There are some days that I wake up and pinch myself, wondering if I’m dreaming, or if I’m living as a character in a science fiction novel set in the year 2525.
I guess it all started way back in 2008, when a black guy got elected President. That’s when I first got the feeling that I was living in the future. And then again, a few years later, when Colorado decriminalized weed. I checked the calendar, and it was 2012, not 2212. And now, just the other day, in the 21st century, not the 23rd century, when the Supreme Court decided that same-sex marriage is A-OK in the USA.
“Did you ever think you would live to see <insert astounding new event here>?” I find myself asking friends and family, as well as random strangers who have the misfortune of standing next to me on the commuter train platform when I’m feeling chatty.
The other day, I asked that same question when a package delivered from Amazon arrived on my doorstep.
“You sure get a lot of packages, Karen,” the mail carrier, Ruth, said as she handed the small box to me. She’s right. We do get a lot of packages, enough so that I’m on a first name basis with a United States postal worker.
While we do get a lot of packages, I had not ordered anything from Amazon recently, or at least, not that I could recall. There have been times when mysterious deliveries come to my door and only after opening the container do I remember that oh, yes, I did order Hot Buns™ 2 Piece Set for Light Hair back when I thought wearing my hair twisted in a tight knot at the back of my head would give me the appearance of seriousness and sophistication I was looking for, instead of just a screaming migraine.
I shook the box the mail carrier gave me, to see if its rattle would give away its secret. The contents shifted inscrutably. I decided it must be something my husband had ordered, although it arrived addressed to me, and left it there on the entryway table for him.
When my husband came home that evening, he denied ordering anything from Amazon. The entire family gathered around the mystery box.
“Maybe it’s a mistake,” I said, though, in my head, I’m thinking “bomb” not “mistake.” I don’t say it out loud so as not to frighten the children. Don’t be ridiculous, the sane voice in my head said. Who would want to mail bomb us? The insane voice in my head answered, No one ever thinks they’re going to get mail bombed. That’s what makes it so diabolical: the surprise factor.
“Maybe it’s a present,” the six year old said. Her birthday is in three weeks, although the event has been top of mind for her for going on six months now.
“Only one way to find out,” my husband said. He took hold of the box and ripped off the packaging tape. “Look, it’s that thing you ordered!”
While I’m relieved it’s not a bomb, I can’t remember any “thing” I ordered. I peered into the box and remembered. “Oh, yeah, that thing.”
“That thing” is the Amazon Echo, the voice-activated electronic personal assistant. I’d received an invitation about a year ago, asking me if I wanted to be part of the exclusive few to be offered the opportunity to pre-order the Echo at an introductory price of $99, and it would ship as soon as it was available.
I forwarded the email to my husband. “Would we have any use for this thing?” I asked him.
My husband, who has never seen a gadget he could not find a use for, replied, “Oh, yeah! Let’s get that thing!”
So here it was, that thing, arriving on our doorstep so many months later, after we’d forgotten that we ever even wanted it. It sits in our living room, listening for its “wake word” (“Alexa!”), ready to spring to life at our command.
“Alexa! Weather forecast.”
“Currently, it’s sixty degrees with showers. You can expect more of the same today, with a high of 76 and a low of 58.”
“Alexa! To Do list.”
“What would you like me to add to your To Do list?”
The Echo comes with an associated smartphone application, and the items I’ve added by voice to a list show up on my phone in text. It’s actually pretty neat, though Alexa’s interpretation of what I’ve said can be hit or miss. Here’s what she thought I wanted at the grocery store.
I don’t remember what I said that Alexa heard as “Boppy,” but all that seafood I’m buying? That’s supposed to be Fancy Feast cat food. I’m thinking the cats at our house have somehow figured out a way to get Alexa to hear “Fresh Lobster and Shrimp” when I say “Grilled Liver in Gravy.”
And some of Alexa’s interpretations are downright prescient. After an early morning battle between Panic at the Disco (the musical request of my twelve-year-old daughter) and the soundtrack to Teen Beach 2 (the preference of her six-year-old sister), I shouted
“Alexa! Play morning music.”
For a moment, I feared the Echo would hear “mourning” instead of “morning” and fill the house with funeral dirges. Instead, Alexa responded
“You are listening to the Classical Hangover playlist.”
The soothing strains of Pachelbel’s Canon in D came through the speakers and I thought, artificial intelligence is really freaking brilliant.
Of course, there are detractors. Some folks are wary of technology sitting in our homes, listening, listening, listening to our every
hiccup and fart move. I came across this comment on a review of the product over on CNET.
I collect and analyze consumer data from AC Nielsen and customer loyalty cards for a living. I’m not a tin foil hat wearer, but this product straight up scares me. The only reason Amazon made this was to squeeze more money from Prime users, thats it. Now it can start collecting trends based on age, race, location, time of day, etc and correlate that to other Echo users across the country. Guaranteed, Amazon will apply all this information towards better marketing to you. Leave it in your bedroom, and it will learn when you go to sleep and wake up, how well you sleep, when you have sex, if you watch TV in bed, etc. It has the ability to learn all of your friends and family, where they live, and anything you say out loud in your home. Amazon’s ultimate wet dream would be the ability to collect your thoughts, but we aren’t there yet.
I showed the piece to my husband and asked, “Do you really think Amazon will be able to track how often we have sex? I’m thinking they just know how often I buy cherry-flavored lube, which is not the same thing.”
On that note, Dear Reader, I’ll leave you with the information that the Echo is now available to purchase without an invitation for the much less attractive price of $179.99, if you’ve got any money left over after you buy cherry-flavored lube.
Royalty free stock photos, including some of the images in this post, can be found at freeimages.com. The photo of the Echo is taken from the Amazon website, and is believed to be used under the doctrine of Fair Use and does not violate US or International copyright law. The screenshot of my shopping list is from my phone.