City Sprawl: Rage against the machine

Our Google Home Mini is a big, fat pain. 

Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

Someone new is in our house. Do you know who it is?

It’s our Google Home Mini. Our family has gained a new Big Brother.

Our Google Home Mini arrived in the mail sometime last month. My husband ordered it to the house when he was out of the country for work. When he got back and saw the unopened box on the microwave, he didn’t ask why.

Why would you open it?

Unless, of course, you can’t resist the allure.

There is something hypnotic about it. Something almost exotic. The sleek gray shell. The scroll of its white lights. The submissive nature coupled with an excessive eagerness to please. Even the name is saccharine and brings to mind imagery of a flipped-out, white-polka-dot skirt. Is anyone surprised the Mini’s designed to address us as a female?

For God’s sake, Mini. Lean in.

Ours knows I don’t like it. It doesn’t like me. Even though we programmed it to recognize both of our voices, it consistently responds to my husband more than it does me. One time, it responded to my 4-year-old son and we hadn’t let him register his voice to be recognized.

The kids with the Mini have been something to behold. My son delights in the Mini—or, more accurately—making gross requests of it. Like, “Hey, Google! Why don’t you poop out some bird poop?” Or, “OK, Google! How about you smell my feet?” For my daughter, who’s 2, it’s all fun and games ’til she’s left alone in the room with it, at which point nothing could be further from fun. I guess she just doesn’t trust things that can talk but lack mouths, loyalty and souls. Go figure.

I stand with the toddler. Of course I don’t like it! I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but all signs point to us having planted a robotic ear in our living room the year after shumbody in Shrussia shacked our shresidential shelection. Who out there could be listening? What could possibly go wrong?

Fortunately, our household conversations are largely the stuff of the everyday, which our Mini, I’m sure, will be happy to confirm. Still, there are shades of conversational gray, aren’t there? Like last week, when we couldn’t log into our bank account and my husband said he was going to “kill” somebody the next time he goes into the branch. Then I slapped him on the arm and fake-laughed before making him clarify out loud that he was kidding.

How could we have let this happen? My husband’s defense is that it came free with his phone and that Mini’s short-term memory is extremely short-term. It doesn’t save anything unless you preface it with a prompt, he explained. Then it barely has enough memory to send the rest of what you say to the internet.

Where’s the proof? I asked him. That’s what they want you to think.

As the days have slipped by, the proof seems to be this: Our Google Home Mini is really, really dumb. Either it is, or we are.

My husband tried to program the Mini to activate home appliances with smart plugs, which I will note here did not come free with his phone. But I understood. He uses our garage as his workspace at 5 in the morning when he wakes up to study. The Mini, he thought, could switch on a space heater for him about 10 minutes before he went in. Our garage: It’s not wholly without spiders. A smart plug runs you about $20. We made room in the budget.

Only it’s been a month now and he still can’t get it quite right. Every morning, it seems, he ends up walking into the garage and manually activating the smart plug. Why didn’t it work? I ask him. Because he woke up early. Because the plug wouldn’t talk to the router. It does work, he always makes sure to add. In theory.

In theory. There are all sorts of neat things you can do with the Mini, in theory. But, as we’re both coming to realize, they are all lazy things. Controlling mood lighting, for instance, or itemizing a grocery list.

This isn’t Beverly Hills, Mini. My house doesn’t have dimmer lights. You are a pencil to me.

If there’s any solace I’ve taken from the Mini, it’s this: You read a lot these days about how we run the risk of artificial intelligence turning against us and taking over the world. If the Mini’s the best the corporate world has to offer, everything’s going to be OK.

Unless.

Unless something’s afoot here that I’ve yet to come to grips with. After all, Mini hasn’t driven what I’d describe as a wedge between me and my husband, but it could happen, so easily, especially because she’d probably love that.

Are the Mini’s days numbered? I’m willing to wager they are. If I lived alone, she wouldn’t be here in the first place, but she is, and now we’re facing the consequences—primarily renewed guilt that my husband still studies in 40-degree temperatures five-out-of-seven mornings a week.

For his part, my husband can’t bring himself to admit total defeat yet, and I get that. We take turns feeling an increasingly desperate need to triumph over these idiotic gadgets that have wormed their way into our lives these past 10 years.

Like the smart watch that connects to our phones. When everything’s connected as it should be, the watch intercepts all our phone calls so that we can only answer a call by talking, over-loudly, directly into its face. Should we want to do something as ludicrous as checking the time, we have to flick a wrist in a convincing enough fashion so as to activate the numbers display. The success rate is not overwhelming, but I can tell you, it all looks very futuristic and smooth.

The hitch is that we diverge on our notions of “triumph.” My husband’s vision of triumph—getting all of the gizmos to work properly—doesn’t match mine: a fiery pit where we toss every device dependent on a Wi-Fi connection. Then the smoke will rise up into a cloudless night sky, spelling out the words ‘Is any of this real?’ before it’s all whisked away on a current of cold air and victory.

In reality, the next major appliance we get is going to be a refrigerator that reads tweets aloud to us. “Good morning,” it will croon as one of us reaches for a yogurt. “You might find this Rachael Ray hashtag interesting. Let’s find out together what everyone has to say.” There will be no turning it off, ever, and even though it was advertised to alert AmazonFresh when you’re running low on milk, it will never do that. Not a single time.

I’ll admit it here, this one time: I still find myself using the Mini. Not often, and mostly just when my kids tell me to. But in spite of my misgivings, in spite of my sixth consecutive failed attempt to get it to play “C is for Cookie,” I do find myself asking—before standing up to just connect my phone to the speaker.

I shudder to think what my children are learning from watching. To keep trying until you just can’t anymore? To continue quietly tolerating the things you most hate? That “c” must indeed be for “cookie,” above all other “c” words?

OK, Google. Self-destruct on the count of three. Only first, would you mind shipping us a fire pit and cassette player?

(March 2018)

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