Alexa

image from https://www.amazon.in/Amazon-Echo-Smart-speaker-Powered/dp/B0725W7Q38

The family refer to Alexa as ‘she’ but there’s no sentience. Alexa is a form of artificial intelligence, built to respond to commands and presented as female. Unlike a sat nav, you can’t change the gender. This worries me. While some say the voice is androgynous, to me it sounds like a woman and I’m uncomfortable with this.

What also bothers me is how people talk to Alexa. The ability to demand an action, the lack of please and thank you, must be having an effect, in particular on young minds.

The family laugh at my concerns but the habit grows incredibly fast.  By the end of an hour I’m saying ‘Alexa, volume 4’ to turn down the music which she (see what I mean?) was told to find. It’s alarming how quickly new behaviours are embedded. You get in the car, and ask for the radio. This is how fast ways of being get altered.

Alexa is early technology.  This time next year it will have moved on, like the e-reader shifted from clunky keyboard to swipe screen. But where will Alexa move to?

image showing the first Kindle e-reader and a current one side by side

I’m beginning to feel I’m on the wrong side of the digital revolution.

Words like revolution and transformation should be used with care. Easy to throw into conversations, their significance gets diluted by repetition, but when it comes to the social impact of the internet, language like this is appropriate. However, the implications of digital development are not yet fully understood – or feared.

Sometimes it feels like we’re walking into dystopian futures with eyes wide open, but not seeing. Alexa is the beginning but do we really need apps linked to fridges to tell us when to buy milk, have remote control of household appliances or be so totally dependent on electronic systems for storing and accessing our hard-earned cash. Is it wise to have the administration of our lives resting on cables running under the ocean, in particular for accessing public services, health and welfare. Is it? Really?

I’ve long had concerns about the consequences of unequal access but even as I write these words, I’m aware they involve unspoken assumptions the digitisation of society is good. It has advantages to be sure. But what is it doing to relationships and the quality of interpersonal communication? How is it changing what it means to be human?

image showiing Siri logo
image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Siri_icon.svg

I watch family interact with voice activation and the ways they use Siri on their devices. Actions which remove politeness and grace and replace them with commands. The technology we’re increasingly dependent on for the administration of day-to-day to life emerged from controlling weapons of war, the language of computers still reflect their military origins and remnants of this remain.

Failure to initialise. System error. Fatal exception. Corrupted file. This week I saw the message ‘You have aborted this video’. Then there’s the dreaded ‘Word is not responding’ followed by ‘Word is shutting down’ when you’re in the middle of a long document you haven’t saved for a few pages and Autorecovery is never as up to date as you need it to be!

image showing windows error message

We have less control over our devices than we think

If the machine was using us in 2007, think how much more it’s using us now!

Virtual reality is an artificial simulation but one at risk of being perceived as real. We think we know the difference but do we?

Spend an hour being disconnected. Extend the absence to a day or a week. How does it feel? I access my life through my laptop and struggle without it. This scares me but I can’t stop. Everything is online.

My Alexa weekend has got me thinking. Maybe we need to apply social theory to the digital domain. Revisit the social construction of technology. Theorise digital practice.

image showing steps on a pile of rubble
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/stairs-concrete-construction-1481394/

I drove to Manchester and where the M62 crosses the Pennines, the motorway becomes vulnerable to the weather. Its high up and exposed to cross winds. Snow quickly settles in the outside lane, where poor driving conditions increase risk of accidents as visibility worsens and the road surface is icy. Good drivers adjust their speed while others power on, feeling secure in their metal bubbles.

Motorway driving is dependent on individuals following the rules of the highway code. Keeping a safe stopping distance from the vehicles in front. Showing courtesy to other road users. A busy motorway is like an artery. So long as there’s no obstructions people should reach their destinations safely. But as we’re continuously told, hearts need to be kept healthy, with attention to diet and exercise supporting the free flow of oxygenated blood around the body.

image showing busy motorway junctions
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/architecture-buildings-cars-city-1837176/

Social life is not so different. It requires compassion. Care. Kindness. Understanding how little things matter, like when you’re driving and a stranger smiles as you stop at a pedestrian crossing, or a quick flash of the lights when someone les you out at a difficult junction, a hand raised in acknowledgement to say thank you.

Technology has long been a primary driver of social change. This can be good. Digital developments, where science, engineering and the arts come together, have the capacity to alter the world, make it a better place, one which supports individual health and happiness. So long as the ways in which the affordances aim to improve the human condition, not diminish it.

