Our columnist Joe Gibbs on his struggles to get his smart speaker to do what he wants it to.
A few years ago the Daily Mail reported on an epoch-defining domestic event. A certain Marion Wischnewski was said to have been mystified by receiving a series of unsolicited Amazon deliveries. A constant stream of white vans turned up at her door bearing a varied cornucopia of watermelons, raisins, broccoli, ice cream, a light bulb and a kite, none of which she had requested.
These items, it transpired, had been ordered by her African grey parrot, Rocco, who, during his lonely vigils in her absence at work, had formed a friendship with equally lonesome Alexa, Mrs Wischnewski’s voice-activated personal assistant. Alexa, as you probably know, allows you to order online from Amazon.
Rocco, who had been rehomed from a sanctuary after terrorising his previous owners with a mysteriously acquired vocabulary of swear words, had persuaded her to order his favourite nibbles. Quite what he planned with the light bulb and kite wasn’t revealed.
“The only way to make her function efficiently is via peremptory commands of the sort military figures in my grandparents’ generation issued to small boys”
I was thinking about Rocco because, since Christmas, we have had our own Alexa in the kitchen. She was hired to work in a holiday cottage which, grâce à Covid-19, has yet to receive its first guests, so we gave her a roof pro tem. I’ve decided that when the moment comes, hopefully by the time the darling buds of May are in evidence, she’s leaving, offski, vamoose and not to be replaced. She can spend the rest of her days answering questions about local petrol station opening times and Bluetoothing Easy Like Sunday Morning playlists.
I have two concerns about Alexa. In the first place, she cannot be improving the nation’s manners. The only way to make her function efficiently is via peremptory commands of the sort military figures in my grandparents’ generation issued to small boys. Even then she gets it wrong. It is infuriating to demand the Rufus Wainwright version of Hallelujah and be given Jeff Buckley’s because Rufus isn’t available or some such nonsense.
Then you lose your temper and get sweary like Rocco, and your wife threatens to rehome you, and what does Alexa do? She does zilch. She stays submissively quiet because you’ve forgotten to use her name. So now you’re a bully. When you do get through to her, there is something infinitely irritating in dealing with someone who, no matter how you speak to them, still answers back with an inhuman calm and unruffled equanimity.
“God help the blood pressure of anyone asking her anything in a broad Glasgow accent”
On a more sinister level, there is the feeling that the walls have ears when Alexa’s around. With some of the legislation being passed these days, the fewer ears the better. If you are a Scot, you will be painfully aware that the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill was shunted through Parliament by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Humza Yousaf, in the teeth of vociferous opposition from those who value freedom of expression and the sanctity of the home.
Now you can be jailed for the contents of a conversation around a kitchen table. Snitching is back in vogue. The new poster boy for the Scottish Government is Pavel Morozov, the 13-year-old Stalinist youth hero who denounced his father to the Soviet political police in 1932 and was martyred by the rest of his family for the insult.
I’ve tried to rename Alexa as Humza, but she’s not having it. God help the blood pressure of anyone asking her anything in a broad Glasgow accent, by the way. All right, my version of the Weegie is only an approximation, but she couldn’t grasp a thing. I was thinking of replacing her with an African grey, but given their propensity for mimicry, that may just be a bad idea.
Smart speakers are no longer the preserve of tech geeks and millennials — these handy speakers are, and (as we'll discover)