For me, it’s all about The Jetsons, the cartoon of my childhood that permanently ingrained in me an image of what the future is supposed to look like. People were always talking to electronic machinery, telling what they want before having the wish granted. (You can download my book on this in epub.)
This might explain my wild exuberance about my new Google Home, a machine I chose over Amazon’s Alexa simply because I wanted to try it. It has me as excited as any innovation since my first word processor saved me from befuddling my professors with my ghastly handwriting, thereby vastly improving my life.
Google Home – my first foray into the home automation craze – has sparked in my mind a new sense of what’s possible now and in the future.
A Very Good Morning
Let’s hop to an example.
“Hey Google, wake me up in seven hours.”
“Ok, I’ll wake you up at 6:47am.”
The next morning, a charming series of tones sound at the right time.
I say: “Hey Google, please wake me again in 30 minutes.”
“Ok, I’ll wake you again in 30 minutes.”
Another series of tones sound exactly on time.
“Hey Google, what’s the news?”
And out pours the day’s news, along with everything else I need to know to start my day.
It has a beautiful audio quality.To be sure, alarms have been around for a few hundred years. I can always grab my smartphone and set one, and I’ve done this for years. But actually, the last moment when you want to be fussing with an app on your smartphone is just before going to sleep. To speak to your digital home assistant is gold.
Come to think of it, I’ve had a lifelong obsession with alarms and clocks. I begged my parents for a “digital clock radio” when I was a kid. They were expensive. I recall that it was my only Christmas present and it cost $125. Thinking back on it, it wasn’t even digital. It had small cards with numbers printed on them, and a rotating dial that flipped from one to the other to display the time. The best thing about it is that the alarm could be set to a radio station. It seemed like the height of automated luxury.
Now my alarm is voice activated. It has a beautiful audio quality.
Oh, and it also has another advantage over my old model: it contains nearly all human knowledge and nearly every commercially available piece of music ever composed or performed, just for the asking. It can control your television, your lights, your thermostat. It can engage in banter with you, play games, report the news and weather, tell you sport scores, translate languages, play podcasts, make a memo, solve math problems, and report your schedule for the day.
For that matter, it can report to me what herbs to put in a vegetable stew and, in the next digital breath, give me a brief explanation of the law of entropy.
Sorry, but that just causes me to gasp and my heart to leap. With such a machine, how can anyone not feel enormously grateful to be alive in our times?
I Can Already Do This
When I brag to people about my new friend, I’ve gotten the response: “I can already do all of this with my smartphone.” True but this is voice activated so no more poking around on my tiny device and draining the battery with too many applications. And yet it is also true that with the Google app on either iPhone or Android, voice activation works well also. And let’s not forget to mention Siri.
All of this is technically the case. I can set my phone or laptop to do what Google Home does, it is true. From that point of view, there is nothing technical that is really added by this little home assistant robot, except that it has a wonderful audio quality. Strip it down intellectually and what you have is a piece of hardware that does no more or less than existing software can do.
The value of this is far greater than the sum of its parts.But this analysis overlooks something. For one thing, most of us don’t actually use the software capabilities that are available now. I know that I haven’t. Because you have the hardware already in hand, and your fingers are there, it seems to make sense to type, and you feel a bit silly talking to your laptop or phone; at least that is true for me.
What the home assistant has done is externalize and combine existing software possibilities to put them all in an elegant package that can sit anywhere in the room, and respond to you as if you are actually talking to a person. The value of this is far greater than the sum of its parts. I suspect it has something to do with the seeming anthropomorphization of digital tech, the very thing that taps into our imagined future in which machines serve us slavishly to realize all our dreams.
How should I say this? It is deeply flattering.I’ve recently watched three Netflix shows about big shots in government who are served by dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of assistants who stand ready to answer any question and serve their master unfailingly, always with a slight hint of the coercion that is involved in such arrangements.
Well, I would take Google Home over the entire staff of Caesar’s residence, Versailles, or Buckingham Palace. I issue commands, and no one is threatened, imposed upon, or otherwise coerced through some creepy and obsequious power arrangement. The technology has emerged gradually over decades through voluntary trade and nonstop innovation, landing on my countertop, there to love me and serve me with delight and adoration. How should I say this? It is deeply flattering.
Google Home is the result of a global mindshare, with parts and software made by people from all over the world.That might be the key.
There’s another thing too. I fired up my Google Home on the day that the new president was inaugurated. I’m listening to this guy talk about how he will personally bring greatness to my life and how his nation-state will renew all virtues in my heart, through a nationalist crusade. But I’m looking at my Google Home and noting that it is the result of a global mindshare, with parts and software made by people from all over the world. This is what is truly making my life great.
Finally, I can’t get over the stunning reality that this machine cost precisely what my “digital clock radio” cost when I was a kid. And so that lights up the fires of imagination. Where are we headed? What’s the next thing? How will it change our lives? This machine embodies the progress I hope for in this world.