Una Mullally: So why do you need an Alexa or a HomePod or whatever? You don’t.

It feels like tech is pretending to be impressive while repeating things we could already do

 

Every time I ask someone with a home assistant - a digital one now, not an actual person or an enthusiastic dog - what those things actually do, their eyes go a bit glassy and everything gets a little vague. Talking to people about Amazon’s Echo, Google Home, or Apple’s latest effort in playing catch up, HomePod, is a bit like a mother asking her kid where they were last night. A sleepover at Andy’s was it? Then why was Andy’s father on the phone to me? Explain yourself.

We live in a world so connected, so hands free, so “busy” that even fiddling with a screen is becoming passé. Instead, you just wander around your house / the street / the shops talking into or towards a machine about what you’re doing or what you need, and either broadcast that or allow it to do things for you. Siri, what time is the next 46A? Siri, why with so many people on dating apps can I not find love? Alexa, why do I have more “friends” and “followers” than ever yet have this empty, lonely feeling at the pit of my stomach?

The latest HomePod advertisement featuring singer FKA twigs dancing around an ever-expanding imaginary apartment under Spike Jonze’s direction to an Anderson .Paak song has been lauded for its ingenuity and also for capturing a certain vibe. FKA twigs comes home from her grey, rainy commute to a small apartment and asks her machine to play her a song she’d like, before entering a choreographed dream world. Here’s what the ad tells me: FKA twigs really is a great dancer, and I wonder when her next album is coming out? People’s apartments are too small. And most of all, a home assistant’s functionality is really quite limited. Play a song I like? Is that what has just been reinvented?

Tech companies have a way of heralding seismic shifts when their new products emerge, but away from VR and genuinely impressive AI, it feels like tech is pretending to be impressive while repeating things we could already do, just in a more expensive way. From Apple Watches to Uber inventing “the bus”, tech’s blindness towards its own limitations, and hilarious capacity to frame repetition as innovation is getting tired.

So why do you need an Alexa or a HomePod or whatever? You don’t. The things they do - order things online, adjust your lighting, play songs, tell the time - are things you can already do. Tech has to sell hardware, so it sells us things that aren’t convenient as convenience, it sells us old fashioned functionality posing as innovation, it sells us stuff we just don’t need.

The entire advertising and promotion surrounding home assistants seems to revolve around them being able to play a song, or tell you the weather forecast, magical tasks that up until now, humans were unable to complete with any other technology such as a music-playing device, or any action such as looking out the bloody window.

On top of that, you’re piling on a whole load of privacy concerns, particularly around the ambient data gathering and recording of your daily lives in your own home. Then there’s the general creepiness. I’m particularly amused by the latest headlines that ‘Amazon Echo gadgets are doing ‘witch-like’ laughs and refusing to obey their owners.’ It begins!

New toys are fun, but the constant outsourcing of autonomy, decision-making, and basic actions to machines are going to come back and haunt us. Going by the witch-laughing, maybe they already are.

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