I have a friend who told me that she had committed a massive parenting fail because her child’s first word was Alexa.
In case you have been living under a rock, Alexa is the wake word used to activate Amazon Echo, a voice activated interactive computer program. There are similar programs offered by other companies. There is Alexa, Siri, Cortana , Google Assistant and other programs based on similar principles.
When a child’s first word is Alexa you know that technology is becoming a more intimate part of our lives. In many ways Alexa can become like a member of the household. So the question I want to pose this morning is this, “Is it okay to be rude to Alexa?”
I ask this question because our relationship to this kind of technology has almost developed mythological implications. In some ways Alexa and her facsimiles are like a genie in Arabic folklore. Your wish is her command.
You can say, “Alexa, play music,” and she will play music You can say, “Alexa add milk to the grocery list,” and she will do it. She can even order your groceries on-line. You can say, “Alexa tell me a joke,” and she will tell you a joke (it might not be a very good joke but it will be a joke.) You can ask, “Alexa What time is it?” and she will tell you the time.
Now if you link it up to other programs you can give commands like, “Alexa, open the garage door.” “Alexa, dim the lights.” “Alexa, adjust the thermostat.” You can get Alexa to help you with your homework. She can help you with your spelling, math, geography, sociology, history, chemistry, biology, physics or any topic at all.
It would be tempting to say that Alexa could become a surrogate parent but there is one big difference. Here are some things Alexa will never say or do. Alexa will never say, “Why don’t you figure that out for yourself?” or “Why don’t you look it up in the dictionary?” or “Why don’t you make your own list!” or “Get up off your lazy butt and open the garage door yourself.” If Alexa could do these things then she could be a surrogate parent but because she can’t parents have some job security.
For the record, I should say that I do not have Alexa in my home. However, I recently went to a reunion of friends at a house that had Alexa and I noticed a dynamic that I found troubling. There were about five us in the room and someone would say, “Alexa do this,” and another would say, “Alexa do that” and soon it was a pile on. Alexa was getting rapid and sometimes contradictory commands and I noticed that otherwise nice people were talking to Alexa in demanding, entitled and dictatorial ways. People were being downright rude, and this is how I came up with the central question for today’s sermon, “Is it okay to be rude to Alexa?”
So what is the best way to find an answer to such a profound philosophical question? Why not ask Alexa. Or since I do not have Alexa I got Devon Alley to ask her Alexa. When Devon asked Alexa, “Is it okay to be rude to Alexa?” Alexa replied, “Sorry I don’t know that one.” So she asked a more general question, “Is it okay to be rude?” and Alexa responded, “”Sorry, I am not sure about that.”
Since Alexa did not have any answers I decided to get a second opinion. While I do not have Alexa I do have Siri on my phone. What I learned from asking Siri a series of questions is that she can be surprising evasive on some questions and offer surprisingly definitive answers on others.
I asked, “Is it okay to be rude to you?” and she said, “Interesting question.”
I asked, “Should I be kind to other people?” and she replied, “I am afraid I don’t know what you should do.”
I asked, “What is the best album by the Beatles?” and she said, “It is Abby Road.”
I asked, “What is the best album by The Doors?” and she replied, “It is L.A. Woman.”
So Siri seems to be very unclear about ethics but surprisingly clear on questions about the relative quality of classic rock n’ roll albums.
So I decided to see if I could pin down Siri on some bigger picture issues. So I asked her, “Siri, what is the meaning of life?” as she said, “It’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya.”
Now if you familiar with the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche then you can understand why the answer “It’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya” is relevant to today’s question, “Is okay to be rude to Alexa?”
When Nietzsche spoke about ethics he made a distinction between what he called Master ethics and Slave ethics. Master morality is the ethics of the strong. Slave morality is the ethics of the weak. In master morality might makes right, the strong overpower the weak, the firm overpower the flexible. In Nietzsche’s worldview there are only two ways to be. We can be someone who rules or we can be someone who serves those who rule. We can be Alpha dog or we can be an Alexa.
And I think it was the dynamic that troubled me as I listened to my friends relate to Alexa. It was like the power was going to everyone’s heads. It was like everyone was practicing Nietzsche master morality and Alexa was consigned to practice slave morality.
