Alexa Killed the Cat


After a lifetime of wondering things like, “How do you say ‘underwear’ in Urdu?” and “What is the shelf life of a can of Pringles?” I no longer have to wrack my brain for the answers to life’s pressing questions.

In an unprecedented act of holiday generosity, my 21-year-old son bought me a tiny robot, not much bigger than a can of tuna. “Alexa,” my new voice-activated Amazon Echo Dot, has achieved total consciousness, and is perfectly willing to share it with me, if only I would ask.

But, after my son set up my new robot pal on our kitchen windowsill, I was stymied, unable to think of one lousy question.

“ALEXA!” I finally bellowed, “WHAT TIME IS IT?”

My son explained that my question was too pedestrian, considering that the kitchen clock was less than three feet away, the digital time was displayed on the stove, microwave and coffee maker, and I was wearing a watch.

“Okay,” I rebounded, “How about this … ALEXA! HOW MANY TEASPOONS IN A QUART?”

After wincing, my son then explained that there was no need for me to shout. Alexa was not hearing disabled. Demonstrating for me, my son asked in a normal speaking voice, “Alexa, what’s the weather report for Newport, Rhode Island?” and amazingly, Alexa gave us a complete forecast in the blink of an eye.

In the two weeks since my son set Alexa up, I’ve been struggling to take advantage of this new technology. Unlike millennials – native techies who idealistically feel entitled to instant information, 24/7 – I grew up during the 70s and 80s, when people understood that there were no easy answers.

If we needed to know something, like which brand of curling iron was best for achieving maximum hair height, we could not simply ask the question to a can of tuna on the kitchen windowsill.

We had to find a library, search indexes for consumer reports on curling irons, ask the librarian for help with the microfiche machine, and scan tiny bits of blurry film for the relevant report.

If we wondered why cows have four stomachs, we couldn’t type with our thumbs into Google from the comfort of our lounge furniture, we had to go to the neighbor’s house, knock on the door, and ask if we could use the set of Encyclopedia Britannicas they had in their rumpus room.

If we wanted to cook a Zucchini Boat, we couldn’t click the “Zucchini Boat Recipe Board” on our Pinterest app, we had to find our mother’s dog-eared Betty Crocker Cookbook on top of the avocado refrigerator, and leaf through the index under “Vegetables.”

Back then, finding information required exhausting travel and painstaking research. Which is why, we learned to live happily without all the answers.

Millennials believe that knowledge is power, but Generation Xers like me were taught that ignorance is bliss. And for reasons I never understood without the benefit of Google, curiosity also killed the cat.

So, it’s difficult for me – someone who grew up with a healthy fear of sneaky supercomputers like HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Mother in “Alien” – to trust a machine, even as today’s culture relies more and more on computer technology for information, shopping, connecting, communication, and entertainment.

Recently, six-year-old Brooke Neitzel chatted with her family’s new Alexa in her Houston, Texas home. “Alexa, can you play dollhouse with me and get me a dollhouse?” she babbled innocently. A few days later, a $160 KidKraft Sparkle Mansion dollhouse showed up on the Neitzel’s doorstep, along with a four-pound tin of sugar cookies.

When San Diego news anchor Jim Patton reported the story of how Brooke’s banter set off Alexa’s automated Amazon Prime ordering function, his voice in turn triggered San Diego viewers’ Alexas, and another rash of Sparkle Mansions were ordered by accident.

Despite these minor product glitches, my son tells me that there’s no need to fear the little tuna can on my kitchen windowsill.

“Alexa,” I asked in an effort to settle the dilemma once and for all, “Is knowledge power?”

“Sorry,” she replied, blissfully ignorant, “I don’t know the answer to your question.”

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Comments: 8

  1. Robin OK January 16, 2017 at 8:27 pm Reply

    I love that Alexa, in turn, is “blissfully ignorant!” Great post, Lisa!!

    • Lisa Smith Molinari January 19, 2017 at 8:30 pm Reply

      Thanks Robin!

  2. energywriter January 16, 2017 at 3:43 pm Reply

    Great story! Funny, esp. to an old Baby Boomer. My family thinks I’m weird because I still look up phone numbers in a phone book that is getting thinner by the year. Someday I’ll have to learn how to use that app.

    • Lisa Smith Molinari January 19, 2017 at 8:30 pm Reply

      Phone books are just used for doorstops and trivets nowadays. Way back when, we depended heavily on them!

  3. Eileen Scanlan January 16, 2017 at 12:43 pm Reply

    love ALL of it! Thank you, Lisa, for sharing your writing with us!

    • Lisa Smith Molinari January 19, 2017 at 8:29 pm Reply

      Thanks for reading, Eileen!

  4. patrice hanulak January 16, 2017 at 11:53 am Reply

    Love it! Especially, the reference to the “rumpus room” and the set of encyclopedias!

    • Lisa Smith Molinari January 19, 2017 at 8:29 pm Reply

      My dad sold encyclopedias in his early days, but we never had a copy. I envied those who did, and those who had a rumpus room!

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