Saturday, December 8, 2018

Alone Like Never Before

My wife just got us an ECHO™ device. I was not consulted, at least not while I was paying attention, but it got me thinking about the deepening and darkening trend toward the total isolation of the American household, the individual U.S. citizen. Freedom has come to mean freedom from others, and social media aside, that should be disturbing to you.

Advertisers don't frame it this way, of course. They paint these newer technologies as the latest in "convenience." I suppose so, but they conveniently omit the loss of labor from the self-checkout at the supermarket, the fresh air you aren't breathing and the exercise you aren't getting when you call Grubhub or DoorDash, your lack of daily education that comes from interacting with other people face to face, in person.

Can't be bothered conversing with an Uber or Lyft driver? No problem, driverless taxicabs are on the horizon. Where will this end? At what point do we say no, I can do that myself? It is all I can do to tolerate hotel personnel waiting on me hand and foot when I am at one of the fancier establishments. I am not helpless, and I didn't get where I am as a writer by asking Alexa or Google for everything. Back in the day I had to go to a library. I still do, but not as often as I should, and so I miss out on local happenings because I fail to go up the street regularly and see what community announcements they have posted. Shame on me.

I can see where this is going, and it is very clever. Eventually there will be Republican Alexa, Fox News Alexa, Gangsta Alexa, Zionist Alexa....and maybe their counterparts of Democrat, CNN, Folk Alexa, and Agnostic Alexa. Why be unduly inconvenienced by different opinions, religions, cultures, and whatnot? Who needs that baggage? The answer, of course, is that we all do.

While we are talking to our home devices, our Senators and Representatives are talking to lobbyists and corporate interests and making deals that further undermine our rights as workers, consumers, voters, and taxpaying citizens. Alexa is not going to remind you of that. You eventually won't know the rules until you unwittingly break one. Right now, Blacks and Hispanics are all too familiar with this scenario, but sooner or later so will you unless you leave your comfort zone, at least periodically.

People fear the wrong thing from the in-home devices. They think these are stealth machines, surveillance products we have been duped into buying ourselves! Don't you know they are listening to our every word, recording our every action if you have one of those portal thingies, and otherwise invading our privacy? Not likely, though I trust that the manufacturers are listening to find out what else they can sell us.

The real fear we should have in our constant isolation is the erosion of empathy. You cannot relate to others if you don't share experiences. You cannot acknowledge wrongs to others, or validate their trauma, if you do not bear witness firsthand. That was the power of the Civil Rights movement. Comfortable people finally opened their eyes and what they saw shook them.

We need another breakthrough like that, and something sustainable that rejects not technology but the agenda behind it. The future of products and services, as the corporate world sees it, is in cutting us off from each other, automating marketing based on our prior consumer choices. No other input necessary, but thank you for the Yelp review, and "checking in" on Facebook so that we can start a marketing campaign for other individuals. Oooh, look at this bright and shiny new gizmo while we beg Congress for more tax breaks and subsidies that will go to our CEOs and shareholders rather than into properly compensating our employees, providing healthcare and other benefits, testing our products for safety, and making our factories safer, cleaner, and less impactful on the environment. Don't look behind the curtain at our lobbyists arguing for relaxed industrial emissions, looser labor laws, and reduced consumer safety standards.

One day soon I may toss our ECHO into the trash, or at least take it to a thrift store, though I hate to encourage the proliferation of these gadgets. Meanwhile, Alexa? Tell my wife I love her and that I forgive her for the error of your purchase.

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