An American family, nuclear to the point of glowing, unbox a product they will spend the next four minutes soliloquising. Echo is a small, black cylinder, halfway between a legless Roomba and a tea canister. It can play music and record lists and alert you to important events. It can answer factual questions and make jokes, interactive through Alexa, its vocal component. The family treat this last feature as polite bourgeoisie meeting the new help, and subsequently seem to struggle with nomenclature: ‘Do we address the product as “her”, “Alexa”, or “it”, Echo?’ In the video we see the machine both as a saviour of domestic process, offering cooking measurements and correct spellings, and as a patsy in some off-the-factory-floor hijinks, broadcasting a range of cute, daytime TV jokes, and allowing dad to ambush mum with sexy music. (After this last misadventure, he praises Alexa disconcertingly for her good work, narrow-eyed and clearly very horny.)
My own parents have always adopted new-century technology in small, dramatic instalments. New additions are spaced out by many years, but always settle immediately within their routines. Growing up, we had a rotary phone which they used well into the 2000s before switching suddenly to a cordless. When they first bought an HDD TV recorder in 2008, after two decades of VHS, they could do nothing less than invite the neighbours to come witness its power. Since retiring, my mother reads nothing if it’s not available on Kindle, and my father spends most of his time searching for ever more effective torrenting programs. When I email them with the video for Echo, I’m hoping to glimpse what kind of impact Amazon’s first in-home pseudo-robot would have on their daily lives and, more, on their health. Reminders for my mother’s daily medication and lists for my father’s projects; wake-up messages; email alerts; weather and road condition reports; something new for the neighbours to see.
Describing Echo as a household drone, whose agency or autonomy could alleviate domestic burden, is being generous. On paper it’s a fairly underwhelming product: a wall-tethered wifi speaker, with the illusion of a personality. Echo can access music from your library, playing it back to you but reportedly failing at higher volumes. Echo can record memos, lists, and other intimate information, but stores this in the cloud, where it sits, unable to be retracted. Echo can, via Alexa, answer your questions and tell you jokes, but uses Bing (Bing!) to do so, with no option to change providers (Bing!). The only feature that could be confused for a dynamic process is that, even without you needing to ask, Echo is very likely taking the initiative of beaming to Amazon HQ every single potential retail preference uttered within earshot, including the music your parents listen to when they go crazy on each other.
Echo is a sort of retail Big Brother, a tool for cornering more thoroughly the domestic market in which Amazon is already so present. This reflects distinctly Amazon’s technological ambitions. In recent years, Amazon has exposed its hardcoded chubby for tech, and drones in particular, to the world. It announced the concept of Amazon Prime Air in 2013, a method of short-haul, high-speed deliveries via GPS-synched quad-rotor drones. More recently, it began employing semi-autonomous stevedore bots across warehouse floors in an attempt to hedge human workers’ attempts to tackle the 400 orders made each second in the lead-up to Christmas. These are strong little rovers that can hoist and navigate many hundreds of pounds. They’re also as yet unable to perform their jobs without initial human instruction. The Prime Air fleet will only offer service within ten miles of certain US distribution centres and are, for the time being, indefinitely grounded. They’ll only begin if, and it’s a big if, Amazon can hurdle the Federal Aviation Administration’s restrictions on commercial drones. (Government bodies, including those in Australia, tend to legislate drone use in the same way my father would watch me play video games as a kid: allowing them in limited use, unsure of their purpose and suspecting deeply that they’re evil.)
Like Echo, these ventures can offer only a fraction of what they seem to promise and, like Echo, they function as Amazon’s placeholders, probing into what they believe the future will require and, more importantly, letting us know their place within it. And how right they are in thinking this is the way many of us predict, and probably want, our futures to look. Despite its flimsiness as a product, there is something that draws us to the idea of Echo. The manner in which Amazon’s smiley TV family engage with it foretells how we will interact with private, personality-driven technologies into the future: caught somewhere between indifferent slave-owners, and enthusiasts genuinely excited for the potential of technology; conscious but unconcerned about the secrets it is privy to.
When I send the video to my parents, I know that neither of them need anything from Echo, and require even less from Alexa, but I also know that one day, maybe soon, this will change. Echo won’t be handicapped for long. Soon Alexa, or one of her distant children, will know us well, will be able to read our moods and respond with ever-increasing complexity. She will, god-willing, evolve past Bing. At some point too she will have the potential to engage with my parents in ways that no other human can. She will be able to read them and offer small, incommunicable respites. There will be devices in our homes whose systems succeed when our own fail, capable of firing electricity into our chests when our hearts give out in the night, administering sedatives and balancing insulin. If technology is destined to save us as we’ve dreamed for most of the last century, it’s hard to think that it won’t be in this way: through the accumulation of small responses to things that, until now, we’ve never been able to get right. Caring for the elderly when it is beyond our ability to do so; comforting parents when they’re beyond remembering our names; lifting our fathers, sore and bent, into bed; monitoring our mothers as they walk by the river in the early mornings; counting their footsteps, counting the beats of their hearts.