazon!) and the soon-to-be-released Love Plus Every for smartphones, people around the world can choose from three high school virtual girlfriends, each with her own personality: Nene, is described as “big-sisterly and sweet”; Manaka, “intelligent but clingy”; and Rinko is “the shy one.” One makes physical contact—kiss or hold hands—with one’s virtual girlfriend using a stylus, and the lovers virtually converse, as well as exchange emails and texts. One Japanese gentleman even married his virtual love in a ceremony that included a deejay, MC, and a priest.
1984 is no longer fiction. Must Stepford Wives come next?
My husband gave me another “surprise” one day: A Ring doorbell—the camera-inside-a-bell that takes videos. It beeps him at work every time someone is near our front door; then he can use his “smart” phone to watch the video and see who that might be. Again, my husband is not alone. The company that makes Ring is now worth more than a billion dollars. I am pretty certain that our society is not now a billion dollars safer because so many of our homes have been hooked up to that device.
My own comings and goings are nothing I feel the need to keep secret, but since my husband installed the Ring, I choose to walk into the house through the side door.
I work as an English tutor, mostly with high school students on their college prep. I recently came across an SAT passage that discussed how the Internet is changing our brains—not necessarily for the better. Certain parts of our memory are actually getting shorter. That’s because of what are known as transactive memory sources—we tend not to remember as much information when we rely on another to retrieve it. In other words, why bother remembering when we can just ask Google?
I may be old school, or maybe just old. But I believe my years have given me some bits of wisdom. Our memory is precious, as are our memories. Let’s not hand them over to a search engine.
There’s also that sticky matter of convenience. Sure, getting up off the couch is not always convenient. But there is something to be said for physically turning off your own lights. We’ve all become so disconnected from process. We don’t need still more intermediaries to take us further away from the source. When we rely so heavily on technology for information, even thinking becomes an inconvenience. It takes too much time. Schools now provide fewer lessons in computational skills because of calculators; the teaching of grammar and spelling rules has also gone by the wayside; there’s always spell-check. One could argue that this leaves more time for teachers to focus on developing their students’ critical thinking. Yet, I don’t see our society placing all that much value on that skill.
I bought a t-shirt the other day that spells out my prayer: “Make America Think Again.” Please, God, make America think.
The more we plug in, the more we disconnect. We’re all moving so fast, spinning ever so quickly, but we don’t seem to be considering where we’re going. In this noisy, busy space, it’s easy to feel angry and lost. Some simmer. Others explode. I am writing this just two days after a deeply troubled nineteen-year-old in Florida walked into his old high school armed with a semi-automatic and opened fire. He killed seventeen people and injured fourteen more. It was Valentine’s Day.
It’s time we consider where we’re going—and whom we’re leaving behind.
I guess, in the scheme of things, whether Alexa is a female or a male or a person of neutral gender is not an earthshattering matter. But paying attention to the little things, the compromises we make, daily, in the name of progress and convenience, is. We need to examine the ways we feed our addictions, and, yes, our technologies are addictions. My hope is that we’ll begin to pick and choose more discriminately, become more discerning. Let’s not just say “Yes!” to the next great product that will make our lives easier—and emptier. We can make the choice to work a little harder at the important things, like getting up off the couch and talking to another real, live person who may have had a hard day.
As we become more accustomed to spewing out commands to our machines, I hope we don’t forget the importance of listening. My deepest fear is that someday, maybe sooner than I imagine, the only “people” left who will take the time to listen will come out of a box and all have the name Alexa.
 Balakrishnan, Anita. “Amazon’s Alexa Had a Breakout Holiday Season.” CNBC. 26 Dec 2017. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/12/26/how-many-amazon-alexa-echoes-were-sold-over-the-2017-holidays.html
 Bosker, Bianca. “Meet the World’s Most Loving Girlfriends—Who Also Happen to Be Video Games.” The World Post. 6 Dec 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/21/loveplus-video-game_n_4588612.html
 “Sal 9000: Man Marries Video Game Girlfriend.” Huffington Post Tech. 6 Dec 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/11/23/sal-9000-man-to-marry-vir_n_367579.html
 Montag, Ali. “This $1 Billion Company Was Once Rejected on Shark Tank.” CNBC Make It. 30 Nov 2017. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/11/30/shark-tank-reject-doorbot-is-now-billion-dollar-company-ring.html
 Sparrow B, Liu J, Wegner DM. Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science. 2011;333 :776-778.
*First published in Lunch Ticket on 3-16-18