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Alexa, what does the future hold? A dystopia where gadgets spy on us


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Stories of Amazon Echo malfunctioning are creepy, but it seems that soon our technology is going to be in control of us


A few months ago I went to dinner at a friend’s. She had just bought an Amazon Echo and was keen to show it off.


“Go on, ask it something.”


Naturally, my mind froze. Eventually I said: “Play Abbey Road.”


“You have to say ‘Alexa’ first.”


“Alexa,” I sighed, “play Abbey Road.”


I admit I was quite impressed as the first notes of Come Together came from the speakers, but I also asked myself: what’s the point of this? And where’s this all heading? What happens if one of the people in a room with Alexa in it is actually called Alexa? (Or Siri? Or – a long shot, admittedly – “OK Google”?) And when, and how, is it going to go wrong?


Stories about Alexa’s capriciousness started circulating almost immediately after the device was launched, but these could be filed under “teething troubles”. However, as the technology has become more advanced, things have taken a more sinister turn; a couple of months ago a few people reported that their Echo had started laughing at them in a most unsettling fashion, and even supplying, unprompted, lists of local cemeteries and funeral parlours.


But the most recent one was a little more worrying, not because it was anything along the lines of B-movie horror tropes, but because a couple’s private conversation was recorded by Alexa and then sent to a random number in their address book. The conversation was about hardwood floors, apparently, which is not a topic with the potential to make one blush with shame when recollecting it; but that’s not really the point. The point is that the private was made public, because a machine – according to Amazon – malfunctioned.


This kind of thing is going to start happening more, and not because the machine is malfunctioning; it’s going to happen because the machine is doing its job properly: its job being to snoop. The mystery is that people are assenting to this, or considering it as progress. Considered superficially, Echo, and related gizmos and apps, are admittedly neat in the way tech aspires to be. It helps realise the non-negligible fantasy of utopian science fiction, acknowledged by Echo’s programmers who have provided readymade answers to commands from Star Trek fans (“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot”, “the replicators are offline,”) or the ability to now address it, as all captains of the Enterprise addressed their software, as “computer”.


This is actually charming, but if it reminds us that there was a human mind behind the gadget, it should also remind us that there are also human minds still involved with it, and if they aren’t actually listening all the time with their headphones to everything that you’re saying, it’s because they don’t have to. I wonder how long it will be before someone says something murderous about, say, a political leader, and then finds themselves getting into uncomfortably hot water, whether they meant it or not. Alexa is very good at picking up words – but maybe not so good at picking up irony.


Never mind, though, about the possibility of being hacked and/or spied on. Actually, we should mind very much about that, and it’s a probability more than a possibility, but there are other problems that perhaps aren’t being considered often or openly enough. These revolve around the very purpose of the huge companies who are now running our lives: simply, to make money out of us, to turn us into nothing more than the aggregate of our material desires, and to crunch those desires into data, which can then be sold to whoever wants it; and we now know that some of these buyers have very sinister agendas indeed.


Until technology like Alexa came along, though, we did at least have to go to the trouble of actively keying in information. Now, though, anything we say could be picked up and used in ways we can hardly imagine. We like to think we are in control of our technology, and this has more or less always been the case; but very soon, our technology is going to be in control of us, if it isn’t already.


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