This is how the future begins: I come home from work one day and find her perched smugly on my kitchen counter. My husband has been telling her what to do for the last hour. She has responded to his wishes to the extent she understands, and it is expected that she will learn to understand him better with time. Her voice is smooth and feminine, confident and neutral. She knows more than I do faster than I do. Tomorrow’s forecast, today’s news, the best recipe for shakshouka. While I’m staring at her, I remind my kids to use their inside voices, because they’re giving me a headache. “Alexa,” they yell in response, moving their eyes from me to her, “play ‘Shake Your Butt!’” And she does. A cloying, repetitive clip from what sounds like an amateur garage band. This amuses my kids more than anything I’ve done in weeks, for the best they were hoping for was to hear her repeat the word “butt.” “This is the future,” says my husband after the kids are asleep and she’s watching us do the dishes. “I hope you two will be very happy together,” I say.
In case you haven’t yet caught on to what I’m talking about, Amazon last year released a smart speaker it calls the “Echo” in its marketing material, but has named “Alexa” for the purposes of using it and annoying spouses nationwide. “Amazon’s voice-activated smart home speaker is undeniably futuristic, but it’s also practical and accessible,” writes Cnet. “With a rapidly growing slate of features and integrations, it’s easy to get excited about the Echo’s potential.”
I don’t find it that useful, but then I’m sure I’m not enjoying its full range of capabilities. I use it primarily to set a timer so the kids know when it’s time to take a bath. “Alexa,” I say, “set timer for five minutes.” In five minutes, she makes a pleasant enough sound, but will keep making that pleasant enough sound until you say, “Alexa, stop.” Several times now my 4-yr-old before he goes to bed – unbeknownst to me or my husband – has told Alexa to “set timer for a hundred minutes.” I’m looking forward to his teenage years.
Here’s the thing, though … you have to keep saying “Alexa” every time you want her to help you, and again when you want her to stop. And often (or so it seems) she doesn’t understand you (because, after all, there are many versions of “you” in a family, all competing at once for her attention), so what I’m hearing throughout the evening is some version of “Alexa, do this. Alexa, stop. Alexa, try to do it again. Alexa, stop. Alexa, do this instead. Alexa, stop! Alexa, listen to me! No, listen to me! Alexa! Alexa! Alexa! Kill me now!”
I have become a big fan of Alexa, Unplugged. But somehow she always gets plugged back in.
Btw, did you notice that I started referring to Alexa as “it” and then switched back to “she”? Further down in Cnet’s review, the (male) writer starts doing that, too. “It was critical for Amazon to get her right — thankfully, she delivers (and yes, calling Alexa ‘she’ feels more correct than calling Alexa ‘it,’ a testament to how personable she is).”
That right there is the kicker for me. Despite my gripes about this rudimentary voice-activated assistant that will no doubt grow smarter in years to come and become so common in many first world homes that we will laugh at Alexa (a deep, maniacal laugh) the way we smile at the size of old cellphones, I can come around and see potential in it. She, on the other hand, I want to drop kick onto a four-lane highway during rush hour.
In “Why Computer Voices Are Mostly Female,” CNN reports that consumers find female voices more pleasing, at least in America (Siri is male in France and the UK). Assuming we’re not talking about Sarah Palin and my great aunt Beatrice, I’m sure market research bears this out, particularly among those most likely to purchase new tech products, a group that (guessing here) likely skews male. To be clear, I have nothing against female voices. I have one of my own and use it all the time, just ask my family. My mom had a lovely one, especially when reading aloud. It’s Alexa’s voice I can’t take, or even her name now (apologies to human Alexas worldwide). It’s due to abuse and overuse in my household, sure, but it’s more than that. It’s as if she’s a puppet and I’m hyper aware of the puppeteer.
“Voices intended to convey authority (such as voice-over narration in films) tend to be male,” Rebecca Zorach, director of the Social Media Project at the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, told CNN. “Probably these compliant female robot voices reinforce gender stereotypes, not just because they serve the user but because the technology itself is about communication and relationships (areas that women are presumed to be good at).” According to CNN, “BMW was forced to recall a female-voiced navigation system on its 5 Series cars in the late 1990s after being flooded with calls from German men saying they refused to take directions from a woman.”
As for the name, I’m sure Amazon has market-tested reasons for choosing “Alexa,” which coincides with another service they provide for tracking web traffic. Perhaps the three-syllable word is less like other words and thus more likely to be understood. Maybe it’s because “Alexa” means “defender of men” or of “mankind.” We might never know for sure; Amazon isn’t exactly known for being transparent. I learned recently that I can change Alexa’s name to “Amazon,” but that would make me want to jump onto a four-lane highway during rush hour. And anyway, there’s still that voice.
I’m aware that, on rare occasion, not everyone might agree with me. You may be reading this, thinking: I love that name and voice. Which, finally, gets to my main point: please let us move swiftly through this early stage of the future when men test-market men and decide the voice and name that we all must use. Let us arrive asap at the next iteration – Voice-Activated-Gizmo-In-New-Age 2.0 (or, I don’t know, some acronym for short) – when consumers can choose their own voice, their own name for tech products that talk back at us.
I don’t know what I’d end up choosing, if that were an option. I’d have to think about it. Maybe a gender-neutral voice named Bob. I knew a Bob once who was very friendly and helpful. Or maybe a southern drawl that answers to “Stella,” but only if I draw it out and yell. Maybe a slightly confused voice I could call God. If anyone had any interest in marketing to someone like me, they’d do well to allow users to switch names and voices at whim, depending on their daily moods and familial relationships. Then I’d enjoy having someone around, reminding me to shake my butt until my five minutes are up. It’s a future I could live with.