Alexa, You’re Fired

Christmas 2017, my husband receives an Amazon Echo, aka Alexa, as a gift from me. March 2019 and she’s in the bin.

At first, “Silly Alexa” was the response when her blue lights came on to indicate she was listening, when we hadn’t asked her anything. Then she began to frequently burst out with phrases such as “hmm I don’t know that one”, or “Playing Zombie – The Cranberries from James’s Spotify”. Never heard of The Cranberries, Alexa! She’s going mad.

These random outbursts and blue lights reiterated that she was always listening, albeit listening like a nosey grandma who needed a new hearing aid. In the knowledge that she seemed alert to everything I was saying, I began to regulate my behaviour in my own home. If I had a private conversation on the phone, I’d leave the room. I even started to be conscious of doing a little toot!

But it was only when my husband turned her off at the wall to have a conversation about finances, that I said she has to go. This creepy device had invaded our private sanctuary for too long.

I don’t want to enter the territory of paranoid conspiracy theorists but here I go anyway. The philosopher, Foucault, discusses the concept of the Panopticon: “A circular prison with cells arranged around a central well, from which prisoners could at all times be observed.”

Here’s what it looks like:

The Panopticon is designed in such a way that inmates are on their best behaviour 24/7 as they can’t be certain they aren’t being watched. This means there is less of a need for overt authoritative power as they are disciplining themselves.

It’s likely that Amazon didn’t design Alexa with the same purpose as the Panopticon. But the fact that I became conscious of my actions when I was completely alone meant that she was functioning as a modern day surveillance apparatus, regardless of whether or not that is the intent.

Alexa made me uneasy. So uneasy that I’ll make do with manually turning the lights on, thank you very much.

Alexa, you’re fired.

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