ListeningWednesday, Sep 28, 2016 · 700 words · approx 4 mins to read
I’ve been a home automation fan for quite a long time now, and I’ve had a lot of fun marrying modern technology to what’s in my house, mostly to gain convenience but also because I love playing with new tech to see what it’s capable of.
Voice automation and digital assistants, through devices like the Amazon Echo, Google Chirp and Apple TV, have the potential to remove friction in day-to-day life and make a whole suite of things more convenient to do or achieve. To do that, though, they obviously have to listen to you all the time, so they can react quickly and do what you want to do faster and more efficiently than, say, reaching for the light switch by hand, or setting a timer or checking the weather on your phone.
It’s that intersection of convenience and privacy — where in order to help those devices have to listen to literally every word they can hear — which has constantly bugged me since I got my first Amazon Echoes to play with. So much so that it’s changed the way I think, and changed the way I speak.
Human beings have an innate tendency to speak differently in private. Whereas you wouldn’t swear if you were somewhere in front of kids, for example, you might be a bit more loose with your vocabulary around more familiar, adult company.
Knowing that a few black cylinders in my house can always hear me has made me more measured in what I say at home, the normal bastion of my personal privacy, even around my fiancée, my brother, or my dad when we call each other every week. I know they’re probably not recording me or sending all of my speech off to be analysed by Amazon, or worse.
But the chance they might be means I’ve changed what I say, and by definition changed who I am. Maybe it’s for the better; humour that some people might find offensive but is otherwise harmless in private is now usually off the cards. Maybe I shouldn’t use that kind of humour anyway, because while it’s important to laugh, there’s still plenty of subjects to find laughter in that wouldn’t offend.
It’s all part of the notion now, post Snowden, that everything you say or type these days is swept up, kept and analysed. I’ve added these devices to my home to make it easier to turn on and off lights and things, but I’ve increased my constant cognitive load to pay for it, because I’m forever thinking about what I should and shouldn’t say while Alexa is listening. I’m even more polite to her than I am other humans. “Thanks!”, after every ask to turn on some lights, or every request to find out long the peas I’m cooking have left to go.
Just in case everything I’ve said becomes public. At least the absolute embarrassment at my privacy being ruined will be tempered by everyone understanding that I at least remember my pleases and thankyous while talking to a bunch of computers, if not my own family and friends.
I guess that’s the world we live in now, and it’s hard to know what to do to regain true privacy when today’s modern existence seems completely counter to having any. The friction involved in moving the needle back in your favour — getting friends to use a different messaging service that doesn’t send your phone number to Facebook and doesn’t store your chats, say — is enormous. The big companies that rely on those shields being down as much as possible in order to monetise you effectively as you move around the Internet have so much momentum.
So the black cylinders can stay, because ordering more printer ink while I’m watching TV when the thought comes to me that I’m running out, without having to get up and go to a computer or find my phone, is cool and convenient and makes life better. But the nagging feeling that everything I say is being listened to by actors unknown, even when I’m at home by myself, muttering away to my dogs, will always be there.