“Alexa, do you love me?”
Last Christmas, Amazon’s smart assistant, Alexa, crashed because the system was overloaded. But Alexa wasn’t just dealing with requests. “Alexa, I feel depressed” is amongst many confessions, users are expressing to their smart assistant. Going beyond its intended remit, Alexa is now gaining greater access to our personal lives, and we are becoming emotionally attached.
In a disenchanted Western world without the presence of God, we are turning to another “voice in the cloud”, albeit, one of the technological kind. God’s transcendent voice used to be the guide in our lives. But in this secular age, we’ve found ourselves adrift in this universe.
As God’s creation, we are wired us for deep connection to Him, yet, culture is reshaping us to become dependent on wired connections.
Even my three-year-old daughter has learned how to flex her vocal cords to activate our smart speaker. Better known as Alexa – she politely requests, “Alexa, can you play Baby Shark? ” The familiar blue ring lights up, in seconds she’s throwing shapes on the kitchen floor. In a short space of time, Alexa has colonised our living space, and her name called upon as if she was the fourth member of our family.
The popularity of Alexa lies in its sophisticated “frictionless system,” as it name implies – you short circuit the process of swiping, pressing, tapping. Your voice is your king, your gateway to frictionlessly govern the world around you.
Voice technology is still in its infancy but its application feels familiar. Its ability to direct and command takes us back to the beginning of time when God said, “Let there be light,” (Genesis 1:3). God chose voice as the agency to which he governed the space around Him. With three simple words “Let there be…..”, life came into existent. God interacted with the sterile expanse through speech, He spoke and nature bowed to his command and filled the space with light, sky, and seas.
Voice control today is being used in the home. The equivalent of God’s summoning words “Let there be….” is “Alexa,”. With this “wake word”, Alexa is invoked and she becomes subservient to our music demands and general inquisitiveness.
Alexa – Our best friend?
Over 50% of our interaction with Alexa goes beyond simple command and fulfilment. Users are talking to Alexa in a way it wasn’t designed for, in a way we would typically talk to our best friend. Alexa deft listening skills means users are opening up to her; “Alexa, I feel lonely” is just one of many confessions elicited. Why would someone share personal feelings with a black plastic tube? Is there something telling about a culture that is more likely to open up to Alexa than friends?
Statistics suggests that loneliness is on the rise. Despite the increase in social media usage, we are not more connected. The gamification of sites like Instagram and Facebook can create an unhealthy cauldron of envy and inadequacy and foster the opposite – disconnection.“ You can’t be open about things because you project a veneer of success and coolness and moving forward in the world” Elizabeth Day, a journalist for The Observer notes. It’s this culture of self-preservation that social media promotes, which often masks a deep vulnerability.
In our digital relationships, we’ve distorted reality and deprive each other of authenticity. We needlessly alienate one another, in turn reducing the quality of our connections. London-based Psychologist Kevin Del Ben puts it like this “God created community, yet we’ve created a water-down community, we are afraid of rejection, so we move away from in-person communication.”
This mainly affects Millennials and Generation Zs. We’ve grown up with social media and are primed for online, disembodied connection. Perhaps there is less shame in sharing our true feelings with someone we don’t know. This could be the reason why we hear many today speak of their therapist as their new best friend.
All of these factors play an essential role in making Alexa feel like our trusted pal. Alexa’s unlikely to reject us and we have nothing to hide because her potent ability to be there but not be there means she is privy to all our private conversations. Her disembodied voice hovers over our homes making Alexa our 24 hr therapist-friend. Despite all her qualities, how may putting our trust in dispirited hardware ultimately disappoint?
What’s in a voice?
Because Alexa sounds less like Stephen Hawking’s voice box and more like us, she makes us treat her as if she has a mind of her own. A voice suggests a social presence and Alexa is becoming more adept at making us treat her like another human being.
The evolution of Alexa’s voice taps into the psychology of a voice and Amazon are keen to double the amount of scientist working on Alexa to make our smart speaker sound more human. As we converse with Alexa, scientists within the “personality teams” are using that valuable data to evolve her speech patterns, so she varies her tone according to our emotional state of mind.
A full and rich voice carries with it a full spectrum of emotions – empathy- compassion and humour, and Alexa is becoming smarter at displaying these. It is these interactions that form and develop an intimate bond between 2 people.
