Even though he really wants one
Published with OneZero on Medium
When my partner asked for an Alexa device for Christmas, I refused to buy him one. I explained that while I ordinarily would welcome suggestions of what to get him, this year I would be ignoring his less-than-subtle hints about smart speakers, and he should brace himself for something else on his wishlist instead.
Having discussed the treasure trove that is our personal data when we watched the Netflix documentary The Great Hack together last year, I was surprised that he would even consider welcoming into our shared home yet another way for technology companies to monetize our personal information.
“But your phone is already listening to you and tracking your every search,” he said. “What makes a smart speaker any different?”
To some extent, I can see where he was coming from. I have a Huawei phone (the Chinese company Huawei’s phones were banned by networks including Verizon and AT&T in 2018 after being labeled a security threat). I spend my working days in the marketing field logged into my personal accounts on the same social networks that Cambridge Analytica used to help manipulate the 2016 U.S. election and the Brexit campaign here in the U.K.
But if your house is burning down, you don’t say “to hell with it” and start pouring gasoline on yourself.
And with the frequency of news stories about tech corporations’ wrongdoings and a distinct lack of political movement to regulate the unchecked powers of Silicon Valley, it’s easy for such headlines to no longer shock us.
Thinking about my prolific social media use since the tender age of 12, I may well have already given the government enough information to predict the name of my firstborn child.
But if your house is burning down, you don’t say “to hell with it” and start pouring gasoline on yourself. So why would I let a smart speaker into my home, knowing full well that Amazon is practically giving away this technology in an attempt to circumnavigate the global search dominance of Google and to manipulate users into buying more and more products from their retail marketplace?
As the journalist Rana Foroohar writes in her book Don’t Be Evil: How Big Tech Betrayed Its Founding Principles, “Amazon is now the default starting point for online shopping, accounting for 44% of U.S. consumers’ first search for products, according to one study.” Foroohar adds: “Remember that prices aren’t really so cheap on Amazon if you consider the value of the data you are giving up.”
It’s only because I had been proactively educating myself about big data and the ways in which apps and websites track our every move and interest that I knew letting one of Amazon’s listening devices into our home would be a step too far.
For those who haven’t seen The Great Hack or who don’t make a habit of reading business technology news, it’s easy to see how cheap smart speaker devices like Alexa can seem like just a bit of fun, a gimmick that you can use to entertain your kids or save precious minutes in a time-conscious world. After all, that’s what Amazon is counting on; it wants people to see an irresistible deal on Amazon Prime and decide to furnish their homes with smart speakers in every room. They don’t want customers like me who see this technology for what it is: A pervasive, manipulative attempt to steal valuable information from customers without giving them the real monetary value of that data.
But then again, perhaps they’ve already won. I can’t help but think about the fact that after my Alexa-inspired lecture, my partner probably logged onto Amazon and added a stack of books about big data and technology ethics into his shopping cart, shortly before crossing them off my wishlist.