Happy New Year! I hope that you all had a great Christmas or a happy holiday, however and whatever you celebrate.
In the last couple of days, I have been obliged to welcome a house guest. After spending a lot (and I do mean A LOT) of time waxing lyrical about the virtues of Alexa, my husband ordered an Echo Dot.
Personally, I've never been entirely comfortable at the thought of a little AI sitting in my house, "listening" to what goes on. My house is meant to be my haven from the world. I started thinking about how I felt about this new gadget and my thoughts led me on an interesting meander via a variety of places. It was prompted by the lights on the Alexa, which flashed on and off. "What's it doing?" I asked my husband.
"Breathing," was his smartarse reply. Not exactly reassuring. It does rather look like breathing....
Looking back, I recall being very anti mobile phones when they first came out. I didn't sign up to Facebook for years. I love gadgets, but I didn't want tech invading my life and I definitely didn't want some huge corporation collecting data on me so they could sell me stuff (and TBH, I still feel exactly the same way).
Yet analysing my response to these two examples made me wonder if it is, perhaps, that response which needs to be challenged, rather than the tech in and of itself. It's not the 90s any more. Tech affects almost every aspect of our lives and will only increase over time. Do I just need to suck it up and move on?
In the beginning, when I was first given a mobile phone in the late 90s, I found it both useful and an intrusion - an opinion which has not changed. As an author with the omnipresent need to market my published work, as an actor, as a parent... the mobile phone is an asset. I can contact my daughter quickly and easily when I need to, as she begins to explore her new, partial independence; the reassurance is comforting. I wondered if I should be treating tech a bit like a newly independent child, accepting that I need to relinquish some control. (NOTE: Not gonna happen. Not regarding the tech, anyway). Tech is the future, after all - is my opinion just outdated?
I could go on at length about spyware and malware, the harvesting of our personal information and how much that data is worth in today's capitalist world. But what I ended up thinking about, perhaps unsurprisingly, was conspiracy theories.
We all love a good conspiracy theory, don't we? And they are everywhere - from the Bible to the moon landings to aliens in Area 51. A quick glance at the Twitter hashtag #conspiracytheory told me that there had been 230 tweets in the previous hour using that hashtag on subjects such as aliens, terrorism, the Illuminati, Marilyn Monroe and Russians.
I found a GQ article from 2016 by Tim Baker, author of Fever City, who had compiled a list of some conspiracy theories he'd encountered while researching his novel. Right at the top of the list is 9/11, followed by the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963. Both are well known - certainly more familiar to me than the one suggesting a famous footballer was allegedly poisoned hours before the 1998 World Cup Final in order, ultimately, to boost France's GDP.
Back to Alexa. What's really going on with her? Remember the fault where she would suddenly start laughing randomly? I've watched a video of some examples and have to say that it's one of the CREEPIEST things I have heard. If ours starts doing that, it's going straight to the recycling centre in pieces. LOTS of pieces.
That particular fault was fixed and no longer seems to be an issue, but it increased scepticism about having an always-on speaker in your home, collecting data about your private life. Yet is it so different from the mobile phone? Let's look at that.
We interact with Alexa intentionally and it responds appropriately to the commands it is given (well, ours has, so far). It records a few seconds of audio before the wake word is given, apparently, but the audio files can be viewed and, perhaps more importantly, deleted, via the Alexa app. Yes, your info floats around on the cloud for a while, but as far as I can tell from my limited experience, you do at least have a degree of control about how long it floats around for. With the mobile phone, however, is that actually the case? I've often wondered why certain apps need to access the microphone and/or camera in order to function correctly when neither the microphone nor camera is central to their main functionality. I have no idea what my phone records, or how to view/delete those records. That may just be my own current lack of knowledge, but it has certainly made me glad that I used the Christmas break to distance myself from my mobile even more than usual.
Yet tech can be brilliant - I'm talking now about people for whom tech enables them to navigate daily life independently, or gives them a means of communication they otherwise wouldn't have. Even though some of that tech undoubtedly does similar things to Alexa, I don't have a problem with it because its benefits are clear and unequivocal. Even Alexa has a function where, when activated in an emergency, she can talk you through CPR after you have contacted an ambulance.
I've found today's train of thought both interesting and challenging and I'll definitely be looking into the tech behind Alexa in much greater depth. I'd like to see if there anything she can do to help me when I'm writing (apart from playing background music), although I suspect that my writing habits are too ingrained and once I get going, I'll forget all about Alexa and her creepy laugh...
Who is Blogging Today?
Sometimes it will be me. At other times, you may well be treated to one of Duseena Lorafiel's herbal remedies, or perhaps Zilyana Yllayra's etiquette tips. Aamena Hinnorwen may pop in to talk about a new skill she has learned. There is always a chance that we may be graced by the presence of His Imperial Majesty the Emperor, who likes nothing better than to discuss the many benefits of the land he rules. There will be maps, sketches, photos, news, character information, guest blogs from other authors... all sorts of different ways for you to delve into the world of the Chronicles.