Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Life Issues

Thinking About Alexa Differently

It seemed innocent enough. Last Christmas, both my daughter and son asked for the same gift, an Echo device from Amazon. They joined the growing millions who have made the same selection (over forty million and counting). Unfortunately, Nate is in Australia now, so Alexa has no one to talk to. But Kate is making up for it, ordering Alexa to do everything from turning off her lights at night to describing tomorrow’s forecast. We are down to three in our home, though between Siri and Alexa, our household seems to have expanded.

These technological achievements are great. Right? They remind me of my early outings at Disneyland, where we entered Tomorrowland and dreamed about the future. And Artificial  Intelligence is bringing the future into the present—and making life so much easier. It’s a great big beautiful world. But reading the latest The Atlantic on a plane today has me wondering. More than wondering—deeply troubled. It may not be so beautiful.

More than most of us are aware, artificial intelligence is changing our world—and not all for the good. This is the point of Judith Shulevitz’ sobering article, “Alexa, How Will You Change Us?” You must read it. And reflect. And read it again and ask—“Just how is it changing me?”

The article starts rather benign. Judith talks about the conversations she has with Alexa, though of course, it is nothing more than a computer speaking through a plastic cylinder. I have noticed this when walking past my daughter’s room at night. She too is talking to Alexa, sometimes raising her voice when Alexa does not get her commands right. There are still bugs to work out, but Google and Amazon have contracted some really smart people to bring about a day when there will not only be a male-voice option but a day when the line between artificial voices and real ones disappear.

So what is happening to us? We already have an idea. We are losing our privacy. We know through what we do online that companies are listening. Our information is being harvested, stored, and sold. Three months ago I shopped online for a refrigerator, and I am still inundated with ads. There are multiple interests out there very much aware of my consumer preferences. Johnston & Murphy shoes; flights to Amsterdam; Zipfizz…

But Shulevitz goes beyond the obvious and speaks to the deeper implications. We are entering what she calls a “capitalist prison,” one filled with consumers who become dreamy captives of their whims. The ease of ordering can lead to the elimination of thought and reflection and caution. To put it another way, the process that stands between desire and fulfillment is becoming dangerously thin. I suddenly want it. I tell Alexa, and it is delivered by a drone in moments. In time, these emoting bots will spoil us rotten. And leave is with piles of stuff—and debt.

She warns of a world full of “assistants,” where there is little space left for quiet and solitude. It can also preview a day when our children, surrounded by virtual companions,   might adopt the same mass-produced interiority, with a diminished capacity to name and understand their own tuitions. We will all sound alike.

It should not surprise. It is our tendency, she observes, to default to shallowness. Maybe it is okay to include a new Echo on our Christmas list, but one should write these cautionary words on the cylinder: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12).

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