The Alexa Experience? Thanks But No Thanks

November 16, 2017|Posted in: Uncategorized

My nephew Ernie was showing off his new Echo last weekend. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock or something for the last decade, Amazon’s Echo is the physical conduit for Alexa, their voice-controlled personal assistant. It’s roughly the size of a tall boy and contains Wi-Fi, a couple of speakers, and seven (I don’t know, either) microphones. It’s connected to “the cloud” and sits in your home, plugged into the wall, waiting quietly for recognition … kinda like that creepy guy at work that never talks to you but gives you that look like “I’ll be right here when you’re ready …”

Or maybe that’s just me …

Anyway, all you have to do is say “Alexa” and then you can ask it questions or have it do things for you. Such as? Well, it can stream music or online radio, make a phone call, tell you the weather, inform you of an accident on New Montgomery (and give you alternate routes), or rattle off the scores of last night’s games. You can use it to buy stuff online, too but mostly it seems to exist just to answer questions:

“What’s the capital of Bolivia?”

The capital of Bolivia is Sucre.

“How many silkworms does it take to make silk?”

Between 3000 and 5000 silkworms are required to produce 1 lb. of raw silk.

“When was the Truth in Lending Act signed?”

The Truth in Lending Act was signed in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“How many calories in a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte?”

A 16-ounce Starbucks pumpkin spice latte with whipped cream and 2% milk contains 380 calories.

“How much wood could a woodchuck chuck?”

A woodchuck could chuck approximately 700 lbs. on a good day, with the wind at its back.


Ernie was very excited and asked if I wanted one (an Echo, not a woodchuck). My answer was rather coarse, as I recall, but it essentially boiled down to “Are you HIGH?”

Not to go all George Orwell on you, but wasn’t there a time when having our homes bugged for listening was considered a bad thing? I mean, it’s genius in some ways: we’re not only allowing them to tap our lives, we’re paying them for the privilege! It’s kinda like a vampire: the government can’t just walk into our homes and listen in … but if we invite them, well, we don’t have a leg to stand on.

I know, I know, Alexa isn’t working for the FBI (yet), but in some ways, it’s worse: she’s working for the biggest marketing machine in the universe. I don’t like to think of myself as paranoid, but I also use “Do Not Track” whenever I’m browsing the web. I’m uncomfortable with Chrome or Safari cataloging the sites I visit and deciding which products to try and push on me. Does it make sense to set up a listening post in my bedroom that’s going to run all my questions through an algorithm and try to identify my personal likes?

This is textbook machine learning. Every time Ernie tells Alexa to play The Clash, every time he asks about Beauty and the Beast tickets, every time he even adds something to that grocery lists she’s compiling for him … all that information, trivial as it may seem, is all being sucked up, cross-referenced, and spoon-fed back to Amazon, to “enhance the Alexa Experience.”

I’m not a Luddite. But I also think corporate interests take enough of my soul. Sorry, Ernie; for now I’m declaring my apartment an Alexa-free Zone.