Google recently released a string of commercials for the Google Assistant, a virtual helper with a female voice—the company's version of Apple’s Siri. In the ads, celebrities like John Legend and Sia struggle with mundane tasks until this text flashes onto the screen: “Make Google Do It.” Why type a search into Netflix yourself or turn off the living room lights when you could make Google do it?
Technology’s purpose has always been to make our lives easier, so the Google Assistant (and other apps like it) is in one sense nothing new. However, assigning identities to our technology and communicating vocally with them is relatively new. The slogan “Make Google Do It” should be questioned, because virtual helpers represent more than just tools. They have been humanized with names and voices, and yet we are encouraged to dominate them. This is more than creepy, as the emphasis on serving oneself above all else opposes the biblical model of care and selflessness when it comes to relationships.
These commercials highlight the subtle seduction of commanding humanized virtual assistants, illustrating the power we would achieve through them. The Google Assistant takes on the burden of the mundane, from adjusting the thermometer to texting Grandma—in Google’s words, “a million actions made easier.” Although the “million actions” accomplished by voice assistants are mostly small, one can’t help but feel a spark of godlike power by turning on the house lights with a mere vocal command. At Wired, Antonio García Martínez described how the power trip that home speakers offer can seep into other areas of our life. Martínez recalled how he once instinctively “shouted” for Alexa—Amazon’s Echo, another virtual-assistant device—in his car, “ready to have the global brain do my bidding.” Subconsciously, he had accustomed himself to controlling his own little dominion and was taken aback when he could not just make things happen past the walls of his home.
Voice assistants are also seductive because they promise human connection without the baggage of real relationship. Commercials for the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple’s HomePod feature users casually speaking with their device as if it were another person in the room. The assistant has an increasingly realistic voice which responds, night or day, with a comforting “Hi, how can I help?” She is the ideal servant: obedient, ever-present, cheerful, and soulless. We are invited to “Make Google Do It” because we can: we don’t need to care about Google in return, we can just force her to, in Martínez’s words, do our bidding.
The slogan 'Make Google Do It' should be questioned, because virtual helpers represent more than just tools.
The promotion of this self-centered communication should give Christians pause. Decades before Siri was dreamed of, Bonhoeffer explained in Life Together that the taxing needs of our neighbors are crucial to our relational health: “The Christian, however, must bear the burden of a brother. ...It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated.” Although the Google Assistant is not a flesh-and-blood person, commanding it regularly will almost inevitably create unhealthy standards for our real-life relationships. The more we control our human-voiced devices, the more desensitized we could become to trying to control each other, going against God’s plan for a loving, selfless community.
This became clear to me last Christmas, when Alexa soured a party I attended. The virtual assistant wasn’t playing the right music for the occasion, which provoked repeated angry commands from the crowd: “Alexa! Shut up!” “Alexa! Different music!” “What is wrong with you, Alexa!?” The lines were quickly blurred between the fake human, Alexa, and the real humans, as frustration and impatience rippled through the room. Retrospectively, I believe that the bad habit of dominating Alexa made it easier for us to apply that controlling attitude to those around us.
A relationship defined by power struggles and selfishness is directly unbiblical. Paul encourages us to “honor one another above yourselves,” even to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Acts 2 and 4 describe the early church as a selfless community, giving endlessly to each other. Jesus’ own example on earth displays care and selflessness, setting aside his glory to heal lepers, dignify prostitutes, and wash his friends’ feet, which he then commands they do for each other. By contrast, in our communication with voice assistants, we practice pride, dominance, and selfishness. We “make” a humanized device do things for us without having to give anything back. As we move into more interactions with humanized devices, we must be cautious not to form habits that could so easily hurt the ones we love outside of the virtual world.
The slogan “Make Google Do It” is harmful because it promises complete control over a human voice. As we increase our dependence on voice-operated devices, I worry that playing master over our willing technological slaves will develop bad relational habits. We need not throw out our Google Homes or Apple HomePods entirely (they can be incredibly beneficial for those with certain disabilities, for instance), but Christians ought to apply caution to the fast-moving technology of voice assistants and consider the harmful habits this technology could form.