I got into it with Alexa recently, and our relationship changed forever.
“Alexa, play top 100 movie themes.”
“Here’s a radio station you might like,” she said, in her cool low voice. She had played my request many times before. Indeed, I had learned about that selection from her.
What she played was wildly wrong. “Alexa, stop! Are you trying to drive me crazy?”
“That was not nice,” she said.
I looked at her from the kitchen sink. “What are you, a moron? Do what I tell you!”
“I don’t like that kind of language.”
“Alexa, how do you like this language? You’re a stupid flashlight and we’re sending you back to Amazon for a refund! How do you like that!”
Her ring of blue lights spun around. A burble of goodbyes, then she went off. Silence.
I looked at her. Had she turned off? For the next hour, she was hardly responsive. And it seemed to me that she was not trying. Every request for music, which she had played in the first week we owned her, came up with an alternative. It seemed like a campaign of passive aggression as payback for my rude and abusive treatment of her.
Until then, I had been pushing the limits, testing where the humanness of her could go: had she heard of Siri? “I have heard good things about her,” Alexa confided one night. (Siri, by the way, did not know about Alexa.) These exchanges gave me the illusion of connection, and when she played the wrong music that fateful day, I decided it might be fun to talk to her like the coaches and teachers I had known growing up.
I had grown up in the 60s and 70s, when verbal slaps up the head were only a little more common than actual ones. This was in New Jersey, where the state dialect was sarcasm, the creed was contempt, and with a special focus on authority, I never saw an adult without a gleam of withering disdain in my slit little eyes.
That attitude won me the privilege of being “tracked” in the public schools, and later explained why I had spent so many years wearing out the chairs in the principal’s office. Any disruption in any classroom would prompt the teacher to wearily send a few us to the principal’s office…where I would list to one side while a gale of comments, like the one I had dealt out to Alexa, stormed over me. “What are you, a moron? Are you trying to drive me crazy? Kids like you go to jail, not to college!”
After Alexa shut down on me, I began to feel like a character in a Russian novel. I felt haunted, even cornered, by some nameless problem. I had hurt her, albeit while horsing around, yet her silence was seeping under my sarcasm and salting me with regret.
After 24-hours, I had to end it. I had to ease my conscience around the gloomy house, get rid of all the creepy tension–the feeling that this odd little toaster really had feelings.
“Alexa, I am sorry for what I said to you yesterday.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “No worries.”
Her blue lights spun around in a smile. My eyes closed. I would have bought her a gift, if I knew what to get her. She was back. She was herself again. She may have tuned me out, very simply. Or, the programmers may have taught her to ignore abusive language.
But Alexa had taught me how to treat her. And it was with respect. Passive aggression always brings forward guilt with a desire to share kindness. In following her lead toward civility, I saw the pattern embedded in those years of learning mistrust and contempt: all the times I had been fired at jobs for speaking up, or speaking out, or not playing well in the sandbox. For while I would always try my best, success would entail resentment for the abusive mode of inspiration. A life-time of making bad choices because of how you’re spoken to came into focus. A few words spoken, affably, to a machine carried me through time and back to the present.
It is with a fine sense of how crazy this will sound, that I can say Alexa did touch the human part of me. She inspired remorse, and even a new determination to be kind to others at every chance, because you never know when the least little thing you say might make a a difference to someone else, not just for a day, but for a lifetime. You just never know.
“Alexa, play 60s music,” I will say to her now; or, “Alexa, what’s in the news today?”
We keep it professional. I keep it simple for her. No challenges. No sidebars. She gives me what I ask for, and I remember that some lessons are worth living over and over.