Amazon’s Echo device is the future. When computation and connectivity is so cheap and small and abundant it can be poured into anything. When convenience is aggressively enabled by networks and algorithms. When we routinely socialize with machines and artificial intelligences… It’s an odd menagerie to let into the human party. An always-on omnipresence with frames of privacy and intimacy violated by this commercial surveillance. Or worse: by state agents peering through hidden backdoors.
Is this a generational thing? Are digital natives and millennials more comfortable allowing machine intelligence into their private lives? Does a person who grew up with a distributed virtuality of friends and followers naturally expect those networks to be present throughout their lives? Are kids these days more comfortable with the bargain that trades privacy for convenience, data for insight?
When the typical signifiers of digital interaction – software, opt-in interfaces, the need to turn the thing “on” – recede and become invisible, the relationship with computation and connectivity becomes part of the fabric of reality – which is to say, it becomes forgotten.
Are we who cry foul at the intrusion of such tools destined to be outmoded by those more at ease with a distributed sense of selfhood, a comfort and reliance upon an outboarded cognitive toolset, an acceptance of transparency and visibility?
If there is to be a global mind, it’s inherently at odds with individuality, inasmuch as it anchors us more directly into the collective by unbundling our functions as network operations. How much of “you” do you owe to Google? How much of your experience is validated by your Facebook Friends or Instagram Likes? This isn’t entirely new – we’ve been calculating with external tools and sharing stories for ages. But there’s a creeping sense that comes with scale when our behaviors start to mimic the algorithms rather than the algorithms serving us.
We train Google’s AI with our searching. We shorten communications for Twitter. We capture the world and feed it to Facebook’s analytics. We yield to the algorithmic narrowing of recommended ideology because if you like X, you will also probably like x+1. We can also help you avoid y.
Amazon’s Echo takes a place in our home, like the bands on our wrists, a trojan horse for servers to learn more, for our convenience and amazement and a desire to curate the future by inviting it in, good hosts to the unfolding calculus of computation.
The Echo you hear is the reflection of our lives in data, across networks, with Friends and Followers, into the hands of marketers and product managers, the chartings of researchers and anthropologists, the power struggles of states and militias. But maybe it’s just the growing din of the future collapsing into the present, the world we inhabit and the challenges to some of us of becoming more connected than we perhaps want, more cognitively unbundled and dependent, somehow more empowered and less individual, tuned and entrained by things less human and more capable as the very concrete of our lives wakes and begins to gaze at us from across the wires.