The alluring ease of Amazon’s Echo

Ashley Hales

Ashley Hales
March 14, 2016

Amazon's Echo serves our needs, but how might it shape our sensibilities?

March 15, 2016

When you actually use Alexa, Siri, Cortana, or any of the new AI devices, you realize that they're, honestly, nothing to worry about because their functionality is still so vastly limited.

Alexa doesn't have any functionality that reduces human social function. In fact it promotes socialization more than our phones do as anyone in the room can use it. And it is, in fact, just efficiency.

March 15, 2016

Thanks Ashley for your article (and Lane for your comment). In response I would like to make three points.

The first is that the ease and efficiency of Amazon Echo is not neutral - it allows us to buy from Amazon (and only from Amazon). This makes more people Amazon customers and makes us buy more from Amazon, giving Amazon increasing power over vendors and allowing Amazon to take an increasing amount of their margins. It also allows Amazon to drive unnecessary efficiency through the supply chain, removing employment opportunity across the economy.

The second is that our social interactions are not limited to the people in our living room. When we shop in person, we encounter people on the street, people in the mall and the people who serve us. This is a vital part of our society and an opportunity to share God's love and gospel with many people. Just yesterday at the supermarket, for instance, I ran into an old friend who told me, in tears, of a tragedy in their life and I was able to listen to and pray with them right there. Amazon Echo takes these opportunities away.

The third is that these technologies will not remain vastly limited or 'non-social'. Researchers are actively working on social, service and sexual robots which seek to replace human-human interactions with human-machine interactions. Other people (e.g. Ray Kurzweil at Google) imagine a future in which humans become machines (e.g. having millions of computers in our bloodstream which read our thoughts and feed us information).

If we are to preserve human-human interactions, we need to look much deeper than the comfort of our living rooms and further ahead than today or tomorrow. We need to not shop on Amazon and preserve jobs. We need to get off our La-Z-Boy and meet people on the street and in our shops. And we need to prioritize human-human interactions before we can be convinced that they have little value (and replace humans, and ourselves, with machines).

March 15, 2016

Here's a fourth point for good measure.

At the moment, the Amazon Echo presumably sends your speech (what you said) to Amazon's servers only when the *device* recognizes that you have you said a keyword ('Alexa' or 'Amazon'). As the cost of computer processing power goes down, however, there's nothing to stop the Echo or its replacement from sending *everything* you say and do to Amazon. Amazon will be able to hear what you say to other people who are in the room or what you say your mobile or home phone. And they'll be able to detect what you are watching on TV, on your laptop, which DVDs you are watching and so on, all of which is commercially valuable information.

Why invite a corporate spy into your house? And therefore (in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations) invite a government spy into your house?

What we are giving away for the sake of a little convenience (e.g. not having to maintain a shopping list or to avoid having to get up and turn off a light) is mind-boggling.

Kirk Nymann
March 15, 2016

This is NOT a Christian comment or viewpoint or discussion. It is simply an advertisement.

Was there any mention of Christ in this piece? No.

Was there any discussion of how technology impacts Christian life? No.

If you're going to post ads, then post them as such, but don't fraudulently represent them as an article.

To do so is hypocrisy.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
March 16, 2016

In Reply to Kirk Nymann (comment #27972)
Hi Kirk,

Josh Larsen, TC editor here. I’m sorry you feel that way about this piece. However, I would offer the follow excerpts as “discussion of how technology impacts Christian life,” as you put it:

“…the question for Christians isn’t only what needs would Echo serve (a question that is more about efficiency than worship), but also: how does it shape one’s sensibilities? Does this technology enable me to love God and others well, or does it distract me from that?”

“We have, as Wendell Berry wrote, ‘replac[ed] people by technology.’”

“When we make our choices about technology … based on an appeal to our felt needs and efficiency, we miss the point. C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves that ‘to love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” He continued, tongue-in-cheek: “If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements.’”

“Bringing the Echo speaker into your home may, in fact, free up your time to love your family and neighbors well. Or, it may just be another shiny distraction from real life. It’s up to you.”

Often the idea behind a TC piece is to start a conversation around a given topic, to prompt Christians to consider a cultural artifact through the lens of their faith. That’s what Ashley has helped us do here, as the above comments evidence.

March 16, 2016

In Reply to Andrew (comment #27970)

Andrew, I sympathize with everything you've said above. For many of the reasons you list, I'm not part of the target market Echo is aimed at, but I'm not quite as ready to dismiss what Echo (and other technologies like it) are trying to achieve.

First, my point of agreement with you: it's definitely biased for Amazon and designed to boost their profitability. I know what you mean because the Kindle has revolutionized my own reading life. I consume more books than I ever did before simply because of the convenience (and relative affordability) of acquiring them digitally and being able to transport multivolume works in a compact space. I'm a more well-read person because of Kindle; I know myself well enough to be confident of that. But, one thing I've also noticed is that I'm much, much less likely to visit brick-and-mortar bookstores because I know that even if I find a book there I'd like to read, I'm just going to go on Amazon and buy the digital version to be delivered to my Kindle. Why? Because I don't want to take up shelf space with the physical book, and because it's cheaper to get the digital version anyway. So unless it's a book for which a Kindle version doesn't yet exist...chances are I'm just going to send my money to Amazon because my ereader is an Amazon device. So Amazon definitely scored with me on that one.

