This article originally appeared in Liberty Island Magazine
Bringing in information appliances like Alexa and Siri costs you your privacy. They’ll monitor and record everything you say, parsing it for key terms to be used in advertising. However, I can’t say they aren’t for everyone. I’m going to ignore those who want to live in a networked home because it feels like the future has arrived and focus on those that are the best (or worst) case scenario.
A family member of ours is disabled. Judging from the piles of Amazon boxes we clear out once in a while, Amazon has clearly made the business case for these devices. She can recognize a need for something, order it from Amazon via a voice command, and it arrives in either a matter of hours or days. This dramatically reduces the need to be taken somewhere to buy things, though there are still occasional shopping trips. It also reduces her agency. No need to wait for someone else to show up and take her. No worry they’ll forget to get it or choose not to. Order it, and it arrives. Whether that’s pizza or deodorant depends on the moment.
This is in stark contrast to when my grandmother was in her final stage of life a couple of years ago. If she needed something, one of us had to arrange to take her or simply go get it for her. Then there was the frustration that no, that’s not what I wanted. On one occasion, I spent an hour plus driving around looking for the right type of cheesecake so that I could bring it back to her to enjoy, after driving to her home in the first place. I put it on the list of “strange things you’ve done out of love”. A decade later, this relative can simply order it via a voice command. Anything below a certain price threshold (within the allowance) is approved. This is, in fact, an application for the Amazon Allowance feature that will be utilized more often in the future.
It took two engineers a lot of time to wire up the home automation, but once it was done, she can control the lights and other items through Alexa. I don’t want an AI monitoring my conversations or my children learning to use it as a go-to source of information, but then again, I can walk up to the window and adjust the shades myself.
There are trade-offs we make every day. And as we age, I wonder to what degree privacy is lost so that we can stay in our homes with a measure of independence. Many will accept that price, though, in order to replace “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” to a stranger at a call center to be able to say “Alexa, call Dr. X to schedule an earlier appointment for my hip, and call Y to come here and help me.”