Get Out of the Shallows and Enjoy the Deeper Things

Why I have a love-hate relationship with Alexa and her ilk.

(photo: HeikoAL/CC0/Pixabay)

For my birthday, one daughter saved her allowance and gave me an Amazon Alexa. Voice technology has always been my Alexa’s heel. While it’s been fun watching them take turns overriding each other’s commands to play music that ranges from “Baby Shark” to “Hamilton”, when I ask for the Eagles, Jimmy Buffett or Foreigner, Alexa tells me she doesn’t know them.

It’s rather like my car, which will phone my daughter Marta, but can’t comprehend calling my husband, Marc A. Alexa knows these bands when my children ask, including when my son with a speech impediment uses his touch pad, but I ask, and she’s the equivalent of all the other adolescents in my home, rolling her eyes.

I still hold one advantage over her that I don’t have with the kids: I can turn her off for tuning me out. I think the kids derive more fun from watching me unplug her every chance I get. They don’t know about Alexa’s snubbing of me. I’ve told them that I don’t want her listening in and that I have a blog. I’m a writer; if I want the internet to know what’s going on in our house, I’ll tell them myself.

Recently, I’ve been reading a book called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Minds. I find myself wondering, Why don’t I mind what it’s doing? The machine mines our minds every day. Accessing the internet — for fun, for thrills, for info, for bills — allows whatever or whomever’s at the other end of the machine to find out everything and anything, without having to reveal much in return. Yet each day I surrender a little more of my mind as an island I alone survey, as my opinions, shopping habits, research history and musical tastes get collected and categorized. I don’t want to be a Luddite, but I also don’t like it.

Technology and I have a love-hate relationship. I want to like it more, but it doesn’t seem that into me. Whenever I start to become fluent with a phone or computer or some such, it becomes obsolete. Whenever I don’t join the in-crowd, whatever it is the in-crowd loves lasts forever and I find myself ten steps behind my 8-year-old in dealing with whatever has become the indispensable object of the world’s affections. Whenever I jump on the bandwagon, the bandwagon promptly breaks down. I suspect it’s the connection all technology has to HAL and my own natural proclivity for clumsiness. Machines know that I’m possibly their doom, so they’re less willing to serve.

Being behind the curve helps in some ways. I’ve watched Star Trek and Space Odyssey 2001, and Dr. Who. I see what happens when you let technology run unchecked: It takes over and erases something fundamental of humanity. It apes taking over free will. It isn’t pretty. Technology always sings the siren song of ease, but the whole history of humanity tells us that we don’t value whatever we get without effort. Whatever we do not suffer to earn, we do not esteem. The book I read cautions on how our searching for information has changed the wiring of our minds and made reading deeper, more difficult, as it has become a less practiced skill.

I’d tell you the author’s recommendations, but true to form, I haven’t finished the book yet. Suffice it to say, I feel chastened, worried by how ubiquitous the electronic screen has become to our every day. Daring to unplug and even allow for zero radio in the car as I drove for what is normally a 15-minute errand, I found everyone marveling at the silence, wondering what was up.

It seems we need quiet. Quiet means something is coming, something is changing, something worth hushing and giving attention to — like the Incarnation, like spring, like a wedding night.

I hadn’t planned anything but to hit the dry cleaner’s, bank and the grocery store with the kids, but the silence begged for something, so I whistled up a trip to the one place in the county with frozen custard, and we raised cones at the cash-only place to the value of a half-hour spent out of the gaze of the electronic eye.

And I made a mental note: When we get out of the shallows, there are deeper things to enjoy.