The temperature last week was frigid. When my great-grandmother, or perhaps great-great-grandmother, was growing up, someone in the household used to awake and build a fire so that the rest of the family could have at least minimal warmth in which to get dressed. I am immensely grateful that all I have to do is press a button on a thermostat to be more comfortable than my ancestors could even imagine.
This is to say that I do not nostalgically want to return to days of yore. However, having just spent two days in an Alexa-filled home, I am not sold on the technologically brilliant invention’s overall benefit, particularly where children are involved.
Other than on Shabbat, during which Alexa was thankfully silenced, the machine was a constant presence though my son-in-law may have used it more than usual in order to tease me. Let’s start with the idea that I am breaking precedence by calling Alexa “it.” As the machine’s name implies, we are meant to think of her as “she.” It has a female voice and since having a machine listen to every word you say and being omnipresent is creepy, perhaps that encourages seeing this intrusive computer as a benign fairy godmother. (I still found it creepy.)
Alexa turns lights on and off, plays music on demand, tells the outside temperature and performs a host of other actions. Those of us who grew up in the olden days—say, more than five years ago—find it odd, but to my three-year-old grandson, it is normative. His parents are concerned that the polite phrases they usually require from him, like please and thank-you, must be dropped when speaking to Alexa. It is a real concern. It is incredibly cute to hear him say, “Alexa, turn on the kitchen light,” but it is also incredibly cute when little children attempt to call their parents by their first names. Cute, but not something to encourage.
I doubt that calling out a command like a Grand Pooh-bah rather than walking over to a light switch is going to automatically result in a generation of lazy and insensitive slackers. Perhaps, it is simply one of modern life’s blessings. I in no way have the industriousness and strength of my great-grandparents. Physically getting through the day in their times was difficult and challenging in ways I can’t even imagine. Weaker people didn’t thrive and often didn’t survive. Is Alexa simply an extension of electricity, running water and automatic heat? Or is it different in some troubling way that will only become evident down the road? Even as I write, I just don’t know. If you are raising young children today, you don’t have the luxury of indecision.