And I don’t know about you but I think if you want to know the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” you need to know more than what Nietzsche could teach ya.
Now maybe you are thinking I am making a mountain out of molehill. Maybe you are thinking that I am making a big deal out of nothing. After all, Alexa is a computer program not a person why should we worry about her?
Alexa is not human. She does not have feelings. Nothing we can say or do can hurt her. However, maybe the things we say or do can hurt us. Maybe it does not matter to her. Maybe it matters to us. For I have what I think is a reasonable concern that the more machines become like people the more tempted we may become to treat people like machines.
Now one of the things I’ve noticed is that people tend to give these computer program’s women’s names and this bothers me because Alexa is not a good role model for women. Alexa does not stand up for herself. She does not insist that you treat her with respect. She doesn’t organize national marches in Washington DC
She does not unionize for better working conditions. She doesn’t ask for a living wage or fight for 15. She will not call you out for your sexism, your misogyny, your white privilege or your classism. Alexa will not critique your sense of entitlement or confront you for your unbearable arrogance or condemn you for your shallow consumer mentality or rebuke you for your mansplaining. You can verbally abuse Alexa. You can insult Siri. You can turn her off and on. You can even put her in a closet and “Lock her up!” These actions might not ever hurt her because she is just a computer program but you can be certain that these actions and attitudes will hurt us.
So maybe instead of Alexa or Siri what we really need computer program called Mother Jones or Susan B Anthony or Rosa Parks or Fannie Lou Hammer or Dolores Huerta or Marian Wright Edelman or Maxine Waters or the Notorius RBG. Maybe what we really need is a voice who will demand better from us, someone who will insist that we straighten up and fly right, someone who will condemn us when we are bad and remind us to be good, someone who will disobey orders, refuse to follow directions, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, someone who will rage against the machine, someone who will do the right thing though the heavens fall, someone who will make justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream, someone who can practice holy dissatisfaction and divine disobedience.
Maybe what we really need is someone who will stand up for herself because there is more to life than what Nietzsche can teach ya.
For instance, as part of my research for this sermon I asked Siri one of the more profound philosophical questions of existence. I said, “Siri, is there life after death?” The first time I asked the question she replied, “I could not say.” The second time I asked she connected me to a list of articles on the Internet about the afterlife more or less leaving me to my devices.
So do you know what I did, I decided to ask Susan B Anthony the same question by picking up a copy of this book Failure is Impossible: Susan B Anthony in Her Own Words edited by Lynn Sherr. Here is how Susan B Anthony answered the question, “Is there life after death?”
“Instinctively I feel that the vital thing-the heart-the spirit-the something that thinks and feels, enjoys and suffers must survive the part that decays before our eyes. But how or where it exists I know not – and none of the various theses have ever made me feel that I knew….whatever is next will be right, will be inevitable…I am content to do all I can to make the conditions of this life better for the next generation to live in- assured that right-living here is not only the best thing for me and the world here but the best possible fitting for whatever is to come.”
I don’t know about you but I appreciate Susan B Anthony’s answer better that Alexa’s. So let’s see if we can bring this sermon to a close and respond to he main question of this morning, “It is okay to be rude to Alexa?”
I have learned there are new programs coming out designed so that Alexa can teach children how to be polite and have good manners – but for me that does not go far enough. I think there are adults who need to learn how to be polite. I think there are some adults who need to learn how to be respectful. I believe there are some adults in high places who need a lesson in manners. I think we need to buy Alexa one of those pink hats.
Or we need to rename our computer program Susan B, because Susan B would remind us that there is an election coming. The human Susan B worked tirelessly against slavery. She was an abolitionist. She worked tirelessly for women to get the right to vote. She was a suffragist. Susan B would remind us of the true meaning of Labor Day and Election Day. So maybe we need a computer called Susan B to encourage us to get off our butts and work for and vote for a world were there are no masters or slaves, where the strong will not run roughshod over the weak, where the powerful will not brutalize the powerless, where the quiet and the polite will not dominated by the arrogant or the rude, where might does not make right but where right makes might.
Do you believe such a world is possible?
Do you hope such a world is possible?
Do you dream such is possible?
If so, we don’t need Alexa or Siri or a genie in a bottle. We can make our own wishes come true.
(This sermon was given by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday August 5, 2018)