You can re-programme Alexa’s ‘wake-up’ but the default setting is a command.

‘Alexa’

Would it have been so hard to make ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ a requirement of use? The ways in which technology usage can influence attitudes and actions are known yet it’s deemed ok to demand a service rather than request it.

People will talk to their device as they talk to others, and ‘Alexa’ can be said as a question as much as a command, but the lines are thin and blurred. Usage will be diverse and it seems a missed opportunity to build some kindness into what feels like an increasingly hostile world.

It bothers me that criticality appears to be waning and there’s an absence of digital mindfulness.

‘Alexa, what should we do?’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.’

image showing questions asking what, where, how, why
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/questions-font-who-what-how-why-2245264/

 


Kindle images from

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/14/Amazon_Kindle_-_Wikipedia.jpg

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kindle_Fire_web_browser_05_2012_1430.JPG

The week the internet was 30

image showing Sir Tim Berners Lee
image from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47524474

I’ve often wondered if what we call the internet keeps Sir Tim Berners Lee awake at night. Reading his open letter to the Web Foundation this week, it sounds like it might.

TBL writes ‘…the divide between those who are online and those who are not increases, making it all the more imperative to make the web available for everyone.’ and calls for us to ‘…make sure it is recognised as a human right and built for the public good….making this happen should be a ‘priority agenda of our governments’

image showing the earth surrounded by digital networks
image from https://pixabay.com/en/network-earth-block-chain-globe-3537401/

I would suggest higher education also has a role to play. The undergraduates of today are the citizens of the future, which will be digital in ways we don’t yet know or understand. They should be given opportunities to develop digital graduate attributes which not only develop confidence with online environments but include opportunities to raise awareness of the impact of digital practice. This should be critically examined and promoted in ways which are accessible and inclusive because the digital is political.

The internet is about power and all students should have time to explore questions about who holds this power and what is done with it to affect the lives of others.

social media icons on a tree
image from  https://pixabay.com/en/tree-structure-networks-internet-200795/

Walk down any high street, take public transport, sit in a pub or a café and its clear how connectivity rules. The mobile device is ubiquitous. Not 100% but enough to represent social transformation.  In less than two decades we’ve become digitally connected, with everything done online being tracked, recorded and monitored. Data about our online activity underpins all internet transactions. Online lives are exposed through browser histories with all transactions leaving permanent digital footprints. Bentham’s panoptican has been reinvented for a digital society. The all seeing eye is virtual.

Orwell and Foucault were right!

image showing the panopticon
image from http://foucault.info/doc/documents/disciplineandpunish/foucault-disciplineandpunish-panopticism-html

The early pioneers of the world wide web saw it as an opportunity to create democracy and give everyone a voice, in particular those previously silenced. While  evidence shows there are places where this has happened, the fact remains that patterns of internet access mirror existing forms of marginalisation.  Digital exclusion is a 21st century form of discrimination where those without equitable access are disempowered. But this is not the only problem society faces.

TBL identifies three sources of dysfunction affecting today’s web:

  • Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.
  • System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of
  • Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.

The Contract for the Web declares ‘governments, companies and citizens around the world can help protect the open web as a public good and a basic right for everyone.’ It calls for everyone to commit to a number of principles. Taking a few minutes to read and sign up is to make a commitment towards understanding what you do online matters.

google icon seen through a magnifying glass

image from https://pixabay.com/en/magnifying-glass-google-76520/

The contract is not only aimed at governments and corporations, there are individual responsibilities for citizens who can agree to the following.

  • Be creators and collaborators on the web so the web has rich and relevant content for everyone.
  • Build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity so that everyone feels safe and welcome online.
  • Fight for the web so the web remains open and a global public resource for people everywhere, now and in the future.

For every advantage the internet offers, there are disadvantages. The internet is a mirror of society with all its benefits and horrors. If we want to make a positive difference, we can commit to ensuring our use of the internet prioritises those values which promote public good.

As internet users, we all have a responsibility to ensure not only equality of access but attention to the ways that access is used.

As the web reaches the age of 30, this week is an opportune time to raise discussion and debate about these issues. Visiting the Contract for the Web would be useful place to begin.

life ring against a stormy sea
image from https://pixabay.com/en/ocean-coast-spray-surge-2530692/