Culture At Large

The alluring ease of Amazon’s Echo

Ashley Hales

I remember watching The Jetsons as a child and desperately wanting Rosey the Robot to clean my room. I had high hopes that my adult commute would be as easy as George Jetson’s flight to work. Although we don’t have jetpacks yet, we do somewhat live the Jetsons’ dream. We carry computers in our pockets. We have smart thermostats and appliances. Increasingly, we can control our lives with our voices or a touch of a button. This is exactly what Amazon’s new Echo promises.

Echo is a voice-activated cylindrical speaker by which users can play music, request information, turn on lights and even reorder toilet paper from Amazon without lifting a finger. The Echo speaker works by calling it by name (“Wake, Alexa”) and asking it a question or giving it a command. Echo learns your speech patterns and vocabulary. It’s not just a voice-activated speaker; it’s adaptive.

Like all technology, Echo is neither morally good nor evil, it simply is a tool. So 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?

Is ease the point? Is efficiency the point?

Studies have shown that for all our technological connection, we are increasingly disconnected people. The New York Times blames the growing “assault on empathy” on increased technology. Although we’re highly connected on Facebook and tweet our thoughts to thousands of followers, we privilege our phones over the people in front of us. Perhaps to distract us from this, we personalize our technology. For instance, Echo has taken on the personality of Alexa, like Apple’s Siri. Reviews on Amazon call the device “her,” as in, “I love her.” We have, as Wendell Berry wrote, “replac[ed] people by technology.”

But empathy and human connection aren't the only things that stand to be lost through the automatic acquiring of technology. When we make our choices about technology — whether they involve the Apple Watch, binge-watching Netflix or buying an Amazon Echo — 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.”

Technology can be one of these little luxuries. It is Rosey the Robot, who tidies and removes us from the labor of cleaning. It is the Echo speaker, which answers our questions, writes notes on our to-do list and plays our music. An Echo can undoubtedly make life easier. But, is ease the point? Is efficiency the point? Or, is life perhaps more about love, as Lewis notes? 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.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Technology, Gadgets