Questions of Scale

The question of What is a voice assistant starts with the device itself. Most users are aware, that it is only a minuscule part of a gigantic, planet-spanning infrastructure. Though they hardly ever can imagine the true size of it.

The device is simple. A few electronics, chips, some sound hardware, that’s it. But already with this simple setup, it shares the same problematics as all modern electronics; The resources for it come from far away and deep underground. The mining operations for the rare earth minerals used in the hardware are quite often difficult; for the environment of the planet as well as the indigenous people that get poisoned, displaced, or robbed of their sustenance. And like all electronics, voice assistant devices are hard to recycle. All the hard-earned materials are glued together, and properly recycling them is not worth the money, or so it seems.

Yes, I see so processors and circuit boards somehow, but I have no idea. No, I don’t know, no. I know some technologies, if they are in there I don’t know, but I know what decides are some Amazon servers and their software behind it. That’s actually, so Big Brother-like to me.

The device is the embodiment of the imagination of GAFA. The big tech companies create ecosystems, parallel to that of the planet. But their ecosystems are in their complete control. Once in every user’s lifetime, they have to make a choice into which ecosystem they buy themselves. This choice is hardly ever changed because it is not easy to change from one to another. Once ascribed, you’re locked in. Not really, but a lot of dark interaction patterns make it seem not worthwhile to migrate to another ecosystem.

Yes, as I said, that there at Amazon, that they always play around there and tinker around, yes. In a very recent case, suddenly there was a new voice. If you wanted to listen to music, another voice came. I find the voice of the original voice very pleasant and I didn’t like this change now at all. Others as well, yes. And they just do that then and say nothing, ask nothing. Yes, and that’s not nice. You should not do that.

The brands, the manufactures of the devices, the developers of the assistant are present but have no presence. The devices as well as the assistants are supposed to be low friction ware. The design is simple, mild in aesthetic choices, easy to blend in. But the devices are always on, only off if consciously turned off, always listening. With voice assistant devices, tech companies can have a permanent foothold in your private space. It’s another, constant stream, of information to feed the companies big data storages, recommendation algorithms, personal user models. A complete loss of privacy. And in this case, your whole family is involved. This loss of privacy was common knowledge with my participants. But they could not even start to fathom the implications or the size of this operation.

And I appreciate that, for everything that makes my life easier in this sense. But I’m basically of the opinion that, for example, we don’t actively try to provide the children with tablets or cell phones in this sense, but rather the opposite, to keep them away from them for as long as possible. Because, yes, they come into contact with these things early enough.

The device is manifested, the assistant present; But everything else, behind it, becomes many hyperobjects.

How does consumer technology un-/make our ability to care for our companion objects/the material?