Our smart speaker is the most marvelous babysitter
By Séamas O’Reilly
Recently, we discovered our smart speaker had parenting skills and it’s safe to say our lives have been greatly enriched. My son, chatty at the best of times, has become positively logorrheic in lockdown. We’ve done our best to keep up with his lovably jumbled speech, but to have another focus for his attention has been a welcome relief.
That came last week, when we discovered we could ask our humble speaker to play animal noises on demand, simply by saying, for example, ‘Play a lion noise,’ and waiting the requisite three seconds it takes for the combined computing power of planet Earth to retrieve a public domain roar from a sound library. Time was lost as we cycled through animal noises to fire engines, rainfall and babies. The effect was dramatic. His eyes widened. Finally, he thought, there’s someone interesting around here.
Like most people, we participate in capitalist surveillance culture, but do so with enough emotional distance that we avoid self-examination. Sure, we buy and use these things, but we also make sure to loudly complain about their over-reach, as if we’re somehow using them against our will. My son hasn’t yet learned to lie to himself with this level of sophistication, so his love for our corporate spy device is unconditional. He hugs and says goodbye to it each time he leaves the room.
Having never been my son’s favorite parent, I was now wary of dropping out of the Top 2, so I shamefully leeched its power for myself, and asked the sacred object to do a fart. It complied, and I can only hope that one day everyone can experience the joy on a two-year-old’s face as he discovers his dad can summon big, noisy farts from the small, oblong pillar on their windowsill.
Soon he was attempting to copy my words to achieve the same effect. ‘OKgoogu, prayanoise laka fart!’ he shouted, repeating these cries for much longer than should have been funny in polite company. His pleas fell on deaf, digital ears, as his toddlerspeak rendition was just shy of comprehensible to the Californian hive mind, no matter how hard he tried.
Watching him strain to be heard, to make his garbled speech intelligible to his new, tubular parent on the ledge, made me think of the frustrations of a toddler, to be bursting with thoughts, ideas and a desire to hear farts, and not being able to get them across to an unhearing, uncaring world.
It reminded me of how many times I’ve played the role myself – not taking the time to sit and let him get his words out, too quick to finish his sentences. Google may listen too much – after one disastrous string of selfies last year, every ad I saw for a week was a hairdresser’s – but maybe I don’t listen enough. I quietly resolve to be better in future, to wield a little more of the patience our beeping little data parasite lacks. And, if I can learn to fart on command, even better.
This article was first published in the Guardian.