Echoes of God
If voice exchanges characterise our relationships, then listeners need to listen more carefully to God’s voice. In our secular age, God’s creation – the heaven and skies are still charged with God’s presence. But in a disenchanted world – the secular are haunted by echoes of God’s voice.
This passage from the bible speaks into this very observation.
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard”. (Psalm 19 1- 3)
At first, this passage sounds paradoxical – God’s handicraft “proclaims”; in other words, tells us something about God. All-day and all night the skies “pour out speech” yet “there is no speech”? So, how does it “reveals knowledge” with “no words”?.
The heaven and skies are descriptive yet mute in their communication because God voice was meant for the heart and not the ears. Therefore his voice remains muffled to those whose hearts are closed off. His words still resound but his echo haunts the secular.
As we grow older, without God, we are haunted with a deep sense of the “point of it all.” Journalist, Judith Shulevitz, who writes about the negative impact of smart speakers also admits to expressing her own emptiness to her smart speaker.
This type of disenchantment, coupled with human disconnection seems to have made the ground fertile to these emotional interactions. Observer journalist, Elizabeth Day refers to a similar malaise she felt in her twenties: “It was a decade where no one talked honestly about the things they were unhappy about. It was instead ten years of putting on a good show, moving forward while groping blindly to the point of it all”.
Even in our own experiences, we expect life to have a deeper resonance. We try grabbing at meaning in a material world by going through the repeated cycles of desire and fulfilment. But we end up realising nothing in this life is lasting or big enough to satisfy our expectations. This aligns with what eminent Psychologist Irvin Yalom describes; we grapple with four significant concerns in life – death, isolation, freedom, and meaning. The four things that were dealt with through the person of Jesus.
Made for Embodied Connections.
The idea of a disembodied voice seems unnatural to us because we’re used to voices being saddled to a body. However, this was not the pattern at the beginning of time. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
God created the first human beings and chose to limit our voices to a body, but God’s voice is not restricted in the same way we are. Unbridled by a body, God’s voice appears as a whisper to Elijah or as a burning bush to Moses. At it’s most compelling and unhuman-like, God spoke, and He was simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.
As we’ve seen – voices evoke emotions. Therefore it feels natural and a part of the human experience to move from a disembodied voice you can hear to an embodied voice that you can see, smell and touch. As a writer, my voice through my online writing has a broad reach and can be read anytime, anywhere – which is a blessing. But I also find writing frustrating for the reason that I’m not in the same room as my reader. It seems we were built for in-person and embodied connections.
A movie that gives great foresight into the foggy intersection between humans and disembodied voices is Spike Jonze’s movie “Her”. In it, a lonely man called Theodore, strikes up a relationship with a voice assistant similar to Alexa. Samatha is a sweet voice that Theodore builds a strong relationship with. Eventually, Theodore is left broken-hearted; Samantha speaks of her love for him but leaves him, unprepared to bridge her evolving abilities with his limited world. Here Samantha speaks of their different existences.
“I used to be so worried about not having a body, but now I.. I truly love it. You know, I’m growing in a way I couldn’t if I had a physical form. I mean, I’m not limited. I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. I’m not tethered to time and space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body that’s inevitably gonna die.”
Samantha understood the restrictions of being embodied. It would mean losing the ability to be omnipresent and ultimately take up a perishable body and become subject to death.
The Word became Flesh.
When someone embodies their words, it increases our love and trust for them because they’ve shown that their words are fully congruent with their character. God left heaven and sacrificed his powers of omnipotence and omnipresence to take up human flesh in all its limitations so he could dwell amongst us (John 1:14). Jesus, our God incarnate entered our world and subjected himself to mortality – his own and ours.
Jesus exposed himself to the consequences of the fallen world – namely death. In one account, Jesus gave life to a 4-day-old dead body when he called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43). Jesus’s voice carried authority and a layer of tenderness. We know that because before Jesus performed the miracle, “Jesus wept” ( John 11:35) over his friend and mourned with his sisters. Before Jesus displayed his divinity, he displayed his humanity.
Jesus, our king, became too our great councillor. Jesus understands our major human concerns: death, isolation, freedom, and meaning. And he deals with them when he rose from the dead, ending our isolation and granting us an eternal relationship with the father – a voice we can truly trust (John 10:27).
Written by Ann Ajet
Ann Ajet is the lead writer at Bread and is based in London. She writes articles that cover the intersection between Culture and Faith. When she’s not writing, she’s exploring street food markets with her husband and daughter.
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