Alexa Is My Problematic Fave
It’s that time of year again. Not all of us will festoon the house with garlands, light candles, or stick a tree in our living rooms. But many of us will ask, “Should I buy myself or anyone else an Amazon Echo device for the holidays?”
It wasn’t always like this, my friends.
On November 6, 2014, Amazon announced the original Amazon Echo, an always-on speaker that responds to the wake-word “Alexa.” But I didn’t learn about the device until a few months later, a few days into my 2015 New Year’s resolution to stop shopping at Amazon.
I was anti-Amazon at that moment, because a gift for one of my kids that was supposed to arrive before Christmas did not. The kid was sad. I was mad. Santa Claus was out of the picture by then, so I had to bear the brunt of the disaster myself. Beyond all that, I had started to notice that all the quirky toy stores in our small town were closing, presumably because of Amazon, and the retail giant had bought GoodReads, one of my favorite websites — and then went and ruined it. It was also difficult to ignore the fact that Amazon treats its warehouse employees very badly.
I was going to take a stand. So, instead of giving up cheese or taking up meditation as I’d done in previous bouts of New Year’s optimism, at the beginning of 2015, I decided to banish all Amazon products and services from my life.
Like the meditation and the cheese fasts, it didn’t last very long.
I remember watching the first super awkward Amazon Echo commercial on YouTube, and immediately wanting that ugly black cylinder.
When the Amazon Echo was first announced, you could only order one if you were a Prime member, so I discarded my New Year’s Resolution, re-upped my Prime membership, and the rest is history.
Since 2015, I’ve added three Echo Dots (the tiny ones), an Echo Show (the one with the screen), and even the Echo Auto (the one for your car) to my omnium gatherum of Alexas. I never saw the need for the now-discontinued Echo Tap (the one you had to press a button to talk to), the Echo Spot, or the Echo Look, which both had cameras you were supposed to put next to your bed or in the place where you changed your clothes. Those were too creepy, even for me.
Now Alexa is everywhere, and she has competitors. There’s the Google Home, which is way smarter than Alexa, and the Apple HomePod, which is way dumber. And who can forget the Facebook Portal? I mean, besides everyone. I can only imagine that a Facebook device with a screen and a speaker might have been a huge seller if the company had released it earlier. But by the time the product finally came to market in 2018, Facebook was definitely not a company most people wanted to trust with a listening device (and a camera) in their home.
Even my oldest Echo, at five years old, works perfectly. This shouldn’t be a shocking revelation, but for a piece of technology these days, it is.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In 2014, when the Amazon Echo was announced, tech reviewers had roundly panned the very idea adding a listening device to your home. This was at the nadir of Amazon’s failed Fire Phone, and many thought that Amazon should focus on the Fire TV and the Kindle instead of creating more hardware. But the Echo was a surprise hit because, as Bloomberg said, “People decided to love it.”
Barely a year after introducing Alexa and less than a year after even the earliest of adopters had welcomed the device into their homes, Amazon released the developer preview of Alexa Voice Services so that hobbyists and hardware makers alike could put Alexa in anything, whether it made sense to or not. We didn’t need to talk to Alexa in every one of our third-party Bluetooth speakers or our thermostats or our smart ceiling fans, but we wanted to. Alexa worked, and it worked well.
We’d already spent the past few years trying to give voice commands to Siri in our iPhones and OK Google in our Android phones, and those were nothing short of terrible. This meant that when we asked Alexa to give us the weather, play the news, or order tampons — and it actually did those exact things — it felt good.
Our collective love for Alexa hasn’t waned in these past five years, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been a few bumps in the road. There was that time Alexa was blamed for letting a 6-year-old order her own dollhouse, and again when it ordered more dollhouses for other people after hearing someone on the news recount the story. There was the hot tub murder case where Amazon struggled over whether or not to protect the First Amendment rights of its customers. We all learned that if you’re going to murder someone, maybe you don’t want to tell Alexa, because she’s a snitch.
The list of conundrums that Alexa has created or exacerbated is endless, but many of us still continue to buy these devices regardless. And on the eve of another holiday shopping season, people will continue to buy more, despite privacy concerns.
Amazon’s voice-activated speakers have always been popular gifts, as the company puts them on sale or sells them in six-packs around the holidays. But for many, Amazon Echo devices are the new fruitcake, an unwanted gift that we re-gift to others who probably also don’t want one. I know more than a handful of people who have the devices tucked away in closets, still packed in their boxes, with no intention of ever using them. A few years ago, I bought an Echo Dot for each of my three teenagers. Only one of them wanted to put it in his room, and he regularly uses it to listen to podcasts, audiobooks, and me calling him to the table for dinner. The other two kids find the Echo annoying, and while I can respect that, it’s their loss since they have to listen to me scream at them like a crazy person to come down for dinner.
Privacy is personal, and I don’t judge anyone who sees the potential threat of Alexa as not worth the exchange of finding out the weather, playing music, setting timers, turning off and on the lights, playing podcasts, ordering more stuff from Amazon, or finding out what year Reese Witherspoon was born just by shouting the request into the open air. But maybe if you’re considering getting an Echo device for someone on your list this year, you might want to check to see if they actually want one.
As for me, I won’t be buying any new Amazon Echo devices for myself this year, and not because I’m renouncing Amazon again. I’m not going to buy any new devices because even my oldest Echo, at five years old, works perfectly. This shouldn’t be a shocking revelation, but for a piece of technology these days, it is. Not only do I still own that ugly black cylinder that I bought in early 2015, I still use it several times every single day. I’ve never needed to update or fix the hardware, and the software continues to get smarter and learn new skills.
Since I bought my first Alexa, I’ve replaced my iPhone six times, my laptop three times, and my smartwatch four times. In fact, there’s almost no other piece of technology from 2015 that I still use. It makes a certain amount of sense: The original Amazon Echo has two physical buttons and a volume dial, but I rarely use those as I mostly interact with the device with my voice. I don’t take it anywhere or wear it on my body as I do my other devices. In this era of planned obsolescence, the original Amazon Echo stands out as a device that wasn’t designed to be replaced and discarded.
Neither Amazon nor the Amazon Echo is perfect. Sometimes we want to believe that the device is a lot more powerful than it really is. And now that Amazon has purchased the Ring Video Doorbell, the company’s stranglehold on the smart home is something I think we all need to keep an eye on. But for now, I’m happy with my five-year-old black cylinder and I hope it lasts at least another five years.