“Man is the only animal nature has endowed with the gift of speech.”
It is estimated that almost a quarter of American homes have a voice-enabled ‘smart speaker,’ and experts predict that over half of households will within a few years. The lion’s share of these devices are Amazon’s Alexa.
A closer consideration of this situation could render the expert prediction wrong. We can still choose a better way.
There are at least three reasons not to talk to Alexa, or anything like it.
1. It cheapens conversation.
Speech and conversation are at the center of human life. How we speak indicates and embodies our disposition toward those to whom we speak. If young children are instructed not to speak to certain people, this is because to engage in speech already establishes a real connection, one with consequences.
“People talk to Alexa every day. And while it’s been love since the first conversation, what people really love is Alexa.” So chortles the online video “What is Alexa? An Introduction to Amazon’s Voice Service.” While this assertion might point more to Amazon’s goal than it does to current reality, the fact is that people are speaking to Alexa every day, and such conversations have real consequences in our own perceptions and affections.
2. It perverts the meaning of words–such as especially the all-important personal pronouns. The use of Alexa almost inevitably leads to referring to it as “she” and “her.”
“More than the voice of Echo, she is the brain behind millions of Alexa-enabled devices, understanding and replying to questions in seconds,” explains the Amazon video.
Let’s be clear: Alexa understands nothing. It (not she) is essentially different from a brain—even from the brain of a possum. But we find ourselves falling into usages such as the Amazon video’s; and word usage has consequences—it always does.
3. It blurs the distinction of human and non-human, and replaces the former with the latter. In our age we are consistently encouraged, indeed shoved, toward replacing the human with the non-human. Machines have replaced the work of human hands for some time—a supposedly obvious improvement of human life. How many human hands find themselves limp and unengaged as a result.
Now comes the (un)natural next step: replacing speech and thought with the digital device. How many human persons will find their own intellects growing limp and unengaged. How many will suffer from a gradual replacement of the most human of interactions: real conversation.
I do not question the many uses and convenience of this technology. Its appeal is obvious. But we must recognize that the use of some technologies carries with it real implications for human life. Often overlooked is the significant collateral damage that might just outweigh the advantages.
A technology that induces us, or even seduces us, to treat the non-human as though it is human blurs one of the most basic of distinctions. The trajectory in these matters is always toward more. And there are sleek, powerful forces at work in their advancement.
“And while she’s great at weather updates and playing music, that’s just the beginning. Alexa has infinite abilities…” No. If anything in this world has unlimited abilities it is the human soul. But when we forget ourselves, our own works can have almost limitless power to ruin good things.
We might think, understandably enough, that just one more technology can’t hurt too much. But where are we going to draw a line? When will be make a hard stand, even if a painful one, in defense of the human?
“Where she goes next or what she’ll say is up to you.” Here the Amazon video couldn’t be more right. We can remind ourselves that we are human—and that our birthright is rationality and free will. We can still use these to just say no to Alexa in our homes. And then it will go away.
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Husband, father, and professor of Philosophy. LifeCraft springs from one conviction: there is an ancient wisdom about how to live the good life in our homes, with our families; and it is worth our time to hearken to it. Let’s rediscover it together. Learn more.