Is Alexa getting between you and your partner?

Filling your home with smart gadgets comes with plenty of risks —  your TV might watch you, an angry partner or roommate might spy on you, or they might rob you of mental acuity, for example. These are big, scary threats that you probably think about, then forget about, every time you bring a new WiFi-enabled crock pot into your home.

But tech has smaller, more “everyday” impacts on us, too. If you are constantly asking Alexa for the temperature, does that mean you are losing a chance to chat with a family member? What if one partner loves to geek out, but the other doesn’t want to talk to the lights and the garage door — does that set up a subtle power imbalance that could contribute to domestic strife at some point?  Maybe Amazon Dots make it easy to tell the children it’s dinner time — easier than yelling up the stairs — but is going the Star Trek “comm” route really healthy for families?

Duke University professor Pardis Emami-Naemi has been thinking about these things for a while, and I was glad (and a bit amused) to read this paper she co-authored recently.  It’s cleverly titled You, Me, and IoT.    I interviewed her for an upcoming “Debugger in 10” podcast (more on that soon) but couldn’t help chatting with her about these small, often overlooked, unintended consequences of technology. (Disclosure: I work at Duke, too)

I know I have a bad habit of looking for broken things; don’t worry, Emami-Naemi takes a highly academic approach in the paper and her team found plenty of relational benefits to smart homes.  Here’s a fascinating list of the good gadgets can do, with some comments cribbed from study participants:

Bonding over tech
“Smart devices make it easier to share music with my siblings, like smart speakers for example. Instead of having to pass someone’s phone or rely on one person connected, we can just tell it to play a song and boom.”
Inter-generational kindness
“We’ve got an Apple TV and my father almost cried because he said he was really curious about [the device] and streaming television, but he felt too out of the loop and overwhelmed to try another giant leap in technology. And he was overjoyed…to have my boyfriend help out with setting it up.”
Enabling communication
*My mother was sick…and before she passed away, it was tougher and tougher for her to use the phone…So what I did was I got an Alexa and I installed it in the house, and then I could just call her and rather than her having to figure out how to answer the phone, she could just hear my voice in the ether.”
Encouraging playfulness
“The main joy that I get from Alexa is overhearing my boyfriend ask her ridiculous things just to see like if she’ll respond, how she’ll respond.”
Easing Household task tension

*With the smart thermostat, we don’t argue about the temp of the house because it’s automatically set…With the doorbells, we don’t have to argue or wonder if it was locked. We can just look on the app…
*We don’t have to nag each other to get up and do something. We can ask the device to do it for us.”
*My partner and I use Amazon Echo to set reminders for each other, which helps with making sure we are both on the same page with groceries and chores.
Enabling independence
“My wife can now just ask the Google Home for the weather instead of assuming I know what the weather is.”

That last one there caught my attention. I once had a therapist explain to me that small, seemingly annoying requests like, “Can you bring me the newspaper?” can actually be a love language. Hear that question as, “Do you care about me enough to get me the paper?” or even just, “I want to connect in a small way right now” and you hear something very different. So: Do we really want Google Home to sweep away all these small chances to reach out?

Which brings me to the other side of the smart gadget relationship impact discussion: Tech-amplified tensions, which the authors tend to call “multi-user tensions.”  Afte all, we are used to using gadgets as solitary experiences.  Many smart gadgets are social, so that leads to group dynamics, which can lead to tensions. They fit three categories, the authors say: device selection and installation, regular device usage, and when things go wrong. Some examples:

When tech fails us
*”My husband is not as tech savvy as me and gets irritated with me when I can get a device to do something he can’t.”
*”My parents sometimes want things fixed that are beyond my control. We sometimes disagree about what products to purchase and how they would perform on our network.”

Who’s in charge?
*Our young children “fight” over talking to Alexa. They use Alexa to play songs and will cancel the other one’s music, or ask her to repeat them and use her to insult one another.”

Not everyone is an early adopter
“My husband added smart bulbs and taped over all the light switches and switched us over to using Alexa to turn on and off the lights. I don’t like it because there are times when my young children fall asleep and I want to turn off the lights silently instead of using my voice. My children don’t like it because their pronunciation is not clear and Alexa cannot understand them sometimes when they want the lights on or off. We have argued about it a couple of times but it has been made clear that his excitement for a smart home outweighs the desires of me and our two kids, so now I just deal with it and try to help my kids as much as possible.

Weaponizing gadgets
*Any time that we try to have a conversation about not using our phones or anything like that, the biggest thing is that mostly my fiance, he turns on Alexa and asks her to play a song and at a really high volume so he can’t hear me talk anymore.

Obviously, I think a therapist would have a lot to say about those last two comments. Blaming those issues on tech is probably – misplaced.  And to be fair, I’ve omitted some of the more high-stakes and beautiful ways that smart tech helps families.  Like this:

“My youngest son is actually autistic, but he’s very inquisitive in nature and asks me the most intelligent but random questions that we can never really answer. So it’s always like “Go ask Alexa”…It’s almost like having a teacher or an encyclopedia like right on hand at all times, and for his way of living that’s just really helpful for him.”

Still, while we are rightly focused on the high-stakes ways that tech can endanger us – by enabling stalkers and violence — we should not overlook the small ways gadgets change our lives. I think it’s incredibly important to notice and discuss, and I hope to read more for Pardis & Co. on this.

Do any of you care to share the small ways tech has hurt — or helped — your sense of domestic tranquillity?

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About Bob Sullivan 1637 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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