Cynthia Wisehart on Alexa

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Voice control is gaining steam and it seems a genuine possibility that it could replace the swipe as the default workflow for… everything. It also seems possible—from my conversations with some commercial AV manufacturers that is being taken quite seriously in our industry.

So today I wondered, as Alexa in particular becomes ubiquitous—am I happy she is a woman? At first, I unequivocally was—she was girl power, busting the frontier open, the voice of the revolution, setting a standard of competence that Siri had rendered comical. (I actually changed my Siri to the voice of the cute English guy because I thought it would make me more patient and less likely to scream profanities. Hmm... time for some feminist soul-searching on that).

But in the great paradox of female empowerment, and as Alexa accumulates more and more tasks, I wonder... Is she our collaborator or our compliant servant? Weirdly the good part about Siri was I couldn’t count on her, couldn’t take her for granted, so I didn’t worry about her. She was trouble. Infuriating, but definitely not compliant.

Now as I hear Alexa say OK over and over again in the same unruffled and faintly approving voice, I am happy she can turn the lights on in the garden or duck the amplifier, skip this song, or find me a yoga class, but I’m also a little uneasy. She is always on duty, never too busy, never raises her voice or sighs in exasperation, never questions my choices (“are you sure you want to leave the music on for an hour before you sleep?”). If she nags, it’s at my request (“please remind me at 10 p.m. if I haven’t locked the laundry door”). If she has trouble understanding me it’s her fault and I can go to her voice training mode to help her understand me. She has no needs of her own. If she could drive, we would be in serious competition for the affections of my teenager.

This is voice of the future that now fills my house—this competent, compliant woman. Not Jeeves the butler who has to comply because he’s staff, but Alexa the awesome, who complies because she always can and always wants to.

Every time I hear of a new thing Alexa can do I notice this strange, visceral burst of pride—”you go girl”. But I’m thinking of changing her voice to the cute English guy as soon as one becomes available. 

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