In my previously, pre-mommy life, I would have no words for the Amazon Echo. None would be needed. I’ve always favored Crayola’s over computers, even while growing up beside two Joy-stick-addicted brothers in a middle-class Detroit home. I maintained my creative bent right into attending undergrad at Parsons School of Design, thanks to the support and financing of my parents. No A.I. for me, thanks.
When motherhood arrived through the adoption of an eight-month-old Ethiopian girl, my position didn’t alter. When my twenty-something nanny nudged me toward internet-ready lullabies, I declared my Manhattan apartment a techno-free zone and clung to the human version. My daughter’s toys weren’t low tech, they were no tech. However, my brother Jeffrey pushed me past my semi-luddite tendencies regarding the TV.
“You’ll be watching more movies at home…so will Julia. You need to upgrade to a flat screen and surround sound.”
I huffed into the phone,” Alright, only because I get a good deal through work.”
Days later when the system arrived, I called him tech support back in Michigan.
“Great, let’s get it hooked up now!” Jeffrey said, his voice all amped up from tech-induced adrenalin. An hour later, I plopped in a disk, grabbed the remote and clicked on the DVD button. Sound boomed from the speakers, twin dark maws, atop the TV cabinet. Images whirled across a screen so bright, so big, it seemed the neighboring apartment across the way had a good shot at enjoying, Aliens, too. “Wow,” I mumbled.
Jeffrey chuckled. “Welcome to the new world.”
But one flat screen TV does not a revolution make. My eight-month-old blossomed into a classic American kid, one captivated by all things electronic. I banished PlayStation and Nintendo determined to guard my seven-year-old against mind-numbing entertainment.
On an evening in June as hot as August I entered the cool of a West Side apartment to the twang of techno. My daughter and her seven-year-old pal tumbled across the Serapi styled rug in the living room. Silvered light slid through the west windows. All seemed beautiful, until, on a side table, among books and bowls of snacks, I spotted the source of the music, a dark tower, about two feet high.
“You have an Echo!?” I said jabbing the air.
“Sure,” the mom said.
“Don’t your kids talk to that thing non-stop?”
“Nah, they mostly play music.”
Unconvinced, as Dee hunted down loose socks and crumb-coated bowls across the living room, I quizzed her husband.
“Andy only asks about sports scores, hasn’t figured out that he can do anything else.”
“Don’t you want him to find information on his own?” I asked with a tone that implied the fall of democracy wasn’t far behind.
He smirked. “Why not both?”
Julia and I made our good-byes then headed home. But as she skipped over a subway grate, her long, lean brown legs twisted and thrilled in the simmering heat. Her mind was still back at the Richardson’s apartment.
“Mommy, can we get an Alexa?”
“We don’t need it.”
“But mommy, I lovvvvvve music and I can’t play it.”
“I know Julia.”
In the days to come I thought of how Julia, as a baby, crooned in her crib, creating her own music, of how my own musical DNA, formed by the foundation of my dad’s Detroit record shop, had been shelved once when I became a Single-Mom-in-Chief.
The parcel arrived two days later. Inside, the always-on, Bluetooth speaker. Built Artificial Intelligence. But not enough to assist me in hooking it up. After thirty-minutes I called for backup.
“Try unplugging and replugging it Ma’am,” the Amazon tech said.
Getting Ma’am, did not help matters.
“Try reinstalling your Wi-Fi password.”
I groaned, and put the Echo in a choke hold.
“Ma’ma, let us update the software from here…don’t talk to Alexa for at least an hour,” he said.
I stared at my cell. Did he just refer to a machine using a proper noun?
“Sure, I can do that.”
Three days later Julia looked up from her morning bowl of Honeynut Cheerios and asked, “Mommy, is Alexa ever going to work?”
I’d spent my days eying the shipping carton in my closet, considering sending the Echo back to the Mothership. Tech support had been a bust. Jeffrey, the early adapter, didn’t have an Echo. Besides, I needed a smart kid, not a smart home. But as I regarded my daughter’s pleading eyes, I felt something different. Something new. Shame.
I clicked off the flat screen, re-juiced the Echo, then tapped the app on my cell. I reinstalled my Wi-Fi password and preferences, then studied the setup video. Again.
“Give Alexa a prompt,” the final super read.
I winced. “Alexa, what’s the weather?”
“It’s 72 degrees in New York City.” A female voice alto. Strong yet warm. Ish.
Julia’s spoon clanged to a halt. “It’s working!?”
I smiled and nodded.
Julia squealed and said, “Alexa, play ‘Shake it Off!’”
“Playing Shake It Off by Taylor Swift, from the album 1989.”
And with that she jumped up and launched into a frenzied dance of gratitude.
The next morning, I awoke, in bed, alone. A rarity. I don’t have an alarm clock. I have Julia. I slipped on my robe, crept down the hall, and found her twirling around the living room in the pale sunlight, to the strain of strings; The Nutcracker Suite.
“Look Mommy, I’m doing ballet!”
“And Mommy watch this…Alexa…what’s your favorite color?”
“Julia honey, it won’t…”
“…My favorite color is… infra red.”
Clearly, the Echo programmers were parents.
That evening when Julia mentioned a book she’d read at school “Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop,” I realized Parker’s music could round out the story.
“Alexa, play the best of Charlie Parker,” I bellowed from the kitchen, over the rattle of pots.
Be-bop bounced through the air. A vitally important example of intelligence, I now shared with my daughter. A teaching moment was underway along with dinner. As bedtime approached, Julia absently, slowly, gathered her shoes and dolls from the floor, I looked to Alexa for help. “Alexa, play the Barney Clean-Up Song.” Barney bumbled on. Julia picked up the pace. I marveled. Muscle memory is a beautiful thing.
The writer Arthur Clarke declared that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Julia would agree. Alexa is lending a hand in providing resources for daughter’s creative passions. That’s help I welcome. And since the world has made tuning into the news a cautionary pursuit, I value Alexa in new ways. Once the goal was to protect Julia from senseless video gaming. Now I need to shield her from a world where even nature has turned conflicted and violent. Alexa is magic. Just not magic I thought I’d need. Even depend on. Perhaps, that was Clarke’s point all along.