I spend a lot of time talking to my parents about the shows they’re watching on TV or the films they’re seeing at the theater. They subscribe to Netflix, they rent from Redbox a lot and they go to the movies probably once a week.
But my mom kept asking about Amazon Prime Video and whether she was missing anything by not being a Prime subscriber. So I turned her into one for Christmas this year.
And along with signing my parents up for Amazon’s all-encompassing shopper’s club, I sent along an Echo Dot so they could introduce a little artificial intelligence into their daily lives. I certainly wasn’t alone — Amazon reported a record-breaking holiday season and the Dot was among its hottest sellers.
My dad, Dick, is 82, and my mom, Kathy, is 78, and I have written previously (see links at bottom of story) about how they interact with technology in this modern age. They sent my son a Dot a few years ago as a birthday gift, and they saw mine in action during a visit to Seattle this fall, but they had never asked for one themselves.
I got a text from my mom Kathy a couple days after Christmas saying that she got everything “hooked up and registered,” and that Prime Video was now on all of their TVs. “That took a bit of patience,” she wrote.
She also said, “thanks to Alexa,” that they had just finished dancing to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” — her current all-time favorite song because of its use in the movie “A Quiet Place.”
“Awesome!” my mom concluded.
So after several more days living with Alexa, I thought I should check in to see how the relationship was developing and what types of things the voice-assistant newbies were seeking answers to.
In a Facetime call, mom and dad showed me where they had positioned the Dot in their home, on a hutch just off the kitchen, next to a dining table where they spend a good deal of their time, reading the morning news on their iPads, etc.
I laughed when my mom said it was a good spot because it was the required 8 inches from any wall. “What’s that all about?” I asked her, and she said that’s what the directions called for. I laughed again.
“You young kids don’t read the instructions,” my mom said. “You just unpack it and plug it in!”
I asked what kind of things they had been asking Alexa and they admitted it was still early in the relationship. My dad asked her to play some Johnny Cash one day, and he was surprised by the fact that Amazon just kept serving up endless Johnny Cash songs.
I said welcome to your Prime membership — and told him that if he didn’t like a particular track, he could ask Alexa to skip. Or she could turn the volume up or down herself. My parents didn’t know this — so much for reading the directions.
My dad also said he used Alexa to explain a golf term he was reading about, called a four-ball match. He said she explained it in depth.
Through our Facetime connection I asked their Alexa what the weather was, and she told me how cold it was at the moment in Rochester, N.Y.
Next to the Dot, my mom had placed a couple notes, one was a card supplied by Amazon titled “Things to try” with a list of commands a new user could drop on Alexa, such as “Alexa, play hip-hop music,” “Alexa, how many ounces in a cup,” and “Alexa, turn on the lamp.” I don’t think we’ll be worrying about that last one and going full smart home on my folks anytime soon.
My mom also placed a simple note nearby that just said “ALEXA” in all caps. I asked what that was for, and she laughed, saying that my dad needed a reminder about his new voice assistant’s name. We got a good laugh out of that, too, and I quickly sent them the YouTube link to this perfect “Saturday Night Live” spoof.
My mom scoffed at my assumption that they were unique for their age group in owning such a device. She said “everyone she knows” has one now, and rattled off the names of several friends who either have an Echo or Google Home.
I joked that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s plan to get inside every home is working.
“Yeah, it is. That’s kind of creepy … I think about that,” she said. “I’ve read that they know your discussions, etc. in your home. Is that true?”
I explained that there are people who worry that the devices are always listening, and they think that tech companies surface ad on websites they visit that are targeted toward what they were talking about in the privacy of their own home.
“It’s like the phones, they track you all the time, right?” my mom said.
I told them Amazon’s official line, that Alexa is only “awake” and capturing voice data after she’s prompted by her name.
Plus, as long as my dad keeps calling her Alisha, his private conversations shouldn’t make it back to Amazon HQ.
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