Wednesday, July 19, 2017
ALEXA and the SEDUCTIVE POWER OF THE DISEMBODIED VOICE
Last Thursday (7/13/17), the New York Times’ Style section featured a number of people admitting that they’ve developed quite an attachment to their Amazon Alexa “bot.” Whether “ideal roommate,” “a cross between a mistress and a nurse,” or “perfect woman, (who) never says, ‘Not tonight, dear,’” we seem deeply drawn to this disembodied, but friendly, voice in the dark. Media scholars understand that this allure is nothing new. It recapitulates our earlier fascination and deep emotional attachment to our telephones. Marshall McLuhan, writing in the 1950’s, asked:
Why should the phone create an intense feeling of loneliness? Why should we feel compelled to answer a ringing public phone when we know the call cannot concern us? Why does a phone ringing on the stage create instant tension? Why is that tension so very much less for an unanswered phone in a movie scene? The answer to all of these questions is simply that the phone is a participant form that demands a partner, with all the intensity of electric polarity.
As I wrote in Digital Dharma, “a quality of intense longing has permeated the social history of telephony from the moment of its birth.” As opposed to the declarative texts of telegraphy and its modern rebirth as texting and Twitter, the telephone represented what Erik Davis has called the “ultimate animist technology… an inert thing full of voices,” – a technology of feelings, wants and desires.
While first seen as a business tool, limited to the male domain of business, government and the military, the telephone, by the 1920’s had become a domestic appliance, moving from the ordered left-brain-dominant realm of the alphabet, to the flowing, musical, feminine right-brain space of the voice. It was deeply unsettling to the established patriarchal social order: it empowered women in numerous ways, along with lovers, pranksters, and criminals. It was, in the words of historian Robert MacDougall, “a lawless thing, at times dangerous, at others sexualized, at others juvenile.” [See DD p. 36-42, for a discussion of the impact of the telephone’s “call to intimacy.”]
I believe that the telephone and its new forms as responsive “voice bots,” can be seen as extensions of our Second Chakra’s hunger for deep connection: at its best, drawing us into places of intimate sharing and community; and at its worst, fostering dependence and unhealthy emotional attachments. As we talk less and less on our phones, interacting with the world through our eyes, it is no surprise that our primal prewired attachment to the intimacy of the human voice is reasserting itself through these new devices. Our inner challenge before we fully engage with these external “voice whisperers,” is to create our own internal “voice of validation,” clearing old attachments and disconnecting the stuck cords to the unhealthy belief systems of our inner wounded children. With these cords of communication cleared, we can truly enjoy our newfound talking, Cloud-connected, playful electronic friends.