I think my biggest point of disagreement, though, is where you say that Echo "takes away" opportunities to encounter people out and about in the world. I think that's a bit of an overstatement, because I agree with Ashley's observation near the end of her piece. Conveniences like Echo could--used rightly--free people to spend their time engaged in activities OTHER than shopping that could be just as social. The economic argument notwithstanding for the moment, it's possible that rather than spending a Saturday at the mall, someone could place their Amazon order in a matter of minutes and spend the day at the park with their family, or canoeing with friends, or working on any number of service projects with their church. I'm not saying they necessarily will...but to the extent that we choose to do non-social things with our free time, that's not a problem with Echo so much as a problem with us, right?

March 16, 2016

In Reply to JKana (comment #27974)

Hi JKana, thanks for your reply. My purpose in making those comments is for us (and Christians in particular) to unpack and question the 'More Efficiency = Better' mantra.

Ultimately, I think, this mantra comes from modern society's secular religion, which places faith in technology as our savior. More technology (which delivers more efficiency) must then always be better. The ultimate realization of this religion is that people become entirely self-sufficient individuals, having all of their needs (physical, emotional, sexual, etc.) met by technology and, ultimately, merge their minds with technology to live forever in the 'cloud' (which is nonsense).

The real God, however, is relational and He made us relational beings in His image. He deliberately puts us through inefficiency (a.k.a. 'suffering') to bring us into a deeper relationship with Him and with with each other. We are called to walk together and encourage one another through our lives. It is through many inefficient and sometimes quite unpleasant experiences that we build real relationships with other people.

It matters very much, therefore, where we place efficiency in our lives and we should not assume that we, as sinful, selfish and comfort-idolizing individuals, will make wise use of the time which efficiency frees up for us.

The point that I was making about 'Amazon Echo taking these opportunities away' was that in the midst of inefficiency (e.g. having to do your own shopping) we are forced to encounter and love real people who we would not necessarily choose to interact with or love, even our own family members. This is the same problem, for instance, that occurred when fathers received tools which replaced the labor of their sons in the family workshop - the theory was that this was good because it would give fathers and sons more quality time together, but a relationship forged by working inefficiently together cannot easily be replaced with 'quality' leisure time (and now Dad watches Netflix while his son is on Facebook). So yes, we could spend our free time canoeing, etc. but do we?

In this regard, we also need to pay close attention to the distribution of efficiency, that is, the allocation of the capital (the computers and machinery) which create efficiency of various kinds. A poor distribution of the means of production is what Karl Marx was railing against, because it caused social and economic upheaval which gave control to an elite few. We are having a similar problem on the information processing side of the equation, in which Amazon, Google, Facebook and others now provide the information structures in which we make our personal decisions.

We should be aware, therefore, that when Amazon provides convenience which saves us time by avoiding shopping, that Amazon does *not* want us to spend our free time canoeing with friends - it wants us to use the same convenience to say 'Alexa, turn on my tv' and then 'Alexa play me reruns of Friends'. They are in the business of selling us content which is so enjoyable and easy to digest that real life (relating to real people and all of their problems) is relatively hard work. That is, after all, why we watched the sitcom Friends (in which everyone was fun, interesting and all of their problems were solved in a single episode) rather than to spend our time actually making and supporting *real* friends (who can be messy, annoying and suffer intractable problems).

What we, as Christians, should be most sensitive to, therefore, is any technology which seeks to control our decision-making and mediates or replaces relationships (including the relationships that we don't think are valuable, such as shopping in the community). Iron sharpens iron in awkward and sometimes painful face-to-face conversation, not on Facebook or by watching TV every night. And we must remember this - Facebook and the TV stations make no money if we spend time in the presence of other people, so they are desperately and selfishly trying to change how we spend our time and how we relate to others.

Given this commercial pressure to put efficiency in the wrong place (and that our hearts are sinful), perhaps one thing we should be doing is making ourselves accountable to others in this regard - how am I using my spare time (that efficiency has given me)? Am I relating to and helping others, or am I isolating myself? And so on.

Ashley Hales
March 17, 2016

Thank you for your interaction with this piece!

Kirk, I believe that Josh has significantly addressed your hesitations about this article. I do not have an Echo speaker and Amazon is not paying me or Think Christian to advertise. I was simply writing a piece that asks questions about our (often) unthinking use of technology. I think it is definitely worth the discussion to think Christianly about such topics. So, no, I did not quote Jesus about it -- but the essence of the gospel is to love God and our neighbors. To think Christianly, we have to ask ourselves about what we consume -- from food, to products -- how they are either making room for us to do those two things better.

Andrew, I agree with so much of what you say! We do need to support local stores and encounter real human beings! Like many things, convenience is also something that as a mother of 4 young children, I prize. I try to do my grocery shopping when some of my children are at school, for instance. Like all things, there is a trade-off. When I order things from Amazon (or online) that often means I'm outside in my neighborhood letting my children play and enables me to make friends with neighbors, instead of monitoring a grocery-store meltdown. It's all complicated and probably a matter of conscience. I so appreciate your interaction here and your thoughts. You are very right, the "spy" aspect is what has many reviewers worried about Amazon Echo.

Josh, thank you for inviting me to this topic. It's so helpful to think through how our technological choices reflect Christ. Thank you, too, for your pulling of quotes from the article itself in your comment.

Mackenzie C
November 19, 2017

You'll usually find me glued to my phone and other forms of social media, so I'm really no one to talk. However, I do believe that echo and technology as a whole distract us from what is most important in life. It takes away time we could be spending with the people we love. Technology has become an everyday necessity for communication that we should work to limit.

At the same time however technology serves as a very important aspect. The bible says, "Behold, the people are one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do (Genesis 11:6). I believe technology achieves this, it allows us to stay connected with different events happening all around the world. All the information we need is right at our fingertips which allows us to all connect and communicate in the same voice.

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